Digital Theatre has grown to become the world’s biggest on demand platform specialising in delivering arts content. Creative director Robert Delamere reflects on how the process of making the arts accessible to wider audiences is being integrated into the live performance industry
Last autumn, when our film of Richard Eyre’s production of Ghosts was invited to join the International Ibsen Theatre Festival, the producers remarked that this was the only film in an otherwise live theatre festival. The Almeida’s gripping, harrowing production joined the festival, although not in the usual manner.
The debate surrounding the meaning of live theatre continues as new and more effective means of communicating live performances emerge and it is one that involves both disgruntled opposition and wild support. Swerving around both the sensibilities of artists and the adventure in capturing live performance, it blows on to the arts pages from time to time as audiences grow and an appetite develops for live and recorded arts.
Does the debate about live and captured performance really come down to mere taste – a certain ‘house’ philosophy or production style – or is there something more at stake? What is live? What is a live encore? What is recorded live? More crucially, does the audience really care? What is this experience? The original ‘liveness’ of theatre and performance will never be in question, but what do we call the facsimile, copy or transmission of this ‘liveness”?
The boundaries blur and the line diminishes. At Digital Theatre what is key in our practice is that the line between the audience and the performer is not undermined. This is where the actor’s focus is and must remain – this exchange is theatre – and that is the reason why so much theatre captured in television studios appears so bizarre and disconcerting. It is a jumble of languages and signifiers, which muddles the line from the writer’s imagination to the audience’s perception. The ‘black box’ dominates – a dead realm – creating a void.
On stage, in the empty theatre space, what occurs is an act of conjuring – a world brought into existence through the work of the creatives, writers, artists and technicians involved in the production. Theatre is the art of suggestion, and the more persuasive the suggestion, the better the experience. This can sometimes be through hyper-naturalism or sometimes through great poetic statements – either can seem utterly real and utterly persuasive in the mind of the audience.
Maybe it simply comes down to an individual experience of dramatic truth. This is a personally comprehended truth no matter what the medium and the modes of expression
So what of this new facsimile? Is it a new art form, a new hybrid? Or is it simply that technology is the tool that allows a small auditorium to become a global auditorium? The means of transmission shift and change, adapt and mutate. They will change with technology and also, crucially, confront technology when the act of theatre and the line between the actor and the audience becomes disrupted.
Digital Theatre’s work with Dolby on productions of Almeida’s Ghosts and the Old Vic’s The Crucible on its Dolby Atmos brought its immersive new strategic development in sound quality to the cinematic experience. As Andy Dowell, regional director for Northern Europe, Dolby Laboratories, says: “With Dolby Atmos, we are able to place and move sounds anywhere in the cinema, even above the audience. This creates a soundfield that is so natural and realistic, you feel as if you are in the middle of the onscreen action. Digital Theatre is transforming how we watch performances that are traditionally reserved for theatre. This brings a unique and extraordinary experience to the cinema, making it feel as if you are sitting in the theatre itself and watching the original performance of the play.”
The single plaintive birdsong at the end of the production of Ghosts is newly experienced as literally soaring above you and offering a beautiful and moving coda to the evening.
As technologies develop and Digital Theatre begins to shoot in 4K, this will add more to the connection between the audience and the distant live event, be that in time or geography. While the first commercially available 4K camera for cinematographic purposes was released in 2003, it was not until a decade later, early in 2014, that Netflix streamed House of Cards and Breaking Bad to compatible televisions with most manufacturers announcing support in 2014. As 4K progresses as an industry standard for the screen experience, the question of what this experience of captured theatre is, lies is at the heart of the live or captured debate.
Maybe it simply comes down to an individual experience of dramatic truth. This is a personally comprehended truth no matter what the medium and the modes of expression. A cinemagoer tweeting about the experience of watching The Crucible said there was a “stunned silence then rapturous applause in the cinema after #TheCrucibleOnScreen” – audiences witnessing and applauding in cinemas, an act of theatre in a different time and place.
It is this act of witness to a dramatic truth, which the act of capture is engaged in, live or recorded. The nature of this truth will continue to be debated. There will be many players and many views about what works and what doesn’t in theatre.
We are, after all, different souls and the audience will no doubt make its own mind up.