Something Else To Stream About

Yesterday morning, at 5.00am, I found myself watching live theatre. It had started at 1.00am and I was just tuning in. It was a live stream of a durational work,  12AM: Awake & Looking Down, by Forced Entertainment. And what a joy it was – my insomniac self isn’t normally this productive. To put it in context,

12am is a physical and visual performance that explores the relation between object and label, image and text…..The piece lasts anywhere between 6 and 11 hours and…..the audience are free to arrive, depart and return at any point.

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Although this will be the basis of another post, just for the sake of understanding this one, durational theatre is defined as:

a form through which TIME is manifested in its original (natural) purity and brought to the forefront as pivotal to the experience. The performance is designed so that time, as the primary theme of the piece, physically affects and mentally transforms the performer, the audience, and the space

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The particular production lasted 6 hours and although I only watched for just over an hour (the stream to Hong Kong was a little too stuttering to sustain more than that) it was an event that I enjoyed being part of. Both Forced Entertainment and Tim Etchells were live tweeting alongside it, as were people around the globe who were watching too, which added to the experience. It felt very ‘live’, but it was the fact that it was a new ‘experience’, a new type of theatre, that I think I enjoyed it more.

Untitled 4_FotorThese tweets give you a flavour of ‘how’ people were watching and interacting, and they themselves, for me at least, became part of the narrative as it unfolded.

Untitled 3_FotorOther people, as the tweet above shows, were clearly having the same experience. But it was the one below that really made me sit up and realise what I was actually witnessing.

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I got more excited by the fact that Tim Etchells, artistic director of Forced Entertainment then tweeted the following in conversation with Matt Trueman, a theatre critic:

Untitled 2_Fotor Untitled_FotorIt is Etchells’ words about context that really struck home. Having written recently, and at length, in my post Something to Stream About about the emergence of live streaming and broadcasting of theatre, this was adding another layer. The day before I had read a piece, Filmed theatre: a new art form in itself?by Racheal Castell who is Head of Screenings at Digital Theatre.  In it she covers some of the ground I had in my post, but she also observed that

The stage is indeed a precious space, and what happens between actor and audience member therein is both magic and real. But we mustn’t forget that plays are both ephemeral and eternal. A play is written to be performed, but performed again and again on new sets by different actors in reimagined contexts. The tension between the live and the repeated is inherent to most theatre.

Although the point isn’t entirely relevant to this post, the last sentence does connect. However, this second point by Castell is very relevant:

It was more gratifying to witness the responses to our watch-alongs, where people around the globe tune in and press play on a production at the same time and are suddenly able to visit the West End, albeit virtually. It’s as though the breath formed to articulate a Shakespearean monologue, the energy emitted between an ensemble, the tear that falls from a performer’s eye, is the butterfly’s wing and we – with all our technology, our media, our distance, our global experience – are the hurricane.

She is referring to an experience, not unlike watching 12am for me. Digital Theatre’s watch-alongs are dependent on social media, both to generate an audience all watching remotely at the same time as well allowing for a communal commentary along the way. Twitter replaces the real life audience, so rather than turning to your fellow theatre-goer for affirmation of a shared experience, you tweet it instead.

It’s also just struck me – a little off the point – that watching theatre in this way gets rid of the errant rings and glaring screens of mobile devices, hacking coughs, sweet wrappers being opened and latecomers that pervade the ‘live’ experience.

Castell (and many others I have read recently) are struggling to define this new live theatre experience, let alone give it a name. Whatever we eventually end up labelling this vanguard movement, I know I will be in the front row.

I want finish this post with another comment about 12AM, this time from Instagram. It says it all:

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Something to Stream About

Over the course of the last few months I have been carefully watching the growing debate surrounding the showing of live broadcasts or recordings of theatre in cinemas and live streaming to anywhere you want to watch.

Theatre has generally resisted these modes of reaching a wider audience, although opera, particularly the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Royal Opera House in the UK have been pioneering it for a number of years. It comes as no real surprise that live streaming has started to take hold and is expanding rapidly. Cinema-based and arts venue showings are on the increase as well as specific services, like Digital Theatre which allow for anytime, anywhere access to a growing range of live filmed, but post-produced, edited performances.

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It would appear that the UK is leading the charge, followed closely by certain North American companies. National Theatre Live started the ball rolling in the UK in 2009 showing live performances in cinema’s across the country:

National Theatre Live is the National Theatre’s groundbreaking project to broadcast the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas across the UK and around the world.

Though each live broadcast is filmed in front of a live audience in the theatre, cameras are carefully positioned throughout the auditorium to ensure that cinema audiences get the ‘best seat in the house’ view of each production. Where these cameras are placed is different for each broadcast, to make sure that cinema audiences enjoy the best possible experience every time.

Satellites allow the productions to be broadcast live, without delay, to cinemas throughout the UK as well as many European venues. Other venues view the broadcasts ‘as live’ according to their time zone, or at a later date.

They have rapidly expanded the programme and now broadcast co-productions, as well as their own work, from across London. The statistics are impressive – seen by 1.5 million people in 500 venues around the world, half of which are outside the UK.

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The article that really got me thinking about the implications of it all, from early 2013, was written for Exeunt by A.E Dobson, Live to Your Local Cinema – Michael Barker. In it, Dobson notes that this nascent form

……has attracted little critical or academic interest despite its profile. Whilst the current paucity of literature can be attributed to sheer novelty, its cause is certainly hindered by its lack of a name. Those working within the film industry have found it useful to use the term “alternative content”; those without hanker after a moniker more focussed on what the format does rather than what it doesn’t.

He goes on to say, and this is probably at the core of any subsequent debate and discussion, that

While some aspects of Livecasting may allow a greater number to claim ownership of the ritual, film is at the same time a fundamentally distancing medium; it positions the cinemagoers – structurally – as outsiders, a problem that the architects of the experience spend a good deal of time repressing.

The debate in the UK was really ignited by the decision of the Royal Shakespeare Company to start broadcasting to cinemas too,  alongside the National Theatre broadcasting it’s anniversary performances on BBC Television. First to write about this was Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph with a piece simply entitled, Should live theatre be shown in cinemas?

At around the same time Pilot Theatre live-streamed, for free, its production of Blood and Chocolate, an immersive, promenade piece which is still available to watch on Youtube. It is here that differences start to occur.  The National Theatre and The RSC are only making their broadcasts available at a specific time, in a specific venue while Pilot are making theirs available at anytime as long as you have access to a computer. More about Pilot later.

Almost simultaneously came the news in an article in the Canadian Globe and Mail, entitled Stratford Festival to film productions for worldwide theatre distributionthat the Southern Ontario Festival was planning to do something similar with a view to international viewing. 

At this point the debate got interesting. The Guardian in the UK, in its editorial pages, wrote that:

In praise of … streaming live theatre

Nothing beats being there, as any sports fan knows, but there are consolations when barriers to theatre access are removed

On Wednesday night the Royal Shakespeare Company joined the growing band of arts organisations that are breaking down the biggest single barrier to access – the need to be there – by transmitting live their top-rated Richard II to cinemas around the UK. Audiences from Aberdeen to Ambleside, Taunton, Tamworth and Thurso – and many more in Ireland, Sweden, Canada and Malta – were simultaneously connected to Stratford for a three-hour rollercoaster ride through medieval England. Thousands of enthusiasts who could never otherwise have got a ticket were able to see the first of director Gregory Doran’s new cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays. Nothing quite beats being there, as any sports fan knows. Yet sometimes it felt almost better: the camera could close in on Richard’s ravaged face, and it could reveal the austere splendour of the gothic set: a seat in the gods and the front row. Being there can’t do that.

This perspective really struck a chord with me. I’ve been to see too many plays where I know I missed the subtleties of the performance because I simply been too far away from the stage – particularly a problem in more modern, larger venues. However, and not surprisingly, there have been those people who simply can’t see the value of live-streaming, even fearing that it will reduce theatre-going audiences rather than increase them. In The Stage last week (the newspaper for theatre professionals in the UK), an executive from a regional theatre labelled the NT Live screenings as ‘Weird’

Stephen Wood ……. warned that the National Theatre’s NT Live initiative must never become a “substitute” for actual theatregoing.

Wood, who worked as head of press at the National in the 80s, has labelled the screenings “weird”, adding: “They are neither theatre nor film, but something in between. That’s not to say they are not valid, it’s just that they are a very odd thing.”

The article, NT Live must not become a “substitute” for theatregoing, goes on in the same vein. However, the accompanying survey and comments would seem to disagree with Wood. Not surprisingly his comments garnered some criticism. My favourite is from the ever pragmatic Lyn Gardner in her Guardian Theatre Blog. This was written only a few days after Wood’s comments, and another live streaming event by an independent theatre, this time of Howard Brenton’s latest play, Drawing The Line, which explores the moment when the line between India and Pakistan was made and British rule in India ended.

Why digital theatre poses no threat to live performance

The early 20th-century conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was not a big fan of the radio. He thought that if people could listen to concerts relayed in their own home, they would be reluctant to visit concert halls. He chided the “wireless authorities” for doing “devilish work”.

I thought about Sir Thomas – who no doubt would be delighted to learn that the devilish Radio 3 hasn’t killed off the live concert – last week when Stephen Wood, executive director of the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough, was reported in the Stage as taking issue with NT Live, which screens productions live to venues across the country and the world.

Upcoming productions include the Donmar’s sellout Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston. In a single evening, Coriolanus could stream to more people than it will play during its entire run in the 250-seater venue. Wood is concerned that these kind of broadcasts will become a substitute for actual theatregoing, saying: “We must be careful that we don’t arrive at a situation where this type of thing is what people’s only experience of live theatre really is.”

Wood’s comments echo those of Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Centre in Washington, who in a blog last year raised the spectre that digital downloads and screenings are threatening American regional theatre. He asked whether the baby-boom generation could be “the last to routinely attend live, fully professional performances” and suggested that the allure of being able to broadcast to huge numbers could make organisations who are using digital technology risk-adverse and lead to the collapse of regional theatre. Why will people go out to the theatre, particularly at a time of rising costs, he asks, when they can stay home and download or go to a local cinema? Probably for exactly the same reasons why live gigs are flourishing. Downloading your favourite band’s tracks is not the same as seeing them live.

In both cases, Wood and Kaiser appear a little like King Canutes trying to fruitlessly hold back the waves. In both cases they appear to see digital as a threat to live theatregoing. Perhaps assuming that the 60,000 people who attended live screenings of David Tennant’s Richard II in cinemas are incapable of understanding that it’s not the same as actually seeing a live performance at the RST or the Barbican. I know perfectly well that fresh salmon and smoked salmon don’t taste the same but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to sample both.

Not everyone has a theatre on their doorstep or indeed access to it. Many of the thousands of British schoolchildren who last November enjoyed a classroom streaming of Richard II and a live discussion with Tennant and Greg Doran would not otherwise have had the opportunity to see the show at all.

But that doesn’t mean that their appetite won’t be whetted to go to their local theatre and see a different show as a result. Early research about NT Live found that it was more likely, not less likely to make people go to the theatre, and people who go to the theatre are more likely to go and see more theatre.

More forward-thinking theatres understand this. They are not in competition with each other for audiences, and anything we can do to encourage theatregoing and make it a habit can only be good in what ever form it is distributed. Surely we should be celebrating the fact that the NT reached two million more people through screenings, not getting anxious about it? If anything it should be a spur to make theatres and companies all over the country wonder how might they might use of digital in interesting ways. Many already are. Some are looking at different ways of storytelling in projects such as Unlimited’s new initiative, Uneditions. I don’t think this is an issue that necessarily pits big against small, or London against the regions. It is more about open-mindedness and a willingness to be bold.

It’s certainly not about ditching the way that theatre has been toured and delivered over hundreds of years, but rather about seeing the artistic possibilities of digital platforms and extending reach, capacity and audiences. There are plenty, from Pilot to National Theatre Wales and Hampstead, who are already doing just that. If they can do it then so can the Stephen Joseph, and others too.

Michael Kaiser’s blog for The Huffington Post, that Gardner references, makes interesting reading, but is very doom laden. He suggests that the broadcasting by national companies will inevitably bring about the demise of smaller regional companies. However, he makes assumptions and asks questions with very little insight of the UK experience  where it is regional and smaller companies who are embracing live-streaming to widen their audience base and bring in more people to their building-based work. I agree with the veritable Lyn Gardner completely. The mother of a friend of mine who is a regular theatre-goer, but doesn’t live in London, now watches the NT Live productions at her local cinema, but still goes to London to watch other productions, by other companies.

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I’m not going reiterate all the positive and supportive arguments made here in the articles and links, but to be able to increase the reach of a piece of work, both nationally and internationally, can only be a good thing. For example, the global live streaming of another of Howard Brenton’s plays last year, The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, has value beyond that of being an artistic and creative sharing. In the UK it means that people living outside London have access to some of the best theatre in the world and those regional companies with smaller budgets, doing exciting things, can have a reach way beyond their original remit, community and intent. The same will be reflected in any country where national theatrical institutions are based in a capital city, but are geographically and/or financially out of the reach of most of its citizens.

With that in mind, Marus Romer, artistic director of Pilot Theatre, announced the launch of a new a project, via his blog, that aims to create a country-wide live streaming service, LiveTheatreStream.TV. Pilot have been pioneering live-streaming of their work and creative conferences for a while now and have a dedicated digital production team. I have posted this before, but here again is their live stream of Blood and Chocolate.

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Clearly, having said all of this, what we see now is a variety of broadcasting/streaming options emerging:

  • Some are streamed live, are free and can be watched again later via a hosting site/computer
  • Some are streamed live, are free and can be watched for a limited time only, again via computer.
  • Some are recorded, then edited and then made available for streaming, but at a charge via a subscription service
  • Some are broadcast live (via satellite) to specific venues, mostly cinemas, and are charged for but are not accessible in any other form
  • Some are recorded live, then broadcast later to specific venues, mostly cinemas, and are charged for but are not accessible in any other form.

I find it all fantastic and exciting for so many reasons. As a theatre teacher,  for so long I have had to make do with filmed versions of plays or one camera set-up recordings of live productions – neither of which are anywhere near satisfactory. As an English speaking theatre practitioner and theatre-goer living internationally, I am, of course, delighted by these developments. Having said that I am, so far, always disappointed when I go to the NT Live website and it tells me that I am 7,500km from my nearest cinema – the distance between Hong Kong and Melbourne, Australia. Mind you, this morning as I was writing, I have been back to the site and it is telling me that the broadcast venues are getting closer – I can apparently now watch Frankenstein and Coriolanus in Japan, the Philippines and South Korea – so now only 1,100km away. One can but hope.

My original intent was to finish the post at this point, but as I said at the beginning and have hopefully alluded to throughout, the whole ‘genre’ is continually evolving, as are the discussions around it. However, a Tweet from yesterday led to another avenue of discussion, which very meaningfully adds to the debate about how we adapt the cultural landscape to take advantage of and make the most of live streaming. Elizabeth Freestone, artistic director of a well regarded small scale British touring company, Pentabus,  wrote a blog yesterday, What live theatre screenings mean for small companies which, while supportive of what is happening, raises some very relevant, pertinent questions about the future. Whilst Freestone’s comments are about the UK, they could easily have a relevancy elsewhere as things develop.

I run Pentabus, a small-scale touring company. We tour rural area – village halls, fields, colleges and pubs – taking our work into the heart of a community. We do this because people living in geographically isolated places struggle to have the same access to live arts their urban counterparts enjoy. Transport, pricing, time – all conspire to deny opportunity. So I’m thrilled live screenings give our audiences more opportunities to experience theatre near them. And I’m delighted the income venues get from live screenings (including bar sales) helps them afford to programme more live theatre in turn. But some of the infrastructure surrounding screenings can’t help but pitch one against the other. And if put into competition with each other, venues will always choose live screenings because they are much cheaper to buy than live theatre. The good news is, the problems are solvable.

No doubt the debate will continue. Your thoughts?

Post Apocalyptic Homer

My first post today is an article that appeared yesterday on Howlround, written by Jonathan Mandell. In it, Mandell posits that television is having an influence on theatre making. It makes an interesting read, and whilst I don’t necessarily agree with all his points, it certainly gives pause for thought. The play that appears to have prompted this, Mr Burns, A Post Electric Play, does sound fascinating and I will share some more about it at the end of the article.

8 Ways Television Is Influencing Theater

Anne Washburn started watching The Simpsons and writing plays at about the same time, and didn’t think they had anything to do with one another until she wrote Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play, running at Playwrights Horizons until October 20.

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Her play imagines how survivors of an apocalypse would remember episodes of The Simpsons immediately after the end of civilization, then seven years later and seventy-five years after that. It illustrates what might be the most obvious of the eight ways, I am suggesting, that television is influencing theater.

1. Shared Cultural Experience
“I envy the experience of the Greeks or the Elizabethans,” Washburn says. “That whole audience came in knowing the stories. They could focus on the characters.”

Television comes closest to providing a similar shared culture. “Movies do too,” Washburn says, “but movies are gone so quickly. Because TV shows are around so consistently for so long, they’re more finely woven into our lives.”

The Simpsons has always been a part of some people’s lives. Everybody knows who Homer and Marge are,” adds Washburn.

Avenue Q has had a long successful life by tapping into the affection for Sesame Street; imagining what Muppet-like characters (or, in truth, Muppet-watching children) would be like when they become adults.

“The characters on television shows are so much a part of the culture that people want to write about them,” says Washburn. Even plays or musicals that don’t revolve around a TV show can make allusions to them.

2. Direct Source Material
Sometimes a TV show is directly adapted for the stage. A recent example of this is The Addams Family. But while every movie studio has a department whose job it is to adapt its films for the stage, there is no such job in the TV networks.

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“There’s a huge influx of movies being made into musicals, but not too many TV shows made into plays,” says Mark Subias, head of the theater department at United Talent Agency.

It is harder to get the rights to a television show, and easier to make money from one without adapting it for another medium. “Once it goes into syndication, there is so much money to be made, there’s not much motivation,” says Subias.

Still, it may be surprising to discover the television origins of some well-established works of theater. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, now on Broadway, debuted in 1958 as a musical written specifically for television. Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, currently in a revival on Broadway, began life on March 1, 1953 as an hour-long TV play starring Lillian Gish and Eva Marie Saint. Foote turned his teleplay into a stage play later that year, and it briefly ran on Broadway sixty years ago.

“Recently Gilligan’s IslandThe Brady Bunch, and Happy Days have been turned into musicals,” says Rebecca Pallor, a curator at the Paley Center for Media. “Although the producers of Happy Days (and no doubt the others) had aspirations of bringing the shows to Broadway, it has not yet happened. I seem to recall an attempt to turn I Dream of Jeannie into a musical as well.”

Even if few television shows currently serve as direct source material for stage shows, it seems clear that this is for reasons other than their popularity. There would surely be an audience for such adaptations, and a nation of TV-watchers can’t help but exert an influence on what does get presented on stage.

3. Forms And Approaches
“We live in a world now where you could argue that long, series television is the state of the art of storytelling,” director Sam Mendes said recently in explaining why he had turned Shakespeare’s history plays into a four-part TV series renamed The Hollow Crown, currently being shown on PBS.

“People have been doing interesting things with forms on television—The Wire, obviously,” says Washburn. “The way people are thinking about the arc of characters is really exciting.”

In my previous HowlRound article, Too Much Theater? The New Marathons, I said that the recent experiments in epic works of theater such as Mike Daisey’s All The Faces of the Moon—29 different monologues over 29 nights—could be influenced by television. As Daisey told me “the work is the size, in time, of a season or more of a TV show. Which allows new ways to listen.”

David Van Asselt, artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, also used television as a reference point when talking to me about his brainchild, The Hill Town Plays—five of Lucy Thurber’s plays presented simultaneously in five different theaters in the Village. “With Lucy’s plays, you could see a play a week. We’re not asking any more of an audience than a TV show.”

These theater artists are far from the only ones who see television’s effect on the forms that theater (and not just “epic theater”) is using.

“It’s easy to see the influence television has had on me as a dramatist,” says Jay Stull, a director, literary manager, and the author of The Capables, a play recently produced Off-Broadway about a family of hoarders caught up in the world of reality television. But Stull doesn’t just mean using television as a subject.

“Television has conditioned me to prefer shorter scenes, quicker cuts, and fractured unities, but also to prefer longer stories generally.”

“I’m sure that watching TV changed how I think about dramatic rhythm,” says Washburn.

“I wonder whether characters like Walter White or Tony Soprano—the preponderance of anti-heroes on cable—make theater audiences more accepting of villains,” says playwright Sam Marks. “There are very few characters in my plays who are just ‘good.’”

Similarly, Matthew Maher, who plays Homer Simpson (among other characters) in Mr. Burns, sees a golden age of playwriting develop in just the past few years, because “the audiences of today have been trained to appreciate and develop an appetite for original thinking…and this training has come largely by way of the good shows on TV”—shows, not incidentally, by TV writers like Aaron Sorkin and Elizabeth Meriweather, the creator of the sitcom New Girl, who had their start as playwrights.

Itamar Moses has a mixed view. “I think it’s had some bad influence, in that you’ll see plays that are basically TV shows on stage, with tons of short, naturalistic scenes, in tons of locations for no particular reason.” On the other hand, Moses acknowledges that there are good shows on TV—and indeed, he is one of the growing number of playwrights who write for television.

4. Moonlighting
“If a playwright gets a bad review, he says: ‘I’ll go write for TV,’” says agent Mark Subias. “It’s sort of like a joke.”

In truth, having television as at least a theoretical alternative offers more than psychological support; there is also the money. “Some artists do make a living in the theater, but it’s rare,” says Subias, which is a reason why “I’m always very encouraging of my playwrights writing for television—if they have the temperament and skills (different from playwriting) and the desire.”

And if it doesn’t work out—that too can in a weird way offer support. “One of my writers was hired for a TV show that turned out to be a very stressful, toxic experience,” Subias says. “It made this person realize: ‘I’m a playwright. I need to write for the stage.’”

Itamar Moses, though primarily known as a playwright, has also written for television shows such as Boardwalk Empire. Asked whether his moonlighting has influenced his playwriting, he replies “It’s hard to have perspective on my own work, but I think the answer to this is yes, in two almost contradictory ways: On the one hand, being in a writers’ room makes it really clear how many ways there are to tell a particular story. The number of ideas—good ones—that get tossed around and then thrown out over the course of a day in a writers’ room, let alone a season, is staggering. So I think it probably made me less precious in my playwriting about staying married to my first idea, gave me faith that if I allowed the writers’ room inside my head to kick things around a little more, there might be a better idea on the horizon, and a better one after that.”

He adds,“On the other hand, because the money is so good in TV, with the trade-off being that you’re generally a cog in a larger machine, serving someone else’s vision, working with characters and a world someone else made up, it made me feel even more strongly that, in my playwriting, there was absolutely no reason to ever do anything other than exactly what I wanted to do. If I’m going to be paid almost nothing to make something that, relatively speaking, almost no one is going to see, I might as well execute my own vision.”

5. Departures (Disruptions)
The list is long of theater actors who have left a stage show for a role on TV or the movies. Some leave abruptly, disrupting the show they are in. Some never return to the theater; the stage was their stepping stone. (Pictured here is Sara Ramirez who made a splash in Spamalot on Broadway, winning a Tony for her role as The Lady of the Lake. She hasn’t been back since cast as Dr. Callie Torres in Grey’s Anatomy).

But even those performers who want to make a career in the theater also have to make a living. “It’s really difficult to cast a play in New York during pilot season, which I think is around February and March,” says Washburn. “All these actors go out to L.A. I hear ‘I’d love to audition for your play, but…’”

The effect is less obvious for playwrights than performers, but, says Washburn, “when you’re writing for television, you’re not writing a play. It remains to be seen whether some of the theater writers who left for TV will come back.”

6. Celebrity Casting
The term “stunt casting” was coined for cameos or “guest appearances”  by celebrities (usually movie stars) in television shows. It is a term almost always used pejoratively when describing the increasing practice of hiring celebrities (usually television or movie stars) to perform in a play or musical.

“If I could get a ‘star’ who’s a terrific actor, that’s a great thing,” says David Van Asselt of Rattlestick. “We’re trying to get audiences. I’m trying to find ways so attention can be brought to a play.”

The problem comes with an expanding definition of celebrity to embrace, that includes, for example, “stars” of reality television, who often have no experience on stage. Such casting is no longer restricted to bit roles; they are often asked to play the leads. Some shows have decided on a strategy to extend their runs by casting a succession of performers hired not for their talent, but because their names will attract publicity and lure in their fans.

“The great pleasure of theater for me is to see really good acting in action,” Washburn says. “Theater acting is a hard discipline; the more you do it, the better you are. People understand that stunt casting is an economic thing. But it does change the experience.”

7. Video Projections
Just this year, the Drama Desk Awards added a new category, Outstanding Projection Design, acknowledging the increasing use of videos on stage.

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The winner was Peter Nigrini for Here Lies Love, the musical about Imelda Marcos by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim that was presented at the Public Theater in a theater set up to resemble a disco. But videos were used for more than just pulsating music video images. Videographers trailed the characters, projecting live close-ups on screens, as if they were news cameramen filming the characters making speeches or holding press conferences.

Wendall K. Harrington was given credit as “multi-image producer” for They’re Playing Our Song way back in 1979—the first of thirty six Broadway shows for which she has served as projection designer. Three years ago, she launched a new concentration in projection design at the Yale School of Drama.

“I explain to my classes that every playwright and director alive today grew up in the age of cinema and television,” Harrington says. “There is so much projection because they have been conditioned to think in these terms: Theater directors want scenes to ‘dissolve’ into each other; they’d like a ‘close up’—these are cinematic and TV terms. It would be hard now to write a play like Long Days Journey into Night—four hours in one room seems unthinkable.”

Videos on stage allow the kind of close-ups that were one of the advantages that television and movies had over the theater, and that audiences have come to expect, if not demand. But theater has taken the TV technology and turned it into something else. One example occurred in the Macbeth starring Alan Cumming, which included three video monitors with a live feed. To present the three witches, the three monitors showed Cumming from three different angles.

“The larger issue,” Harrington asks, “is whether the increasing use of video projections is affecting the quality of theater. Stay tuned for that.”

8. Theater As Anti-Television
A director once told Theresa Rebeck, playwright and television writer, “that since realism is done so well by television and feature films, the theater must explore something else.”

In her book Free Fire Zone, Rebeck makes it clear that she thinks the unnamed director is a fool (for one thing, she doesn’t think TV does realism well). Nonetheless, the director’s comment reflects what may be the greatest influence that television has had on theater—the push it has given theater artists to create something that will drag TV watchers out of their home and turn them into theatergoers.

“I can’t tell you how many theater mission statements I’ve read that say: We want to tell stories that can only be told through theater, that you can’t see on television,” Washburn says.

“How good TV has become at doing a certain kind of character-driven long-form storytelling really throws down a gauntlet for playwrights,” Itamar Moses says, “and challenges them to answer the question, with their work: What canonly theater do? What can’t we getanywhere else? And there’s no one answer to that, but it challenges every playwright to try to come up with theirs.”

Now for some more about Mr. Burns, A Post Electric PlayFirstly, the reviews are really good and it is clear that it is quite unique in a number of ways. Have a read here and here.

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Playwrights Horizons has lots of other stuff worth having a read of, watch and listen to. Click the image below to get there:

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You can hear more from Anne Washburn here on the origin of the play, its unique development process, and how “The Simpsons” came to represent the high culture of the future.

Theatre, Technology and Chocolate

Recently a well-respected theatre critic wrote that:

Technology is the lifeblood of the Wooster Group company, whose members frequently make clear their scepticism about, and in one case “allergy” to, the theatre.

1hamlet_wooster_group_czernia I have tried and tried with them but their allure has finally evaded me. They have become the Jake and Dinos Chapman of the stage, scrawling across well-known big works.

I have kept this quote floating around as I  wanted to respond, but wasn’t quite sure how. I have seen a couple of their shows and I know what the critic is getting at – their interpretation of The Emperor Jones left me a little cold, not to say perplexed. Not an easy one to stage at the best of times with its mix of realism and expressionism, but I found it hard to find meaning in what they produced.

All this is a bit of a digression really from what I wanted to write about today, but you will see why. Those of you that follow Theatre Room regularly will know I love the use of technology in performance. The opportunities it affords for enhancing meaning, for making meaning and layering meaning are immense and was why I was fascinated by the discussion between the designers in my post, Making Space

However, the embracing of technology by theatre works on so many fronts and I thought it would be good to share the impact it has had on a show I have been following on social media – which is a great place to start.

So I am writing about a play that I have not seen and will not be able to see – It is happening thousands of miles away – yet I feel I have a very clear understanding of it and why it is being performed, even what it will look and sound like thanks to Twitter. Two of the three producing companies are tech-savvy, multi-platfrom theatre companies who have been tweeting through the development and rehearsal processes as well as during the run. Through these I have seen images of rehearsal, learned of problems faced and solved, seen costuming fittings, technical explorations and so on. Of course this also acts as promotion and I am sure is one of the reasons for the play being a sell out before it began its run. In addition, the majority of the cast are drawn the local community and Twitter has allowed them to be part of the process in a different and inclusive way.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the play yet. I will, but not just yet.

Secondly, they have produced a beautiful filmed and edited trailer for the play. A ‘trailer’ for a piece of live theatre was  unheard a few years ago.  Trailers were for cinema, not theatre. Of course the internet has changed all this, but, I would argue, more so YouTube. This allows for free promotion to a much larger audience, and an audience that goes beyond the place where it is being performed.

Thirdly, there is the use of technology in the performance itself, which is promenade and takes the audience on a journey through an historic city centre. Not only are they using a range of filmed and projected sequences and images, the audience members have a set of headphones allowing them to hear live and recorded dialogue, music and sounds to accompany the live action. It has been described as

theatre as you have never seen, or heard it before…….theatre on an epic, cinematic scale…..

Finally, (and great news for me) they are live-streaming a performance on Thursday so I can watch – I can watch 2 continents away – and of course they have made a trailer for this too and I will watch the performance on their own live streaming channel.

BC_web_bannerOK. The play is called Blood and Chocolate and uses the City of York (UK) as its backdrop to tell a story inspired by the employers and workers of the Chocolate factories in York during the First World War, their sense of duty towards their beliefs, each other and their commitment to defending their homeland.  It is produced by three companies – York Theatre Royal, Slung Low and Pilot Theatre with a cast of just under 200 actors, professional and from the local area.

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The reviews of the piece are uniformly good and very praiseworthy – read for yourself here and here.

The webstream trailer below give you a clearer idea of what the show looks and feels like.

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This video, from a local news report, give you a further idea of how technology has been embraced in the production..

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So theatre on a grand scale, and brought to local and world-wide audiences through technology. The reviews tell you it has been successful. All of this has left me wondering about the Woosters and their employment of technology in telling stories, if the stories they are telling are obsfucated by its use?

The other point is how technology, in all its guises, is changing every aspect of theatre making and how exciting that really is. I wonder what comes next?

If you are interested in catching the webcast of Blood and Chocolate, it starts at 6.30pm UK time and you can see it here.

Paper Mates

A while ago I wrote about the work of Davy and Kristin McGuire in a post called Paper Cuts. Their latest work The Paper Architect is a play combining paper-craft, animation, projection mapping and performance. It tells the story of an old model-maker who uses his paper creations as vessels for his imagination. It is just beautiful and so clever – take a look at the trailer:

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One reviewer called it a piece that speaks to our imagination and challenges our notions what theatre can be. Indeed it does. But in and of itself, it is a simply (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense) a modern, technological shadow theatre which has of course been with us for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

The McGuire’s work, not surprisingly, has a growing reputation internationally, as this rather amusing video shows

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Old Traditions, New Shadows

I quick little share today, courtesy of my friend Julie Hannaford, the work of a Japanese company enra.

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To quote Nobuyuki Hanabusa, the founder of the company, enra, is a project to present a one-of-a-kind entertainment in (a) collaboration of images I create and performance (sic) by specialists of various genres.

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Shadow theatre for the 21st century, I think.

The Dark Side

I have just been reading about a puppetry festival, taking place in England’s south-west. What took my interest, however, was that half the programming was specifically puppetry for an adult audience. The Bristol Festival of Puppetry – Exploring Different Worlds, has companies and performances from four continents and its programme for adults has a particularly dark feel about it – take a look here. One of the companies, Duda Paiva, looks fantastic. Brazilian born, Dutch resident Duda Paiva describes his work as a

lively cross-over of dance and objects in an exciting and original form of contemporary visual theatre.

Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Well, take a look at extracts from two of their pieces. The first is called Bastard!

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And the second, Malediction

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In connection with the festival, Rachel McNally, the organiser has given an interview to Regina Papachlimitzou from Exeunt, in which she talks about why puppetry has an enduring appeal, and why audiences have such a visceral response to puppetry: 

This is not a full answer, but it’s a partial answer: when you watch an actor perform, even though the performance can be brilliant, and they completely inhabit that character, you still are aware that there is a person behind that character, who is an actor, because you see their face and it’s so familiar. So, for example, if you see Tom Cruise in one movie and then you see him in another, you know it’s Tom Cruise performing and acting. Whereas a puppet is only that character. So you have to believe the puppet, that’s the only existence that puppet has, is to be that character and so if you’re prepared to believe in that puppet, in that character of the puppet, then you believe whole-heartedly in the story.

That’s a very transformative experience for an audience, because you allow yourself to buy in completely, and to be transported. There is an innocence to that which can take you to absolutely delightful places, but on the other hand you can go to some very dark places [as well]. Because you have to go with the puppet. There is obviously the performance that’s coming from the puppet but it’s then also what [you are] putting onto the puppet [yourself], because a puppet does not have facial muscles, so you read them slightly differently.

The other side of it is to do with the relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet. Increasingly in performances, you don’t see the puppeteer blacked out. You see the facial expressions of the puppeteer. Most puppeteers try to keep themselves relatively neutral, because they want the focus to be the puppet. There’s something joyful about seeing someone give that much attention and detail to create a life. Because the puppeteer is investing their own huge level of focus in a puppet, that gives you another reason to go along with the puppet.

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Worlds Apart

Over the course of the summer I have written about Shakespeare a couple of times. Today I am going to share two articles about two plays currently in production from opposite sides of the world. Firstly, Coriolanus directed by Lin Zhaohua for the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing in Mandarin and Hamlet, by The Wooster Group in New York. Both are currently on at The Edinburgh Festival.

The first is by Andrew Dixon for the Guardian, entitled

Guitar hero: Coriolanus goes rock

China’s most controversial director is bringing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to Edinburgh – with two heavy-metal bands in tow

It’s 45 minutes to showtime at the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing. Backstage, actors in civvies are padding around, studiously avoiding the clock. Behind a dressing-room door, someone is making heavy weather of their warmup. Suddenly, the strangulated squeal of an electric guitar shakes the building, like a crack of thunder. No one bats an eyelid.

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The closest most British stagings of Shakespeare get to guitars is the occasional lute. But in China, it seems, they prefer their Bard a little gnarlier. This is The Tragedy of Coriolanus by Lin Zhaohua, routinely described as China’s most controversial theatre director. First performed in 2007, it is big in every sense: there’s a cast of more than 100, and the action takes place on a near-empty stage against a vast, blood-red brick wall.

But the real surprise is the soundtrack: two live heavy-metal bands, going under the colourful names of Miserable Faith and Suffocated, who slide in periodically from the wings and punctuate the action with frenzied surges of nu-metal. This might be the only version of Shakespeare’s tragedy – the story of a hot-headed general who goes to war against his own people – that turns it into a battle of the bands.

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The director is hiding in a cloud of cigarette smoke in the theatre cafe. Were it not for the translator hovering at his elbow, you’d mistake Lin for an elderly caretaker: a slight, somewhat caved-in figure, his jacket hanging absent-mindedly off one shoulder. But, behind neat spectacles, his dark eyes are pin-sharp. He claps me on the shoulder as I sit down; I sense I’m being sized up.

First things first: why the heavy metal? “I wanted to use rock music to display the fierceness of the war, and the rioting of the citizens,” he says. “At first I wanted bands from Germany … I listened to a lot of them, but I didn’t like their electronic sounds. So Yi Liming, my designer, showed me around different parts of Beijing. I chose two of the bands I saw.”

The music certainly adds a volcanic energy. The text has been translated into contemporary Mandarin, and here in Beijing (unlike at the Edinburgh international festival, where the show will open later this month) there are no surtitles. The scalding force of Shakespeare’s verse, though, is echoed in the roaring guitars and pulsing bass. It’s a high-voltage experience, particularly when the Roman mob, dressed in semi-druidic robes, rush onstage brandishing wooden staffs – like a cross between a scene from Star Wars and Reading festival. In the interval, the musicians entertain the crowd, a flock of teenagers pressing close, clicking away with their cameraphones.

Lin smiles. “Some dramatists and critics don’t like the idea of using rock music, and they criticise my way of doing productions.” How does he feel about that? A shrug. “I don’t care.”

Combing the city’s nightspots for musical accompaniment sounds energetic for a director now in his late 70s. But Lin has never done things by the book. After graduating from the Beijing Central Academy of Drama in 1961, he joined the People’s Art Theatre (BPAT) – China’s equivalent of the RSC – as an actor, only to find his career stymied by the Cultural Revolution. Afterwards, he joined forces with the dissident writer Gao Xingjian, who would later win the Nobel prize. A trio of plays, beginning with 1982’s Absolute Signal, all but launched experimental theatre in China, with a confrontational, often absurdist style that unnerved the communist authorities.

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In the decades since, Lin has been prolific, flitting between new drama, stylised Peking Opera and ambitious reworkings of western classics. According to Li Ruru, an academic who has written extensively on Chinese theatre, Lin is “a major voice. He’s been doing experimental theatre for more than 30 years, at the absolute vanguard of Chinese spoken drama.” But his approach hasn’t always done him favours: one critic described him and Gao as “harbingers of strangeness” for their efforts to release drama from the straitjacket of Soviet-era social realism. The director refuses even this pigeonholing: “I have no style,” he has repeatedly told interviewers.

Anyone expecting peony-strewn chinoiserie – like that offered by the National Ballet of China two festivals ago – will be in for a shock. This is a Coriolanus of muscular clashes and brutal comedowns; of a leader always itching to administer the hair-dryer treatment, and who does nothing to disguise his detestation of the masses.

In the lead role is one of China’s most famous stage actors, Pu Cunxin: a disconcertingly polite figure who apologies for his sore throat – the consequence of competing with two metal groups. “It is an unusual way of performing,” he admits. “We don’t normally have this kind of collaboration in China. The noise is just so powerful on stage, but we need the rock music to express these emotions. It parallels Shakespeare’s ideas.”

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I’m struck by one moment in particular, where Coriolanus’s arch-rival Aufidius grabs a microphone during a battle scene, looking half like a wannabe rock god, half like a politician channelling the energy of the crowd. Politics are everywhere in Coriolanus: the play has been claimed both by leftwing critics as a primer on the dangers of demagoguery, and by the right as a lesson in the fickleness of the masses (the Roman citizens at first swoon over their apparently invincible general, then later turn on him). Given these paradoxes, it feels an oddly appropriate play for present-day China, a country nominally communist, but with an economy many capitalists would trade their copies of Milton Friedman for. On the short walk from my hotel to the theatre, two blocks from the Forbidden City, I drift through a shopping district crammed with western luxury brands; one window of a photography shop is jewelled with glittering Japanese cameras, the other with portraits of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. It would be harder to find a clearer image of Deng’s infamous”socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

What does Lin see in Shakespeare’s text? “The relations between the hero and the common citizens,” he replies. “In ancient Rome, people admired heroes. From my point of view, Coriolanus is a hero.” Is there a resonance with contemporary China? “It’s a good phenomenon if the play refers to current events. Those in power like to control citizens, and some common citizens are foolish.”

I want to find out about a previous Shakespeare production, Lin’s Beckettian staging of Hamlet, first seen in 1989. Performed in a rehearsal room at BPAT, the only prop a barber’s chair, it had three actors (one of them Pu) sharing the roles of Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius. Depending on your perspective, it captured either capitalist alienation, or the disillusion that followed the collapse of the student protests at Tiananmen Square. The parallels were cloudy – theatrical censorship is vigorously alive in the People’s Republic – but there to be seen.

Lin freely admits the show was unusual: in contrast to the traditional Chinese way of presenting Shakespeare, with wigs and western-style makeup (sometimes even prosthetic noses), his actors wore their own clothes, in a conscious decision to show the student prince as just another guy. But he is reluctant to open up on the wider issues. “I hate politics,” he says stoutly. “Hamlet has nothing to do with politics. It’s just about a person’s situation.” I can’t tell whether he’s genuinely uninterested, or unwilling to be frank with a British journalist. “I never discuss politics. I don’t think you can direct a production just from politics.” He isn’t even convinced, he says, he’s avant-garde. “I don’t have that concept. I just direct the production from my interests and from the needs of the play.”

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Our time is nearly up; his lighter is snapping impatiently. Last question: does he like being called a rebel? “I don’t have preconceptions about what I’m going to create,” he stonewalls. “I just follow my instincts.”

I realise as I’m rushed out that I’ve forgotten to ask one thing – why direct Shakespeare in the first place? Why stage reach for a playwright four centuries old? When I email, the answer comes back quicker than I expect. It reads: “It gives me the freedom to say what I want.”

537273_582437285116480_15271441_nInterestingly, the Lin Zhaohua Theatre Studio has it’s own Facebook page which is where all the above images came from.

There is a fantastic outline of him and his work here where he is described as a very controversial drama director in China…one of the most significant figures in Chinese drama history you can’t ignore – whether you love him or not.

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The second article today is also from the Guardian, by Hermione Hoby, exploring with the Wooster Group why, after all these years of experimental theatre, they decided to ‘do’ Shakespeare.

Wooster Group take on Shakespeare with Hamlet remix

Before Punchdrunk, or Complicite, or Forced Entertainment, or any other experimental theatre company you can name, there was New York’s Wooster Group, an avant-garde ensemble legendary not just for the work it has made since the 1970s, but also for the love affairs and betrayals that have coloured its history. As former member Willem Dafoe has put it: “You become accomplices in life. There’s a terrific power in that. The other side is, there’s no place to run.”

Since 1974 the company has worked out of the Performing Garage in Soho – a Manhattan neighbourhood once characterised by derelict lofts and heroin dealers and now given over to Prada boutiques and cupcake-centric cafes. This year they’re bringing one of their most successful shows ever – a remixed Hamlet devised from a filmed 1964 production starring Richard Burton – to the Edinburgh international festival.

I meet company members Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk in the big empty black box of their theatre and, seated on the steps of the auditorium, Shepherd explains that he directed the play years ago as a student at Brown University. Ever since, he says, he’s had it stuck in his head. That’s not, it turns out, a figure of speech. “He has a photographic memory,” Valk explains, mock-wearily. “It’s kind of obnoxious at times.”

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The skill is what enabled him, for example, to memorise all 49,000 words of The Great Gatsby for Elevator Repair Service’s acclaimed stage adaptation, Gatz. Hamlet though, was rooted even deeper. Eventually, with speeches still running through his head, it began to feel “like something that needed to be exorcised”.

And so he persuaded Valk, who claims to have suffered from what she calls “Shakespeare deficit disorder”, to join him in after-hours work on the text. From that moment in 2006, very slowly, their production began to take shape.

It began with the two of them, but the woman who continues to hold the company together – the matriarch, you might say – is the quietly formidable 69-year-old Elizabeth LeCompte. The Wooster Group emerged amid the creative ferment of 70s downtown New York, but it was her relationship with Spalding Gray, the late actor and writer, that dynamised the company. After graduating from Skidmore College she got together with Gray – as well as Valk, Jim Clayburgh, Ron Vawter, Peyton Smith and Dafoe – with whom she went on to have a son and a 27-year relationship. Dafoe ended it abruptly in 2004, the same year Gray took his own life by throwing himself from the Staten Island ferry. Miraculously, she weathered it with the company intact.

Before she met Gray in the mid 60s, LeCompte had little interest in theatre and had studied art, thinking she might become an architect like her father. “I think maybe,” she says, “it was just a mistake – I got together with Spalding not because I thought I was going to get involved with theatre but when Richard Schechner [the group’s original artistic director] hired me, I realised that it was really a good place.”

By 1975 she was staging Gray’s famous Rhode Island Trilogy, an autobiographical work that details his childhood and the suicide of his mother through monologue as well as personal materials such as letters and photographs. In 1980, Schechner left, LeCompte became artistic director and they changed their name from the Performing Group to the Wooster Group. What drove them then, I ask. She inhales. “It’s hard to know … I don’t know whether it was just youth, because it wasn’t exactly idealism. We weren’t afraid of anybody. We had a certain kind of feeling of the world was ours, so we could do what we wanted.”

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The company seems to retain that sense of boundlessness, I suggest.

“You really don’t really know where you’re going to end up when you start,” she agrees. “And there’s something very exhilarating about that, but it’s also very difficult. In most theatres the director has to know what’s there so the other people involved can rely on her. I don’t afford anyone that comfort. I’m as confused as everybody else a lot of the time.”

When LeCompte began working on Hamlet, “I didn’t really think I was working on Shakespeare, I thought I was working out on figuring outabout Shakespeare. I kind of came in a side door.” That’s often the best way. “Well,” she says drily, “it’s the only way I can do most things.”

She remembered seeing the Burton production, which was directed by John Gielgud – himself a famous Hamlet – and thinking of it as experimental purely because the actor playing Gertrude wore not a bodiced dress and ruff, but a mink coat. “That’s what experimental was then!” she laughs. More exciting though was Burton’s futuristically named “Electronovision”, an innovation that used 17 cameras to film and broadcast the performance for two days in 1,000 cinemas across the US . In the Wooster production, that grainy 1964 film is projected above the set, forming a ghostly backdrop of a past Hamlet. The New York Times described the Woosters’ show as “an aching tribute to the ephemerality of greatness in theatre”.

Kate Valk and Ari Fliakos in Hamlet

Kate Valk and Ari Fliakos in Hamlet

“The whole metaphor to using the film is the ghost,” Kate Valk enthuses. “The ghost of all those performances!”

Scott Shepherd is a performer who invariably attracts adjectives like “indefatigable” and “tireless”; those seem entirely deserved when it emerges that he edited the entire Burton film into Shakespearean meter, in other words, painstakingly cutting the performers’ pauses so that the iambic pentameter is duly honoured with beats and stresses in the right places.

“This was an arduous task, yeah,” he admits. “To go in and cut pauses if they came in the middle of a verse line and then move them to the end of the verse line.”

It’s Shepherd-as-Hamlet’s imagination, so the premise goes, that creates the onstage action, in which live performers mirror the movements and speech of the actors in the 1964 projection. For all the visual innovations though, LeCompte insists that the text itself remains sacrosanct, and, “on a par with the visual”.

She says: “What I was doing, I realised, was trying to take this shard of what I could get from the past, from that production, and to reinterpolate it into something that made sense to me, in the future.” A brief pause, then: “But I just wanted to delight myself, frankly!”

Despite three decades of making work this is the first Shakespeare the company has ever done. (They’ve since added Troilus and Cressida, a collaboration with the RSC, to their repertoire.)

“I was not hip to the Shakespeare idea at all,” says Ari Fliakos, who plays Claudius and Marcellus, among other roles. Why? “I don’t know,” he says, “maybe it comes out of my allergy to theatre.”

Professing not to be a “theatre person” seems to be a common Wooster trait. Even Valk, who’s been described as “the Meryl Streep of downtown”, has claimed that acting is not among her skills.

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When I mention this tendency to LeCompte she laughs. “I like theatre people!” she protests. “But the process of making theatre in the commercial world I don’t like because it’s too formulaic. I really like to ramble for quite a while,” – and then she corrects herself: “I don’t like to, I have to. I wish I was faster, frankly – we’d be making a little more money.”

Like most members, LeCompte included, Fliakos came to the group through a side door, after hanging around there in 1996, answering phones and fetching coffee. “Everything was stimulating, everything resonated,” he recalls. “It seemed like experimenting with drugs all over again, it was a whole new experience I wouldn’t have expected in any kind of live performance.” He sighs: “The minute you try to describe it, not unlike a trip, it begins to dissipate.”

Every member I talk to about the Wooster Group speaks with this kind of ecstatic devotion. Nonetheless, the creative world of 2013 is a very different one to 1974 – financially and ideologically. LeCompte admits that, “in order to be able to keep the company together I have to be more aware of money, ways of living and ideas. It’s the terrible thing that it’s not hip anymore to not have money, or to be on the outside. It’s much harder for people to give up things that have money and status.”

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But there are gains, Shepherd explains: “Most people who are in acting are going from one job to the next, and it’s quite hard to develop a sense of continuity, that you’re engaged in building a body of work. And here that’s all you do. One piece bleeds into the other so you’re creating sort of an oeuvre and making something larger than a particular production, you know? This is about developing a philosophy of working, a way of working with a group of people.”

“It feels,” he says finally, “substantial.”

Again the reviews will be out soon for both shows so it will be interesting to see what the critics make of these two very different, culturally and artistically diverse reworkings of Shakespeare. However, according to one critic who Tweeted a few hours ago, the opening night of Hamlet didn’t go well:

domIt happens to the best of us, it seems.

Digital Dreaming

I am always fascinated about how we can use technology to create and enhance performance and it is something that is clearly being embraced by theatres, directors and performers around the world. For example, live, streaming performance is starting to become the norm, rather than the exception. The National Theatre, through their NTLive programme, now regularly broadcasts it’s work to cinemas around the world.

However, it’s where technology allows a performance to become something that otherwise wouldn’t be possible is what really excites me. Therefore I was happy to come across this article in Wired by Liz Stinson about a performance called Mr and Mrs Dream. The creators, Le Théâtre du Corps, worked with a software company, Dassault Systèmes, to make something rather special indeed.

A Virtual Stage That Bends Reality and Pushes Theater’s Boundaries

There’s a scene in the contemporary ballet Mr. & Mrs. Dream where the walls of the set appear to burst apart, transporting one of the principal dancers from an apartment living room to a sea of meteorites in outer space. The dancer, Julien Derouault from Paris’ Théâtre du Corps, begins to hop from meteorite to meteorite, and with each step, the space rocks appear to dip from the heft of the human body. Of course, Derouault isn’t actually bouncing on meteorites; in reality, he’s simply leaping on the floor of an almost empty stage. The scene is mesmerizing, and from the vantage point of the audience, it really does look like the dancer is jumping through outer space. But it’s all an illusion, created by an elaborately engineered virtual reality system that could begin to replace traditional sets with projectors, screens and computers.

Though the show was conceived and choreographed by Derouault and his partner Marie-Claude Pietragalla, the brains behind Mr. and Mrs. Dream’s high-tech set is Dassault Systèmes. The French software engineering company typically uses its virtual reality technology to test, model and simulate products for companies like Boeing, so it’s natural to think that this collaboration is a bit of an odd pairing. But, says Mehdi Tayoubi, vice president in charge of experiential strategy at Dassault, interdisciplinary collaboration is becoming more common and more imperative for high-tech companies.

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“It’s very important when you claim to be an innovative company, to be able to go outside the laboratory and your comfort zone,” says Tayoubi, who heads up Dassault’s Passion for Innovation program, an initiative whose goal is to apply the company’s industrial research and technology skills to the worlds of culture and education. Since 2005, Dassault has worked with architect Jean-Pierre Houdin to simulate the construction of Cheops pyramid, partnered with director Luc Besson to bring 3-D interactivity to movie theaters, and helped cartoon artists turn their cartoons into virtual reality (and these are just a few of their projects). Mr. and Mrs. Dream is Dassault’s first crack at live dance, and not surprisingly, there were some challenges and miscommunications along the way. “At the beginning it was a little bit difficult,” says Tayoubi. ”But we learned to share the same language.”

One of Dassault’s main challenges was creating a virtual reality system that was technical enough to accomplish the complex visual effects that the dance company envisioned while still being simple to use. “We needed to design a system that we can give to people who are not engineers and they could set up everything in a few hours,” explains Benoît Marini, Dassault’s virtual reality expert. The system also had to be mobile since the company would eventually be touring with it around the world.

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Marini’s solution was a mobile “magic box,” which is basically a disassemble-able series of four gray screens and six projectors that would be the canvas for the immersive world of Mr. & Mrs. Dream. The box is similar to the virtual reality rooms traditionally used by industrial companies, only instead of testing emergency scenarios and modeling new airplane features, this box is used to motion-track dancers and project computer-generated images. For scenes like the one mentioned above, Marini positioned three Kinect sensors above the stage to track the dancers’ movements. So when the dancers jump, the meteorites bounce, or when the dancers kick, a flurry of leaves float through the air. Most of the other projected dance numbers were motion-captured in the studio and are played back in sync with the music. The audience doesn’t have to wear 3-D glasses; instead the team uses perception tricks like digitally created trompe l’oeil to convey depth and dimension.

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Fittingly, Mr. & Mrs. Dream is based on the work of Eugène Ionesco, the famed playwright whose work was a hallmark of the Theatre of the Absurd. “We always say to our customers like Boeing: ‘There is no limit, dream big, we can do everything,’” says Tayoubi. “So we saw a lot of similarity between Eugène Ionesco and what we are doing everyday.” Tayoubi believes that working on inter-disciplinary projects like this is the key to innovation, citing the magic box as a technology that Dassault will use again at automobile shows to give 3-D representations of new cars. Working with artists forces the scientifically minded to push boundaries and create solutions to problems that they’ve never encountered before. “Artists have a lot of imagination,” says Marini. ”Sometimes they want effects that aren’t possible.” So what happens when the dancers ask for something they can’t create, like holograms that can interact with the audience? “You say, ‘wow,’” Tayoubi laughs, “Then you begin to find a solution.”

You can read a review of the show here.

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Critics In & Jury Out

So the previews are over and the critics have been in to see Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. Now the fact that I am 9,500km away negates me seeing it so I have been avidly immersing myself (pun entirely intended) in the press and blogosphere.

It would seem the jury is out.  The theatrical event of the summer or the most over-hyped show of the year (lets not forget that promotional interviews and teasers were out in March)?

I will share one thing with you and give you the links to the rest. Make your own mind up. Here is a conversation between Natasha Tripney, William Drew, Stewart Pringle and Lauren Mooney that was published in Exeunt yesterday.

The Drowned Man: Playing the Game

Natasha Tripney: There were several moments during The Drowned Man where I felt as if I was in my own private movie. The soundtrack helped I think, – the Shangri-Las’ ‘Remember’ plays in my head often enough anyway – those finger clicks kicking in as I opened a door. The lighting, crepuscular, twilit, also played a part as I picked my way through an indoor glade, the ground underfoot loamy, or found myself in a diner, all Formica and bourbon and bubble gum, James Ellroy, Carson McCullers and Edward Hopper. I loved that. I could have played there all day.

Compared to their last major London show – The Masque of the Red Death at BAC, which is the only other Punchdrunk piece I’ve experienced (I missed Faust, sadly) – I got a lot out ofThe Drowned Man. I saw more action, so to speak, followed a couple of characters around (though didn’t find their arcs compelling enough to stick with them for too long), had my hand-held and my face stroked by a sequin-bedecked woman in a Red Room. Beautiful as the design was, I found Masque a hugely frustrating experience. I spent so much of my time in there, standing in glorious but empty spaces, arriving at scenes just as they’d finished and the one time I was in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time I clearly stood in the wrong ‘place’ and got (quite roughly) elbowed out of the way by one of the performers. This didn’t really endear me towards them as a company.

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So despite the oven-like temperatures, I enjoyed a lot about the experience. Some of the design was truly spectacular – I particularly liked the shrines and the scarecrows – the level of detail was delicious and for the first time I can grasp why people might become frequent fliers, returning multiple times. I think it was Ian Shuttleworth who said, when discussingMasque, that in order to get the most out of it you have to be good at following cues, chasing voices. I struggled with that in Masque, but I guess here I played the game better. It’s just a shame it took one deeply frustrating experience for me to figure out how to do that. Had I paid the best part of £50 in order to learn those lessons, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feel quite so warmly towards it.

Stewart Pringle: Though I have some severe reservations on it as a piece of theatre, I had a pretty awesome time wandering around Temple Studios. I found the attention to detail just as arresting as I had in Masque, and the scale and scope even more breathtaking. I’ve read a few of the early blog reviews and I find it genuinely surprised that experiences like walking through a forest filled with camper-vans, sifting through the detritus of failed relationships in seedy hotel rooms and wandering through the back-lot Beamish of the street scene have been written off as if the show was just a few hours plodding around a dingy warehouse.

I saw far more action and far more actors than I did in Masque, but in a way I think that took me out of the experience rather than enhanced my immersion. Because the actors interact with the audience so rarely, and because I find the dancey stylings of Maxine Doyle so insufficient and unengaging, I had far more fun when I was exploring on my own. There was a bunch of letters in the sort of broken down house area that I read through in their entirety, tracing a relationship from first wobble to total collapse, and I found the experience far more moving than any amount of repetitive interpretive dance.

I’m with Tash on the soundtrack, too. In the main I found it really enhanced the atmosphere, even if its repetitions eventually began to blur everything into a single tone. Because it essentially cycled around, or seemed to, it added to the creeping sense of dramatic stasis that built towards the final hour. Its lack of syncronicity with the action of individual scenes also created the occasional daft moment, such as finding I myself watching a man putting his trousers on in the back-room of a seamstresses to soaring, cinematic strings. They were very nice trousers, I suppose.

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William Drew: So I find the idea of “playing the game” of a Punchdrunk show really interesting. My interpretation of this, which may not be what you meant, Tasha, is how an audience member makes sense of all the stimuli they fill their shows with, so they weave together a narrative for themselves. Bearing in mind, the world does not react to you, in the sense of your actions affecting outcomes, I can see two ways you can do this. The first is to explore the environment, looking for letters, imagining what was there before, finding the space in the absences for your own imagination; the other is to look for performers, to watch them and to follow them through a space. Let’s call the first exploration and the second active spectatorship (while recognising the extent to which it is “active” might be problematic but that’ll do for now). From what I understand, Stewart preferred the exploration so actually found the number of opportunities for active spectatorship unhelpful, at best, and an irritant, at worst. Tasha, on the other hand, you seem to have attempting to engage with bothMasque and Drowned Man as an active spectator and this is something that you feel you “failed” at with Masque but did more successfully in Drowned Man.

It seemed to me that Drowned Man was heavily weighted towards active spectatorship. Perhaps there were more actors or maybe it was simply the case that people know to “play the game” of a Punchdrunk show better by now so you get what amounts to a fairly respectable fringe audience in dogged pursuit of almost every performer. Like Stewart, my favourite moments were the ones where I could be alone exploring the world that the company have created. There were still treasures to be found in doing that. My favourite moment of theDrowned Man was where I sat on the one free chair in an audience of scarecrows. The impression that I was on a film set meant that I was able to suspend my disbelief for long enough to feel as if the “man” in front of me might turn around any second. That was thrilling. Generally though, I didn’t find there were as many pay-offs from exploring as there were in Faust and this leads me back to the possibility that the weighting is built into this show by the company in response to how most audiences want to behave within the environment. They are “failing” fewer people who want to play in that way by making it easier to “play the game” successfully but, in doing so, are they losing a little of the openness that was part of the appeal of their earlier work?

Punchdrunk: Sophie Bortolussi in The Drowned Man

Natasha Tripney: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms. Looking back on it now, my favourite moments of Drowned Man were actually ones of exploration – finding intricate origami flowers in a series of filing drawer or discovering a hidden shrine made of delicate curls of cassette tape. Even my lovely Shangri-Las moment was one in which I was alone in a space. I found Doyle’s choreographic style – all that sweaty sexual intensity – very samey after a while and not particular engaging and, as you said, Stew, far too reliant on archetype. I felt no need to pursue any one performer for long, though I gather this is an approach which lots of people favour. I think what worked for me here was the ratio between the exploratory/active elements and maybe the fact that I didn’t put pressure on myself to chase the action or attempt to piece a plot together as I did inMasque and therefore was far better able to enjoy what I was experiencing rather than fret about what I wasn’t. I think that’s what I meant by playing the game.

Lauren Mooney: This was my first Punchdrunk, Tasha, and I found all the things you said about the unsatisfactory nature of your Masque experience really familiar. Basically, it does seem like there are two ways to approach a show like this – following the actors or exploring the world. Not having done anything like this before, I found myself a little paralysed by indecision, and so didn’t have a fully satisfactory experience of either.

As I think most of us have said, I was completely blown away by the level of detail and the sheer SIZE of the thing; I’d spoken to a couple of people about what to expect, but nothing, really, could have prepared me for it. There was a kind of dream logic to the whole place that I found genuinely disturbing – I can’t put my finger on it, it was just an atmosphere, something perhaps to do with not being able to hear the actors when they spoke and being able to, to some extent, do what you wanted (go through people’s papers, letters, diaries) in a way that would be impossible or sociopathic in real life.

That and the music creeped me out all the way from the top of my spine to the bottom, and made my wandering experiences less adventurous than they should have been. When I was alone in the basement and found a cell full of small blocks, I had a powerful sense that the door was going to shut behind me, and wanted to be back in the safety of a crowd; when I was in a crowd, I wanted to be back on my own again, experiencing that waking-dream sensation.

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My instinct to follow the actors and scenes was almost entirely, I think, for me, the wrong one – but it took me a long time to realise that most of the scenes were similar, repetitive, plot-light… Too long really, as by the time I’d given up on them and dug into some proper exploring, it was time for the finale. I basically expected there to be more plot than there was? So I was constantly chasing other scenes, thinking I was missing something, that some important brilliant theatre was happening in another room just outside my reach – when of course it wasn’t.

This is why I agree with Stew’s comment that it isn’t maybe good theatre so much as an amazing experience. The things I liked about it, and I liked lots in spite of a few reservations, weren’t things I can recognise as being connected in any way to theatre, the way a beautiful script or a brilliant performance can move you – it was a different sensation being evoked completely differently. It was the mood in the place that I found most effective, partly thanks to the music and partly, I must say, the masks. I know they’re controversial and uncomfortable, and I wear glasses so I had them squished onto my face a bit, but bloody hell, for me they were so effective. It made the audience look like part of the set design, for one thing, when seeing someone pulling a face at an inopportune moment might really take you out of it. (I have a lot of thoughts on this but actually, as I’m the only person new to Punchdrunk, I imagine everyone else is so Over the masks…)

So having said all this, I completely buy into the idea of revisits – I enjoyed my experience but it was quite unsatisfactory, and only gets more so the more I talk to other people – which brings me to pricing, something Stew talks about in more depth in his review. Isn’t there a way they could, for instance, charge far less for a return visit? If I’d paid £40 for that I would’ve been so cross, because I felt like I did it all wrong; I think the ticket costs are extortionate in general but doubly so because, as has been said, a single visit can be so frustrating. If they MUST charge such a lot, can’t they at least have an option of, you know, paying £10, £15 for a return visit…? I don’t know.

Having said all that, a friend of mine who also went to The Drowned Man is a gamer and his experience of things was very different to mine…

William Drew: There are some connections with videogames, yes, but there are also very significant differences in that the piece is no way interactive. It is a cliché of lazy videogame narratives to use letters lying around to fill in backstory for those of us for whom that matters. Going back to my previous categorisations of the way to experience a Punchdrunk show, I am drawing partly on Bartle’s gamer psychology. One of the categories of gamer types is the Explorer. These kinds of things are littered throughout videogame worlds to appeal to Explorer types. Other types, such as the Killer, will ignore them because they, you know, want to kill people (frowned upon in a Punchdrunk show, I understand, almost as much as talking).

Similarly, you might see a couple of NPCs (Non-Player Characters) arguing about something in a videogame. That argument is likely to be significant, possibly not to the main narrative, but could generate a quest you might want to embark on or the information contained within it might be relevant to another quest. I’m talking principally about the RPG genre because they tend to be more open world. In an adventure game, things are more linear and that makes it easy for everything to be relevant. What the environment tends to provide in both of these genres of games though is exposition and this is essentially all that Punchdrunk are giving us here. I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism but I think it’s important to point out the ways in which The Drowned Man is as unlike a game as it is a piece of traditional theatre. I think a serious gamer who went there expecting a game would be as disappointed/confused as a hardcore theatregoer who went expecting some theatre.

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Lauren Mooney: William – I very much agree, though the thing I meant about the difference in our experiences was actually less of a comment on the action than on our reactions to it. Oddly, I bought into the reality of the world almost too much – I rarely read the letters or looked through the drawers, so convinced was I in the bloody silly fibre of my being that this was wrong – or if not wrong, certainly something I risked being caught in the middle of and shouted at for!

Whereas my friend, Liam, who creates and designs games, had no such qualms and riffled away to his heart’s content. He even told me he regretted not trying on the clothes in the costume rooms – trying them on, which would NEVER have occurred to me in a MILLION YEARS.

I do think being predisposed to it by gaming might make you better at ‘playing’ a Punchdrunk show, but no, it certainly is nothing like actual gaming. Several people I’ve spoken to, in fact, said they would have liked to be given some kind of task, a thing to achieve or attain – whereas the show as it stands is essentially the opposite of this, telling people to ‘just go and mill about’. Visitors risk being paralysed by choice and ending up like me, waddling about lost and peering in through windows, looking for the party…

I think you’re right when you say that as either a gaming or a purely theatrical experience,The Drowned Man absolutely disappoints. Though I was hugely excited about the whole thing for a few hours after I left, just because it was so mad and huge and beautiful to look at, that sensation seems to fade hugely the further I get from it. It really does seem to me that most of the things I enjoyed most were general Punchdrunk things, not specific to this show, that I loved because they were new to me – and so ultimately, it does kind of seem like Punchdrunk have a set bag of tricks they wheel out every time, that only really impress the first time you see them. Apart from this, the quality of your experience is characterised by how well you play the game and…luck.

And the critics said:

Paul Taylor in The Independent:  For all its logistical flair the show is lacking in heart

Charles Spencer in The Telegraph: The masters of immersive theatre have returned with a show that will surely become a cult hit

Michael Billington in The Guardian: The choice of location is inspired

Sam Marlow, The Arts Desk: In their new show set in a seedy Hollywood outpost, Punchdrunk’s theatrical magic loses some of its allure

And in her blog for the Guardian, Lyn Gardner asks Does Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man live up to the hype?

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