Marcus Romer: ‘Live streaming can affect, engage and inspire people’
The word ‘digital’ will no longer be used soon, says Marcus Romer, former artistic director of Pilot Theatre and one of the pioneers of translating the live theatre experience to the screen. “People don’t say ‘digital music’ any more. In the same way we don’t say ‘electric kettle’. It’s just there, part of our lives.”
The fact that ‘digital’ is still regarded as something of a novelty in the arts is a problem, he says. “We should just get on with it and think about audiences and the mechanisms for us to reach those audiences, and how we can make the work engaging and create an empathetic response.”
Romer hasn’t always been an evangelist for the digital. His first calling, in fact, was something very different: fans of his theatre work might be surprised to learn that he worked as a dental surgeon for six years after graduating from the University of Leeds in the early 1980s.
“In 1989, I was in charge of the weekend trauma cover for for the whole of West Yorkshire. If you got into a fight on a Saturday night in Leeds or Bradford, you’d end up seeing me on a Sunday morning with your broken jaw,” he recalls with a chuckle.
Romer loved working in hospitals, but found himself increasingly dissatisfied with the isolation of surgical practice, of “ending up in a room with people who can’t talk back to you, don’t want to talk back to you and can’t wait to get out and not see you again”. So, having enjoyed acting at university, the surgeon made his first steps in professional theatre alongside pal Dave Moutrey (now chief executive at Home in Manchester), working with him on shows at the Billingham International Folklore Festival.
He began picking up acting roles, until in 1989 he finally gave up the day job, telling himself that he could always go back to the NHS if this new venture didn’t work out. “I had nothing to lose,” he says of that period. “And that mentality served me right through my life.”
Directing jobs followed, starting in 1992 with The Leaves of Life, a community play co-produced by Major Road Theatre Company and the Nottingham Playhouse. A couple of years later, Romer was appointed artistic director at Pilot Theatre, at that stage a tiny operation with just one other staff member (who left not long afterwards) and a deficit.
The fact that the company was willing to take a risk on him – “Pilot had always had a thing about taking people who are new to the game” – had a profound impact on Romer and the people he went on to work with over the next 22 years as head of the York-based touring company.
“Lots of people now are talking about the lack of diversity in the room and that’s something we were always on the nail with at Pilot, because it was just a creative space to be,” he says. “The creative answer is always to work with teams that are not like you, to help you deliver work that you haven’t done before and make you feel alive like you did when you first started out.”
Something else that has informed Romer’s thinking as a theatremaker over the years was his experience in emergency medical settings.
“When I went to work in the arts, I realised that no one is ever going to die because of something we did. There’s never a crash team,” he says. Compared to people working in other sectors, therefore, artists are far freer to take risks. “It’s an immense privilege and it should be treated as such,” he says.
The consequences of such creative risk-taking by Romer and his team led to award-winning, critically acclaimed productions such as Lord of the Flies, which played to more than 500,000 people at 60 venues between 1998 and 2009, and Antigone, a 2014/15 co-production with Derby Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East. It also allowed the director to experiment boldly with theatre and technology, establishing the Shift Happens conference at York Theatre Royal in 2008; pioneering live streaming of theatre in the UK with the Pilot production This Child later that same year; and following up with an interactive, multi-camera live stream of the York Mystery Plays in 2012.
Shift Happens, initially inspired by Romer’s visit to the TED conference in California on a travel bursary from Arts Council England, took place annually until 2013. Then, in 2014, Romer co-curated No Boundaries, a symposium that continued where Shift Happens left off, exploring new technologies, new models of funding and new behaviours in the arts.
The decision to live-stream events between two venues, Watershed in Bristol and the Guildhall in York in the case of No Boundaries 2014, says Romer, “came down to the nub of the work that I’m interested in making: things happen live across a number of spaces and they can still affect, engage and inspire people”.
Live captioning at conferences is one of the tools he’s used to facilitate that engagement, but Romer has more tricks up his sleeve, such as live, multiple translation, which the director hopes will be introduced in the not-too-distant future.
“That technology exists, but at the moment we’re just playing a little bit of catch up. This is ultimately about communication and connection and sharing ideas, whether that’s artistic and visionary ideas or sharing thinking and practice.”
No Boundaries took place again in 2015 and talks are underway regarding its return early next year as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017. Romer will almost certainly be involved in some capacity, this time under the banner of his new vehicle, Artsbeacon UK.
Romer is passionate about technology and the arts, but it’s “not about the technology per se, but what it could achieve for audiences, artists and makers”.
“You could take these tools and create a new dynamic for creating work; something that was a sort of a hybrid: it wasn’t theatre, it wasn’t film,” he says. “There’s something in that middle space that we still haven’t quite cracked yet, but it’s that constant iterative process of building on what we know and what we do, because it’s exciting to be creating new things.”
Q&A: Marcus Romer
What was your first non-theatre job? I was the first ever male cashier at Tesco and, because I was a man, I didn’t get a chair to sit down on.
What was your first professional theatre job? Working on three successive summer festivals as part of the Billingham International Folklore Festival in the 1980s.
What is your next job? Working with Home in Manchester on its digital strategy and with the Theatre Royal Stratford East on some new theatre projects.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t worry that you haven’t got any formal training. The other thing is that it’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. So just do it.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Complicite has always inspired me. Music has been so important, particularly contemporary music. And also the technologies that allow me to feel connected. I love that George Bernard Shaw quote: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
If you hadn’t been a theatremaker, what would you have been? I’d have moved across within the NHS in terms of communication and education.
He’s got some bold ideas. Why can’t we have drama on demand in theatres and other cultural spaces, like we do with television programmes on Netflix, for example? “A Spotify playlist equivalent of the greatest hits from the National Theatre should be available when you walk through the door,” he suggests.
We already have the technology – it’s just a question of shaking up our thinking around intellectual property, he says. “This stuff we have made has been supported by public money, whether people have bought tickets or through public subsidy, so at some point along the life of that piece of work it needs to come back into the public domain for free.”
Having worked almost exclusively in live performance for the last three decades, Romer has begun experimenting in the world of cinema, too. Last year saw the release of The Knife That Killed Me, his feature film debut as a writer/director, made entirely using green screen technology. He’s also just co-produced a short film called The Works, starring Ralph Fiennes and Sharon D Clarke, and has other movie projects on the cards, “looking at film in new ways that don’t necessarily feel they have to fit into that traditional distribution model”.
For the moment, whatever he’s up to, Romer is just enjoying the pace of freelancing. He loved his time at Pilot, but he’s pleased to be free of the responsibilities of running of a national portfolio organisation, from day-to-day admin to three-year funding cycles.
“What’s great is I haven’t got a three-year plan for life. For the first time, I’ve got some thinking time – and writing time and creating time – to use that bit of my brain that hadn’t been dormant, but had always been fighting me because of applications or something.”
Who knows what that bit of brain might come up with next?
CV: Marcus Romer
Born: 1961, Blackburn
Training: Leeds University, dental surgery, 1983
Landmark productions: Lord of the Flies (1998-2009), Rumble Fish (2000), Shift Happens (2008-2013), York Mystery Plays (2012), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (2012), Antigone (2014-2015)
Awards: Manchester Evening News Theatre award for best visiting production for Lord of the Flies (2001), Manchester Evening News Theatre award for best design for Beautiful Thing (2005), Theatrical Management Association award for best show for young people for Looking for JJ (2008)
Agent: Judy Daish (writing and directing), Jane Hollowood (acting)