Marcus Romer: Online audiences now call the shots

Marcus Romer
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Marcus Romer, artistic director of Pilot Theatre, explains how his latest project – a six-camera interactive live stream of the York Mystery Plays – has the potential to change how audiences engage with theatre in the digital sphere

On Saturday, August 11, at 7pm, Pilot Theatre went live on the new BBC/Arts Council England site, The Space, with a digital theatre transmission featuring six camera feeds, three audio feeds and a full play transcript, available to all internet-enabled devices – computers, tablets and smartphones.

The project was developed with our digital partner Kinura, who had written a new code enabling anybody watching to shift between the camera views without audio time lag, since each camera ran through its own individual encoder, allowing the dialogue to remain in sync.

The project we worked on was the York Mystery Plays, in which more than 500 people were onstage for each of the performances that took place in a 1,400-seat, specially constructed arena auditorium in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey in York.

As the picture on the opposite page demonstrates, viewers could select a camera from the row of six thumbnails and make this their main player.

They could also choose from three separate audio feeds – the live action from onstage, the headphone cueing from the stage managers, or the live audio-described feed.

The transcript of the text was available to read at the side of the main player, while any of the thumbnails could be selected as the main point of view. The views allowed full coverage of the stage action, providing wide shots, close-ups and focusing on specific areas of action such as the choral singing or the band.

To do this, operators utilised three robot cameras – the same as those used for coverage of the Olympics – two onstage cameras and a special ‘Livepack roving camera’ under the stage. This is a camera attached to a backpack, with an encoder and lots of 3G upload ability – a bit like having a rucksack full of smartphones, all working in sync to upload the live footage.

Every one of the cameras was HD and recorded the material on to a vast storage system. Using six cameras, we recorded four hours each – in total, 24 hours of HD video.

On top of this, viewers could choose which audio feed they wanted to hear. The stage action option featured all the dialogue, singing and performances, while the viewer could also choose the production and cans feed from the deputy stage manager calling the show. Here, all the cues, set-ups and action points could be heard while watching the results as they happened live. Alternatively, users could listen to the audio-described version of events happening live onstage. So access was granted to all areas throughout the performance.

The idea came from when I was watching a show in the main house at York Theatre Royal. I realised that audiences at a live performance are of course free to watch whatever they want – be that the follow spot operators, the audience, the action downstage right or the lighting changes. So, as the next iteration of the idea of live performance, we wanted to recreate this idea using multiple camera viewpoints.

This is different to, say, the National Theatre Live stream, where the decisions of which shot you will see have already been predetermined by a director. In our work, the audience member is the one who chooses, and this gives a greater sense of creative intervention and participation in the event.

This is not about somebody making a programme or edit for you. This is new and different. The audience member makes the choices, and decides what to watch, what to listen to, and above all how they want to engage with the work.

The live stream is just the start of the project. The footage will be available on The Space website from September 3, with a ‘view again’ option. Only now you will be able to drag and drop from the clips available into an audio timeline, so you can choose your own bespoke version of the York Mystery Plays by mixing the clips from the six cameras into your version to watch back.

For example, you could watch some clips of the backstage journey before cutting to the onstage choral sections, then returning to the control desk view. There are infinite possibilities.

And that is what this project is all about – the next iteration of what iPlayer might become, it allows for the interaction, participation and creative involvement of audiences, viewers and collaborators.

Did it work? Yes, indeed. We never lost any transmission time, and we maintained the full feed on all six cameras for four hours without a hitch. The online response was amazing – we reached 237,000 Twitter accounts using the #mysteryplays hashtag. And the feedback from audiences has been extremely positive.

The mystery cycles traditionally involved all sectors of the community playing their part in the delivery of the project. The guilds would collaborate and work together. For this part of this amazing project, we like to think of Pilot Theatre and Kinura belonging to a new Guild of Digital Livestreamers. Perhaps the single viewpoint director’s edit of live theatre will now have to change. Yes, shift happens.

* The York Mystery Plays runs until August 27 at St Mary’s Abbey, York

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