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How video is shining a light on smaller theatre stages

Richard Delaney and Stelle Taylor in Secret Life of Humans at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh. Photo: David Monteith Hodge Richard Delaney and Stelle Taylor in Secret Life of Humans at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh. Photo: David Monteith Hodge
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Video projection was once the domain of big-budget West End spectaculars. Heather Doole talks to theatremakers in small-scale companies now producing shows where the use of the technology is integral to the story

Big West End shows are no stranger to video projection. Jukebox musical Bat Out of Hell’s “gloriously over the top” rock’n’roll odyssey is one such production that makes the most of projection and video screens, with five Panasonic laser projectors and four live-streaming cameras. But the use of video is not limited to Theatreland and there is a quieter revolution in the use of video taking place in smaller venues around the country.

There was a time when small-scale venues used video largely to project backdrops on to theatre walls, often accompanied by shutters made of cardboard and string. It was mostly used to paper over the cracks of a minimal budget, or provided a cheap way to clarify the play’s location or time.

Not any more though, as shown by the growing number of smaller shows listing a dedicated video designer. Video is no longer limited to projection and is now being presented via laptops, television screens and LED displays.

David Byrne, artistic director of London’s New Diorama Theatre, which has championed smaller theatre companies since 2010, has seen a shift. “Digital [content] is now being viewed as equally important as lighting and sound. There is now an understanding of how to harness it and ensure that it obeys the rules of the other languages being used,” he says.

Rather than simple projection, smaller productions are getting creative. Lynette Linton’s play #Hashtag Lightie at the Arcola Theatre in 2017 used LED walls, and, this year, theatre collective Kandinsky turned to a chunky old cathode ray tube monitor in its production Trap Street, while Trust at the Gate Theatre used everything from flat-screen televisions to computer monitors via projection screens on stage.

The variety in how it is being presented suggests this shift has more to do with the creative demands of productions than the evolution of hardware. The means of delivery is often an integral part of the design. The LED screen was effectively the sole piece of set for #Hashtag Lightie, with its mixture of live feed and pre-recorded material dominating the Arcola’s stage.

Adele James in #Hashtag Lightie at the Arcola. Photo: Kwaku Kyei

The wall worked as part of the set – even when no footage was playing, it was more than a piece of inactive equipment. Creator of the show’s video, Gino Ricardo Green, says the design was the inevitable product of writing a play about online interactions. “The concept came from the script. The writer put it in there from the beginning, so everything came from that. We used it from the first R&D.”

While the concept came from the writer, it needed Green’s personal expertise as a video designer and technician to make it happen. The plot is driven by social media bulletins so Green inserted live feed into mock-ups of screens from different platforms. The plot-critical online responses then appeared while the action played out in real time and Green displayed a clear understanding of the different styles of content and onscreen display needed for each platform the show portrayed.

The show was Black Apron Entertainment’s first independent theatre production. The company also makes films and will soon be working with London’s Royal Court on Passages: A Windrush Celebration, which is a series of shorts curated by Linton that explores at the British West Indian experience. Working over the different mediums has broadened the company’s skillset, which is how it could deliver the onstage video design for #Hashtag Lightie.

Read our interview with Lynette Linton

In Kandinsky’s 2016 show Still Ill at New Diorama, Harry Yeatman’s video design, delivered via three televisions on stage, created what director and co-writer James Yeatman described as “a little fragment of real life in a bare environment”.

The screens displayed detailed and hyper-realistic footage, including kitchen worktops, clocks and fridges, which changed to represent locations. Rather than being a static background, performers interacted directly with the screens, with the clever use of visuals seemingly showing the actors picking items out of the video scenes.

Byrne’s own show, Secret Life of Humans, written and directed with Kate Stanley, also featured video at the heart of its design. But unlike the creators of #Hashtag Lightie or Still Ill, he did not want the video to be at the centre of the storytelling. “The aim was that no one would realise it was digital at first,” explains Byrne. “We wanted it to look as natural as possible.” It was first used to display footprints left by aerialists walking across the wall, before providing a dynamic background to the show.

Sophie Steer in Still Ill at New Diorama Theatre. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
Sophie Steer in Still Ill at New Diorama Theatre. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

Video was used throughout these productions to serve the story, rather than as a gimmick or a quick fix. In Still Ill, the pre-recorded video allowed the theatremakers to explore the underlying theme of disconnection between the characters’ mental and physical states. “The live video meant that we could literally give an audience different perspectives on a single scene,” says Yeatman. Green adds: “Social media allows the audience to connect with us.”

Small screens are now firmly embedded in our daily lives with the explosion of smartphones, and the audience has a clear understanding of their language. As social media and digital communication work their way on stage, particularly in the intimate stories likely to be seen in smaller spaces, video screens are the obvious way to portray this.

The expansion of video would not be possible without a relatively simple and cost-effective operating system. The shift in sound technology over the past decade means CD and minidisc players have been replaced with show computers and QLab software in many smaller venues. This provides a basic infrastructure for video operation.

All but one of these shows was operated using QLab, an intuitive system that runs both video and sound. This doubling up makes simultaneous sound, video and lighting operation possible on shows that are likely to have a single technician. #Hashtag Lightie was the show that did not use QLab. Instead, Green pulled together several different operating systems to perform the specific set of orders he required.

Video is not a cheap alternative to set. “We thought that it would be much cheaper than it was to do the relatively simple-seeming things we wanted to do,” says Lauren Mooney, co-writer and producer of Still Ill. “We had some very creative technical support and they were amazing at coming up with workable, affordable solutions for us. If we did it again I’d definitely bring those people into the artistic conversations earlier to avoid being hit by surprise costs further down the line.”

Smaller theatres are beginning to build stocks of projectors, screens and remotely controlled shutters, which can ease individual production budgets. As appreciation of the value of video grows, theatres are also able to identify ways to support companies; The Secret Life of Humans could only work with the brutal turnaround times of the Edinburgh Fringe thanks to the Pleasance allowing its equipment to remain rigged throughout the festival.

Overall, there is a clearer understanding across theatre companies and venues of what video can bring to a small space. As video becomes more widespread in our lives, the language and familiarity with it better translates to the stage.

Part of this is about understanding its limits. Byrne describes how, on another show, they cut the video that had been integrated into it in the final technical rehearsal. “It didn’t need it, so it went,” he says. Yeatman adds: “Video can be a dangerous thing in theatre. It’s really powerful, and unless you’re really sure, it can overshadow the performers and you can mess yourself up with it.”

Details about Passages: A Windrush Celebration can be found at royalcourttheatre.com

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