“We Are Not Making a Movie”: Constituting Theatre in Live Broadcast
In the introduction to his landmark text Liveness, Philip Auslander references a banner outside Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre reading “Not Available on Video” as emblematic of theatre’s particular preoccupation with its own liveness, pointing out that “the only way of imputing specificity to the experience of live performance in the current cultural climate is by reference to the dominant experience of mediatization” (5).1 Further, he notes that when “the live itself incorporates the mediatized,” as contemporary theatre practice regularly does, that incorporation is manifested “both technologically and epistemologically,” altering not only how theatre is made, but how we recognize and apprehend it. “The result of this implosion,” he writes, “is that a seemingly secure opposition is now a site of anxiety” (44). Perhaps nowhere is that implosion more explicitly demonstrated than in the live broadcast of theatre from the stage to cinemas, as in the National Theatre’s NT Live series or the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon. Live broadcast theatre complicates the putative ontological separation between staged performances and screened ones—between the theatre the companies broadcast and the films the venues more usually host—in particularly visible ways. It also suggests theatre as a multifarious and adaptive form, capable of distinguishing itself not only, and perhaps not even primarily, by its ephemerality, or the embodied co-presence of actor and performer, but rather by the specificity of the techniques and conventions that produce it.
Many other scholars have since scrutinized and interrogated the presumed opposition referenced by Auslander, offering new theories that illuminate complex relationships and interdependencies between performance, including theatrical performance, and media. In an especially illustrative example, the opening of Sarah Bay-Cheng’s essay “Theatre Is Media” paints a picture of even conventionally live theatre as inextricably imbricated with digital media—in particular, when she recounts her experience attending the Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear, starring Derek Jacobi, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) during its US tour. Bay-Cheng provides a comprehensive account of an encounter with a high-profile production of a deeply canonical work, a production that, despite its relatively traditional staging, “was largely activated by and within mediated networks,” in which the stage work itself comprised only a part of “an extended engagement with the play” (33). From the email newsletter by which she learned about the production, to online reviews of its run in London, to her own tweets and blog postings on the production in reflection, Bay-Cheng narrates a path through her experience of the production “unbounded by the duration of the performance in BAM’s Harvey Theater.” She argues persuasively that the live performance arguably at the center of that experience did not constitute “a privileged site of temporary encounter,” but rather “yet another form of mediated interaction” with its “text, contexts, and artifacts” (ibid.).
As she notes in passing, the production of King Lear, which Bay-Cheng demonstrates as so thoroughly enmeshed in mediated networks, was shown in cinemas in the United Kingdom, United States, and beyond as part of the NT Live series. NT Live, which premiered in 2009, adapted a model for simultaneous broadcast of work from the stage that was pioneered by the Metropolitan Opera in its Live in HD series, which debuted in 2006. Like the Met’s series, NT Live broadcasts temporally live video of staged performance to cinema screens as the production is happening—at [End Page 15] least for audiences in the UK and parts of Western Europe.2 In this essay, I examine how theatrical productions are mediatized via live broadcast and the strategies levied to maintain for the resulting mediatizations the name and status of theatre. While the broadcasts’ deployment of the rhetoric of liveness may appear to affirm the centrality of liveness to the theatre, the success their producers claim in removing theatre to the screen—producing “the theatre squared,” as Bay-Cheng puts it (2007, 37)—simultaneously implies otherwise, suggesting temporal liveness, evanescence, and co-presence between an audience and performers as less than necessary for an object that nonetheless aspires to the condition of theatre. Given the producing companies’ evident desire to connect such broadcasts firmly to the traditions and ontology of theatre, I argue that the products act didactically, potentially characterizing or elucidating theatre and its making for a global audience. In the ways they seek to make the experience of theatre explicit, such mediatizations in effect explicate stage performance, acting not merely as a representation of theatre, but a definition of it, one that often conserves and reifies traditional norms and expectations attached to the form.
The last decade is notable for the development of mediatized products like NT Live, which bring stage work to screens in high-definition video and 5.1 surround sound. In the years following the success of NT Live, there has been a marked increase in the number of digital products that bring the work of the stage to screens of various sizes using similar, although not identical, strategies. Some of the best known include NT Live, certainly, and the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon series, which debuted in 2013 and uses a nearly identical broadcast model, although it releases DVDs for sale after the broadcast while the NT pointedly does not. The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company produced a season of three broadcasts in 2016 using a slightly more cinematic approach than the one favored by the NT and RSC; its stage production of Romeo and Juliet was styled after a Fellini film, and that resemblance was sometimes echoed in the broadcast of the production (camera directed by Benjamin Caron), which was offered in high-definition black and white. Other platforms offer access to works from multiple companies and organizations3: in the United States a company called BroadwayHD offers livestreams of Broadway and Off Broadway productions online, but smaller theatres and nonprofits also stream: notably Pilot Theatre in the UK, which also assists other theatres in streaming their shows; and in the United States, Howlround, a nonprofit arts organization, streams performances (as well as talks, roundtables, panel discussions, and other events) on its online Howlround TV platform. Other players, such as OntheBoards.tv and the UK’s Digital Theatre, do not stream or broadcast theatre simultaneously with its performance on the stage, but instead make recordings of staged works available on demand online, for rental, purchase, or by subscription.
There is no established nomenclature under which to group these relatively new and distinct practices and products, but what they have in common at a basic level is the project of mediatizing live theatrical works from the theatre in more or less available light without removal of the production to a soundstage—a feature that also distinguishes twentieth-century televisual products like Live from Lincoln Center and some BBC television broadcasts of theatrical productions directly from the stage. Such a project also describes the 1964 Electronovision Hamlet starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud (about which I have written previously at greater length).4 In this Hamlet, television cameras were placed inside the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where they recorded three of the Broadway show’s performances. The performances were then edited together in a matter of weeks by camera director Bill Colleran and shown in cinemas only a few months after the recording. The Electronovision process was notable for using smaller television cameras that could record a theatrical performance without removing it to a soundstage, but also for using a kinescopic process to create a film negative from that televisual input. The result was a film with televisual origins, one that could be shown in cinemas rather than broadcast to domestic televisions. Although the result was of markedly lesser quality than a conventionally made film, it did deliver an image of larger, more impressive scale than a home television screen. It also meant that the recorded performance could, like NT Live decades later, enjoy the amassed, co-present audience of a cinema showing, which arguably made for a better analog to the theatre’s audience than did the individual domestic cells reachable by broadcast television. [End Page 16]
The Electronovision experiment might be read as a precursor to NT Live, despite the considerable technical developments that separate them. Significantly, they have in common a desire to safeguard the name of theatre for the mediatized product; that is, not to produce an adaptation for the screen but to grant access to a theatrical original, one that is recognized as such and that does not completely relinquish the ontology of theatre in order to be apprehended as a construction of cinema or television. Despite a tendency, as noted by scholar and Live from Stratford producer John Wyver, to use nomenclature for the broadcasts like “‘cinema broadcasts,’ ‘event cinema,’ and ‘live cinema relays,’” which link them with the tradition of film, production and marketing teams remain quite eager to distance the broadcasts from the tradition of cinema itself (2016, n.p.). Both Wyver and David Sabel, the head of digital media for the NT during the development of NT Live, have described explaining the live broadcast process and product to theatre casts and crews by differentiating it from film-making: “‘We are not making a movie’ was a mantra that was repeated frequently by the creative teams for both the theatre production and the broadcast,” Wyver writes (2015, 5). Sabel ends a description of the NT Live broadcast process in a 2013 TEDx Talk by emphasizing, “[l]et me be clear: we’re not making a movie. . . . What we’re trying to do is make the production look as great on screen as it would on one of our stages” (n.p.).
The point is not a semantic one. The broadcasts are not, like conventional films, created as whole after the action of shooting is completed, as disparate and non-continuous shots are stitched together in post-production. Rather, as the verb broadcast implies, these productions reach for the tools and rhetorical strategies of television in order to leverage the presumptive transparency of the televisual. Television scholar Jeremy Butler notes that from its earliest days, television’s supposed immediacy opposed it to early film, not only because the latter was not temporally live, but because it was concerned with “how film artists transformed reality through style, how film images differed from reality” (2010, 1; emphasis in original). Not so television; as Auslander notes in his description of television’s theatrical heritage, in the medium’s early days, “[t]elevision’s essence was seen in its ability to transmit events as they occur,” its “claim to immediacy” suggesting it as a lens through which to view the world unadulterated—and not incidentally, a more fitting vehicle than film for the remediation of theatre (12–13). Wyver has suggested that although phenomena like NT Live are commonly referred to as “live cinema,” they might be better considered as part of a tradition of “theatre television” that stretches from nearly the inception of the televisual medium, noting that the BBC’s live televisual broadcasts of theatrical productions date from 1938 (2016, n.p.).
Accordingly, the way that broadcast crews seem to understand their mission to capture and relay live action from the theatre is right in line with how television promotes its coverage of live events generally: by promising not the artifice of cinema, but a transmission of actual events—a record of what happens. In 2016, I observed the rehearsal and production of the broadcast of the RSC’s Hamlet, starring Paapa Essiedu and directed by Simon Godwin, from the first camera notes session nine days before the broadcast through its transmission to cinemas on June 8th. Despite the relative lack of knowledge of television production that I brought to Stratford, it quickly became clear that the techniques of production and the language used to describe them—particularly in the camera script for the broadcast—emerge quite directly out of television, and in particular from the live or live-to-tape, multi-camera mode of production that Butler notes was dominant when it became a mass medium during the 1940s and that is still used to shoot soap operas, game shows, newscasts, and a dwindling number of sit-coms (2012, 212). Products like NT Live and the RSC’s live broadcasts are, in effect, recorded live before a studio audience, one that stands in for the larger primary audience outside the theatre; the cinema audience’s experience is explicitly prioritized on the night of the broadcast (fig. 1). In practical terms, that means there is no effort to hide the cameras, cables, and other equipment (and technicians) that produce the broadcast inside the theatre; at the RSC, entire rows of seats are removed to accommodate the position and mobility of the cameras necessary to achieve all the scripted angles for the broadcast, and audiences seated in the theatre are certain to notice the motion of cameras as they maneuver during and between shots. The process [End Page 17] also somewhat resembles television’s multi-camera live event coverage (of, for example, the Olympic Games or a music concert), in that the events are tightly planned though not entirely predictable and in that a signal is relayed from outside broadcast trucks from a remote location (figs. 2–3).
Wyver argues compellingly that the broadcasts’ “[l]iveness-at-a-distance is essentially televisual, as is the grammar of an image sequence created by real-time ‘mixing’ between the continuous feeds of multiple cameras, each controlled by an operator changing its framing, focus, and position” (2014, 262). In my conversations with the camera director, Robin Lough, and crew for the RSC’s broadcast, they described their work in terms that clearly resonated with the televisual: as a specialized craft requiring a high degree of skill and shrewd aesthetic judgment, but which they often cast as done best when noticed least. I heard multiple times, from different members of the crew, “[i]f you notice what we’re doing [that is, if the screen audience can appreciate the production choices in the final product], then we’re not doing it right.” This perspective is echoed in Desmond Davis’s The Grammar of Television Production, which Lough recommended to some aspiring students during my observation. As Davis has it, in television production, “[t]he best technique highlights that which is important, eliminates that which is unimportant and obliterates itself by its own perfection” (10). “We don’t aspire to poetry,” Lough told me; rather, “we try to interpret [the action onstage] the best way we can. . . . I don’t like shots where someone is going, ‘I love what you’re doing with the crane. . . . I just want them to think, ‘That to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy is fantastic.’”5
In previous work on live broadcast and digitally mediatized theatre, I have relied upon Wyver’s figure of translation to characterize the process of rendering live stage productions onscreen, a process that he notes is not transparent, but rather requires both “a strong degree of fidelity to a preexisting original [and] a recognition of inevitable and intentional creative mediation.” He points out the inadequacy of many commonly used terms to describe the process, such as “‘relay,’ ‘capture,’ ‘streaming,’ [End Page 18]
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‘live-casting’ and even ‘broadcast’”—the latter of which he admits is difficult to avoid—since those terms suggest “models of direct and mechanical transposition” that efface the meaningful work of camera directors like Lough and also that of the vision mixer (whose actions determine the exact moment of the cut), the audio technicians’ careful mixing of sound, and the camera operators’ framing of the directed shots (2015, 5). However, without taking the broadcasts’ implied claims of transparency at face value, I offer that scholars might find significant benefit in looking critically at the project of faithful translation of stage work to screens—not, or not only, to trouble the premise, as Wyver eloquently does, of a transparent “mechanical transposition,” but to examine what such a project might reveal about our understanding of the original. Given that a translated object can never be delivered fully intact in its new state, the act of translation,6 here as elsewhere, necessarily implies a judgment about what parts or which aspects of the original deserve priority and which are dispensable: per Davis, what necessary elements to highlight and which inconsequential ones to eliminate. The production team’s determination of what to attempt to preserve or reflect in the translated rendering speaks volumes about what might be considered necessary, fundamental, and specific not only to any individual theatrical production, but to theatre itself.
After all, the theatricality—the theatre-ness—of the resulting product was fundamental to the development of these translations. In the case study of NT Live’s first two years published by Nesta (formerly the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), Sabel describes the project as addressing the “artistic” question of “whether the theatrical medium could be successfully captured” (qtd. in Nesta 8). He posed a similar question in his TEDx Talk: “Could we create an experience of artistic merit, which, whilst never the same as being there, would still be a great theatrical experience?” (n.p.). This question suggests the significant investment of NT Live and subsequent broadcast projects in creating a mediatized product that remained substantially and meaningfully theatrical, a goal that the NT itself professes has been achieved: in the Nesta report, Sabel writes that although the company started out to create “a top quality second-class experience,” “we have seen that it can be an experience of artistic merit, and it can honour the integrity of the work and have a significant connection with audiences—it is not second-class, but a different experience” (8–9; emphasis added).
Sabel’s assertion that the “theatrical medium” can in effect be captured via digital media provokes curiosity about the criteria that would mark success for such a venture. What about the resulting recording or broadcast would suggest the product as inherently, or at least arguably, theatrical despite its being removed to a two-dimensional screen? A superficial look at NT Live and similar products suggests that a constructed facsimile of the theatre’s apparent liveness is chief among those criteria. The NT Live and Live from Stratford series, after all, prioritize liveness in their very names. Of the current crop, even those digital translations that do not involve broadcast, like Digital Theatre’s recordings of staged productions available for on-demand streaming, could all be read as engaging with some kind of liveness strategy. These run the gamut from a general effacement of the apparatus doing the recording to, in the case of NT Live, a constellation of choices that seems designed to make a mediatized product carry as many of the vestiges and marks of liveness as possible: synchronous, local public consumption; a gesture toward theatre’s seemingly constitutive “nowness” through the simultaneity of broadcast; and also, in an interesting complication of the NT’s mission to increase public access to its work, a disappearance strategy. After the single live broadcast, the NT restricts access to NT Live recordings to viewing on location in its archives and to encore presentations in cinemas; it neither offers viewing by demand, as Digital Theatre does, nor sells DVDs of the recordings, as the RSC does (some of which are also available on the Digital Theatre platform). While the reasons for this are complex, the articulated rationale offered by Sabel in his TEDx Talk is telling: “we restricted the rights we negotiated to a specific window of theatrical screenings so that it was still, in a sense, an ephemeral event.” He has also remarked that “[p]art of the reason why we were attracted to this concept in the first place is that it is live and even when it’s not live, it still has a residue of being live” (n.p.), articulating liveness, even in a contested or attenuated form, as “the core of what the theatrical experience is about” (qtd. in Sandwell n.p.; emphases added). [End Page 20]
However, despite various strategies aimed toward preserving liveness (or at least its “residue”), whatever success such translations have in “captur[ing] the theatrical medium” via digital media simultaneously suggests liveness as a marginal or even dispensable quality when it comes to theatre, since such an achievement implies a mediatization that does not endanger the ontological “core” of theatrical experience. Moreover, while the Nesta case study recounts “that 84% of audiences . . . felt real excitement” at knowing that the broadcast was simultaneous with the action onstage, it also found that time-delayed and encore screenings “appear to work just as well, suggesting that the atmosphere of the screening, and the brand, are as important as the instant relay” (14). The success of NT Live—which renders theatre on cinema screens, separate from the place and often the moment of its production, and always removed from proximity to the bodies of the actors and technicians who enact it—demonstrates liveness to be less theatre’s ontology than its brand. Theatre critic Michael Billington, in an observation prompted not by a live broadcast screening but a recording of Ibsen’s Ghosts screened at the Almeida, proclaimed that it was time “to stop pretending that theatre can’t be captured on screen . . . that it offers an unreproducible event.” Billington notes that the recording, made by Digital Theatre, was filmed over three evenings’ performances and never existed as a simultaneous broadcast, suggesting that what was “captured” in this case might have been less an acceptable degree or facsimile of liveness than a theatricality that could withstand the abatement of the live via a fairly conventional recording and editing process.
In this, Billington’s and the NT’s own findings appear to harmonize with arguments like Auslander’s that trouble the identification of performance (including theatrical performance) with disappearance, working against the notion that “once live performance succumbs to mediatization, it loses its ontological integrity” (46). Rather than standing as a testament to digital media’s ability to, in the proper hands and with the right strategies, maintain theatre’s liveness or a passable semblance of it, products like NT Live and the RSC’s Live from Stratford do much to suggest theatre’s independence from liveness. Moreover, despite the innovation apparent in the broadcast process developed by the NT, it does so for the most part using conventional and even relatively conservative theatrical productions with a blue-ribbon pedigree. The works translated to the digital by NT Live and Live from Stratford do not speak to liveness and its relationship to the theatre from an aspiration toward intermedial experimentation,7 but for the most part sit squarely in the traditional realm of theatrical convention, demonstrating the marginality of liveness to theatre from within the heart of its orthodoxy.
In fact, theatre’s orthodoxy, particularly in the sense of its conventions and the traditional techniques of its making, are particularly well-displayed and well-documented in digital translations to date. The broadcasts themselves, taken as a body of work, suggest that much of what underwrites the translations’ claim on the ontology of theatre is the specificity, and importantly the conventionality, of the theatre-making practices they highlight. The theatrical conventions that digital translations enshrine are fundamental to the products’ reception as a form of theatre—potentially far more so than their gestures toward liveness, which always exist as artifacts of mediatization that concomitantly, implicitly demonstrate theatre’s potential for independence from the stage and the present moment. To the extent that the producers, directors, and technicians creating the broadcasts often articulate the priorities of digital translation in televisual terms that emphasize clarity (of the dramatic narrative) and fidelity (to the appearance and sound of the stage production), we might understand these aims as grounded in a more fundamental making-clear of theatre itself: what its tools are, how it communicates, what it offers, what it promises. Lough described his job to me as “telling the story of the theatre cinematically,” suggesting that in addition to communicating the narrative and style of any individual stage production, camera direction and its correlate, the production of audio, have an important role in communicating to the screen the practices that constitute theatre onstage.8
For instance, at the start of Hamlet’s “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy in act 2, scene 2, the RSC’s broadcast offers a long shot that includes Essiedu’s full figure and a good portion of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s thrust stage. Essiedu, as Hamlet, is positioned upstage [End Page 21] center between a pair of thrones upstage right and portraits, hung stage left, of Claudius and Gertrude. The long shot of the stage, empty save for Hamlet, emphasizes his solitary presence as he intones the line, “Now I am alone.” The camera then begins nearly imperceptibly to track right (stage left), keeping him in the center of the image during a single shot of two minutes and eighteen seconds, its duration introducing and underlining the sustained solo performance of the soliloquy. In the director’s commentary provided in the RSC’s DVD of this Hamlet, Godwin cites standard theatrical convention in noting that it is through the device of soliloquy that “[Hamlet will] make contact with the audience and share his feelings. And I think it’s a very strong and powerful tool Shakespeare uses to invite everybody watching into the heart and mind of this character.” The camera in turn serves as a similarly powerful tool for issuing that same invitation: within the extended shot, the camera begins to zoom in slowly at his words “Yet I, / A dull and muddy-mettled rascal,” filling the frame more fully with Essiedu’s body as Hamlet turns his attention to characterizing his own state of being. The camera also marks Essiedu addressing the soliloquy to different parts of the amassed theatre audience (but never to the camera), informing the broadcast audience of the relationship the theatre allows, in this case between a performer and the spectators sharing the theatre space. As it tracks and zooms, the shot centers Essiedu throughout, securing the broadcast audience’s attention on him as the figure around which the soliloquy revolves and into which it peers, closer and closer as the zoom continues until he is framed in a mid-shot. The camera’s motion urges the broadcast audience toward a sustained and growing investment of interest and attention on the solo speaking body, its constant, subtle motion emphasizing not sameness—the single, unvarying speaker—but the dynamic continuing development of the speech. Especially for those unused to the theatrical convention of soliloquy, the shot works as a kind of primer or guide, informing the broadcast audience of its practical use and instructing them on how it is to be received—for example, as the customary exteriorizing of an internal state described by Godwin.
At the same time, the masterful handling of sound, overseen by sound supervisor Andy Rose, emphasizes traditional vocal production for the stage: not only is Essiedu’s delivery not rendered filmic in the broadcast, but the balance struck between intimate sound (from the microphone he wears) and the ambient sound picked up by a grid of microphones hung above the stage managed to communicate something very familiar about the specific effects of a trained voice vibrating in the open space of a theatre. (The same apparatus and skill are responsible for reproducing for the broadcast the effect of a moving actor’s speech changing its relationship with the audience’s ear as the actor moves across the stage.) The speaking actor’s voice is preserved, in the sense that its specificity to the theatre remains apparent, but it is also made subtly more accessible since the microphones worn by actors amplify for the broadcast audience the details of the actors’ vocal production. Delivery via 5.1 surround sound removes some of the effort involved in apprehending stage sound as well; the first time I encountered NT Live, in a “Captured Live” version of its 2011 broadcast of The Kitchen, I noted as I sat in the cinema that although the actors sounded unmistakably like they were making theatrical sound in a theatre, in no theatre I have ever attended did listening to a play require so little work. The diction, breath control, resonance, and flexibility of a voice conventionally trained for the theatre were not only evident, but often seemed more apparent and notable when the sound was specially mixed and balanced to provide an optimum experience for the broadcast audience, one that implies the significance and specificity of that kind of virtuosic vocal production to the theatre itself.
My point is not that the crew’s skill makes the broadcast sound “just like” the staged production; rather, I suggest that the elements that broadcast crews endeavor to preserve, such as the particular qualities of actors’ vocal production, indicate aspects of theatrical stage production understood as key to its translation to a new form, thereby effectively emphasizing, clarifying, or perhaps most importantly reifying the properties that qualify as constitutive of theatrical production. Bay-Cheng has pointed out the necessity of recognizing recordings of performance not as “transparent . . . windows to the performance itself,” but as “the distortion of that performance” (2007, 39, 40). In the case of the digital translations I describe, a notable aspect of that distortion is their offering their [End Page 22] audiences not so much theatrical action itself, but a perspective on theatrical action, one in excess of what the theatre itself can offer and one that wields a prescriptive and didactic force on mass audiences. Billington, in his review of Digital Theatre’s translation of Ghosts, notes that the “key point” in the venture’s success is not the vicarious, like-live experience promised by simultaneous broadcast, but that “everyone now has the best seat in the house” (n.p.). In fact, audiences of digital translations have no seat that anyone in the house could possibly occupy; instead, they enjoy meticulously assigned points of view designed to highlight and showcase theatrical moments and practices to (often intimate) advantage and in some cases to amplify them—a form of distortion and emphasis masquerading as immediacy, or at least as benign enhancement. In the DVD’s director’s commentary during the RSC Hamlet’s final scene, for instance, Godwin not only mentions the visible sweat on Essiedu’s supine body, but also implies the camera’s relatively intimate perspective on it—“You can see Paapa sweating there”—as he notes it as evidence of “the extraordinary, the physical feat of playing this role.” While audiences of the stage production may also see Essiedu’s sweat, Godwin’s comment points out the sense in which the “physical feat” that comprises acting Hamlet onstage is foregrounded for the camera audience, for whom the sweat is an unavoidable spectacle indicating the sustained, durational nature of theatrical performance. Similarly, at different points in the soliloquy described above, the camera direction and audio emphasize some of the bodily mechanics that enable Essiedu’s performance, as it renders particularly clearly and closely the saliva that flies from the actor’s mouth, the intricate motion of lips and tongue during speech, and the sight and sound of his chest filling and emptying of breath. It is something of a commonplace to suggest that broadcast audiences who see stage actors in relative close-up will witness their performances in greater detail, but what is at stake in the broadcasts’ translation is not merely more of something that the theatre audience can already/also access; it is instead a kind of supplemental valence of direction and instruction that is capable of suggesting what makes theatre theatre. The broadcasts define a certain theatrical propriety not only in the sense that audiences (and for that matter performers) execute their roles in accordance with established behavioral norms, but in that they define what is right and proper for theatre, what texts, techniques, aesthetics, and performing bodies are representative of it.
Although the camera’s close attention to performers’ bodies puts actors’ work under particular scrutiny, other aspects of theatrical production are also marked as constitutive in translation. Many shots offer perspectives on the layout of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: crane shots move through the depth of its thrust stage, working through three-dimensional space even as the video produced tends to provide a compressed representation of stage space; others feature audience members and their proximity to performers, including the audience’s visible and audible reactions to performers on the stage. The inclusion of these effectively and strategically communicates to a broadcast audience specific elements and relationships that constitute theatrical stage work, which are then thrown into sharp relief by their presentation in a traditionally cinematic form and venue. In addition, the broadcast is careful to include the conventions that open and conclude the production: the moments that the lights come down and the audience quiets, and the bringing up of stage lights and the applause that follows the end of the play. In the RSC’s broadcast of Hamlet, the translation of scene changes appears as careful and detailed as that of the scene work itself, suggesting the significance and possibility of the liminal space between scenes, including the importance of light and sound to such transitions, and elucidating the making and unmaking of the playing space for the broadcast audience.
The perspective that digital translations offer on theatre may be subtle, but it is never neutral. Lough described his work to me not by using Wyver’s notion of translation, but rather interpretation, a term that foregrounds the acts of digestion and clarification that can attend translation to the digital.9 Those acts might be particularly meaningful for audiences more accustomed to screened entertainments than staged ones, who have more experience following camera direction than stage direction, and for whom the repertoire of theatre audiencing may not be an internalized second nature. Although camera direction is often characterized as restrictive—one of the chief complaints Sabel offers about [End Page 23] recorded theatre in his TEDx Talk is that “someone else is choosing where we look” (n.p.)—it is at the same time instructive in its determination of where audience attention should rightly be and in what of the theatre’s action and presentation must be included for the result to merit the name. As Suzanne Greenhalgh quotes Gregory Doran (artistic director of the RSC and stage director of the production of Richard II the company broadcast in 2013), explaining that “sometimes as a director you try to guide the audience as to where to look, and sometimes you misdirect them. And what was interesting about doing it for screen is that you could say, ‘No, you WILL look there, I need you to catch this line, and what this person thinks of this line.’” Greenhalgh follows this with the observation, “[f ]ilm thus sometimes succeeds where theater cannot” (260), but an equally valid conclusion might be that a particular affordance of filmed theatre is the assertive hand it wields as it formally determines the object of audience attention, where staged theatre might urge, coax, or vehemently suggest. The digital translation exists not only as a record of the production, but of how it ought to be watched. Digital translations of theatre comprise a kind of pedagogy, both in their foregrounding of practices special to and constitutive of the theatre and their insistence on where audience attention belongs.
When digital translations are cast as documents that inevitably fail to fully capture or represent or be the original theatrical event, they may seem disappointing and disingenuous, but read as evidence of the affinities, priorities, and expectations attached to theatre and its reception—evidence that simultaneously functions prescriptively—they reveal themselves as quite potent in their power to propagate, inflect, and shape those same priorities and expectations. That includes wielding significant power to suggest who should do theatre and what is worth watching, inevitably implied by which companies dominate the market for digital translations, which productions merit translation, and which theatrical performers reach cinema screens. Robert Delamere, Digital Theatre’s cofounder and creative director, enthusiastically noted in 2013 that “there really is a massive global appetite for cultural access, and the education that we can offer around that access. . . . If you’re in Malawi—which is where one school we sold to is located—how would you otherwise get to see anything like this?” (qtd. in Anderson n.p.). While it is worth repeating that there are models by which productions from smaller, lesser known companies also circulate digitally, scholar Leslie Wade points out that major providers of digital theatrical content “produce commodities for the neoliberal global economy . . . transmitting standards of taste that support the broadest and most profitable denominators” (59).
This is undoubtedly true, but their influence also acts on more fundamental properties than taste, since the judgments implied in the actions of translation work to clarify, reiterate, and construct notions of theatricality for the broadcasts’ significant viewership. Digital translations provide instruction as well as (or in the form of) access, especially to the extent that they imply that the chief identifying or constitutive characteristics of theatre—that is, how we know we are not making a movie—may not be whatever gestures toward liveness they offer, but rather the peculiarly theatrical practices, virtuosic performers, and canonical texts that those translations pointedly place on display. To date, the implicit didacticism of cinema broadcasts and other translations of staged theatre to the digital appears to be poised to work rather conservatively, preserving many long-standing norms by which we recognize theatre as itself. However, they offer a means by which theatre’s constitutive practices might be re-defined as well as enshrined, potentially shifting and enlarging theatre’s domain, as digital translations already have in their decoupling of theatre from disappearance and the embodied co-presence of actor and audience. [End Page 24]
Lindsay Brandon Hunter is an assistant professor of theatre at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Her current book project, Playing Real: Media, Mimesis, and Mischief, concerns performances of authenticity within mediatized contexts, including intermedial and screened theatre, reality television, and intermedial gaming. Her essays and reviews have been published in Theatre Survey, Theatre Journal, International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, and a recent special issue of Amodern titled “Ephemera and Ephemerality: Media, Archive, Performance.”
The author wishes to thank John Wyver, Robin Lough, and the University at Buffalo Humanities Institute for their assistance with and support for this project.
1. Auslander’s observation about the “current cultural climate” dates from the book’s first printing in 1999, although it is unchanged in the second edition, nine years later—and, I would argue, remains relevant at this writing.
2. “Captured live” (that is, previously recorded) presentations of the same material are offered to cinemas more distant from London, and “Encore” presentations bring back successful productions for further runs in the cinema at later dates.
3. NT Live, although it is known as the digital broadcast arm of the National Theatre, also presents works from multiple producing organizations outside it, including the Donmar Warehouse King Lear and the 2015 Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which remains its best-selling offering. NT Live, however, presents itself as a curated season rather than a platform devoted to sharing content from multiple producers.
4. See Lindsay Brandon Hunter, “Digital Theatricality.”
5. Robin Lough, personal interview with the author, October 16, 2015.
6. Translation itself is a contentious practice, represented not by a unified body of theory, but by a diverse collection of means and objectives, potentially the site not only of benevolent interpretation but of erasure and dispossession. As Lawrence Venuti has pointed out in The Translation Studies Reader, any theory of translation “rests on particular assumptions about language use, even if they are no more than fragmentary hypotheses that remain implicit or unacknowledged” (5). In leveraging the term here, I mean not to imply translation to be a monolithic or unproblematic practice, but rather to suggest its action, in all its complexities, as relevant to the rendering of staged work onto screens.
7. A possible exception is the RSC’s 2016 production of The Tempest, in which the part of Ariel was played by Mark Quartley, who appeared onstage in a motion-capture suit used to puppeteer a digitally projected Ariel onto parts of the stage. The production was mediatized as part of the Live from Stratford series and is now available on both the Digital Theatre streaming platform and DVD.
8. Lough, interview.