Desktop theatre: downloading live performances

A new iTunes-style website will soon make filmed productions by the RSC, Royal Court, Young Vic and others available as downloads. Its founders tell Alistair Smith how the process works

Sky Arts has broadcast theatre live on television, the National Theatre has beamed it into cinemas and now, in a new initiative called Digital Theatre, filmed versions of shows by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court and Young Vic are to be made available to buy through an iTunes-type website.

The commercial venture, made possible by more than £1 million of private investment, will see full-length versions of stage shows filmed in high definition available to download and keep for £8.99 each. The films will be copy protected and only playable with specific software, which is free to download.

Currently, Digital Theatre is working with five partner theatre companies, all in the subsidised sector – the RSC, Young Vic, Royal Court, English Touring Theatre and the Almeida Theatre Company. Five productions will be made available in the pilot season, with a second season opening in spring 2010.

“I think this whole idea of filming or digitising theatre has been in the air for some time,” says theatre director Robert Delamere, who has founded the company with TV and radio producer Tom Shaw. “You’ve got the National Theatre doing NT Live, the Royal Opera House with Opus Arte and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. We were looking at the latest camera technology and realising the benefits of that for theatre – you don’t have to stand big cameras in auditoria and take out seats.”

Launching this week, the first two shows available will be ETT’s Far From the Madding Crowd, recorded at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, and The Container, presented in association with the Young Vic and Amnesty International. Kafka’s Monkey, also performed at the Young Vic, and two other productions, will be made available in the next few weeks.

Around eight high-definition cameras are used to film each production. Some are fixed and some are controlled remotely using joysticks from a room outside the theatre. All the cameras are small, meaning the filming is non-intrusive. Two or three different stagings of each show are filmed and then the content is edited together afterwards. The process takes six to eight weeks.

Shaw and Delamere also take part in extensive pre-production planning to ensure the finished product will closely resemble the original director’s vision. “We wanted to build creative partnerships with the theatres rather than say we can film it, turn up with cameras and just shoot away,” says Shaw. “It’s so much more delicate than that. You want to maintain the initial intention of the production, so having those chats beforehand with the director and producer is important, to capture it as best as possible.”

“It isn’t film or television, it’s captured theatre,” adds Delamere. “In film and television, everyone is hitting marks and fixed positions, whereas you just don’t have that. You’re following the performance, rather than the performance playing to pre-set marks. The performance dictates the shoot.”

Royalties from the shows will be paid to the theatres involved, as well as creatives and performers, and agreements have been reached between Digital Theatre and unions Equity and Bectu over payments to participants. The filmed versions will not be made available before the live run of the show has ended, to ensure that it does not impact adversely on ticket sales.

Digital Theatre’s partnerships are currently confined to the subsidised sector, although that could change in the future, according to Delamere.

“I think if we’d gone into the commercial sector straight away and gone for the most prolific director, most high-profile actor and most famous play, you’re immediately setting a benchmark. I think we want it to be a mirror of the living theatre – it can be something in a ship container, something in a proscenium arch, something in a studio theatre. We’re not saying that we won’t look at commercial theatre, we just didn’t want it to be dominated by commercial theatre, because that would be the danger.”

He and Shaw acknowledge that they are entering an “untested” market, but they are confident of finding an audience and tapping into the growing number of people downloading and paying for video content to watch on their laptops.

And, aside from the consumer angle, Delamere hopes the website can play a “curatorial role”.

“We don’t want to take away from the fact that there is something wonderful about live performance, but there’s also something amazing about the fact that you can capture something extraordinary like Kathryn Hunter’s performance in Kafka’s Monkey – so there is a curatorial aspect to it as well.”

* www.digitaltheatre.com

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