For years there has been a strange truce between theatre and film, we won’t judge you and you won’t judge us. That relationship is changing though, with companies like Imitating the Dog exploring digital media in theatre and initiatives like Digital Theatre and National Theatre Live spreading theatre to a wider audience through film screens maybe there is room for a more symbiotic relationship.
Digital media in theatre is a very strange beast; like a slightly awkward platypus very few people know what it constitutes or how it relates to anything. Most practitioners understand that it involves mainly film and projection; unfortunately like my grandmother they’re not entirely sure how it works, and in some cases why. One of the companies currently exploring the integration of digital media to theatre is Imitating the Dog; their most recent show The Zero Hour is a fascinating exploration of parallel realities and the value of perception. It’s most intriguing aspect is the presentation; staged behind a large masking sheet with 3 window slits that open and close the entire show is projected on the screen whilst also being presented live. Interspersed with several snippets of philosophical discussion on perception and the universe through a train allegory the play combines digital media and live performance. Whilst the premise is interesting it does present some issues for an audience; I personally struggled to engage with the excellent performance of the actors, finding myself watching the performance like a film. I paid much more attention to the screen than I did to the live actors and there were a several moments where I found myself engaging with the performance from the liminal position of a film viewer as opposed to a theatre audience. Jacques Lecoq (famed French theatre practitioner and ex-PE teacher) suggests that the intrinsic appeal of theatre is the sense of communion between performer and audience; the indefinable ‘moment’ that exists between the two parties. With Zero Hour I felt separated, an outside viewer with little to no connection to the narrative or the characters; though this may be in part to the very large physical barrier erected like the Berlin Wall between my person and the world on stage. This seems to be a common problem with theatre that employs film and digital media; it seems to be a rare ability to connect the two art forms. There is an active and discernible difference between the experience of watching someone speak live and watching it on the screen. For me, it feels fake.
Another aspect of the film/theatre truce involves the dissemination of theatre. As we’ve previously discussed a major aspect of the theatrical experience is the live aspect of theatre; the ‘moment’ between performer and viewer. Most obvious in comedy, live performances often hinge on the relationship between artist and audience and like any relationship if one side doesn’t commit to the cause the other grumbles, shuffles its feet and mutters. A very appealing aspect of theatre is its live nature, no performance of a show is the same and each audience member experiences the performance differently; for a one man show watched by a thousand people, there are a thousand and one shows happening each night. I have never experienced the same feeling of community and connection with a film; whilst there are admittedly terrible plays I have always felt included by the very fact I was sat watching. A film makes me feel like it’s doing me a favour, like I could not be there and it would be quite happy anyway. Digital Theatre and National Theatre live are two of the biggest digital disseminators of theatre in the UK. Digital Theatre sells and rents recordings of a wide variety of theatrical performance from around the country; from the critically acclaimed version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing staring Catherine Tate and David Tennant to world famous company Frantic Assembly’s version of Abi Morgan’s Lovesong. Digital Theatre is recording performances, editing together the variety of camera angles and then releasing them to the public; in the end Digital Theatre are making films, they just happen to be about plays. You feel extremely aware of the duality of the performance and despite the excellent work of the actors, designers, directors and editors I still like it could play to empty room. National Theatre Live is an initiative that streams performances from the National Theatre’s stage in London to various cinemas and filmhouses across the country. These performances are almost live; aside from a short delay in transmission the audience is seeing exactly what is taking place on stage. I saw a screening of the critically acclaimed Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller; It was excellent. Unfortunately I spent the entire time thinking “this would be awesome live”.
I personally have great difficulty engaging with film and theatre; I am very aware of the film aspects not being theatre and on a personal level I struggle to stop myself from segregating the two, and I don’t seem to be alone. Several of the practitioners I have worked with over the years have suffered similarly, battling the segregation of film and theatre. I hope that this is merely a time issue; I remember as a student being warned off film and digital media in theatre due to the wide variety of both artistic and practical issues and that wasn’t exactly a long ago (suggestions about my age on a self-addressed envelope please). Here at the University of Sheffield we have a massive variety of equipment and some extremely talented lecturers and students who are avid fans of film and are currently experimenting with the wider applications of digital media. I wish to encourage and support them as far as possible and I wait for the day that someone manages to entice me with the idea of the digital play, until then I’ll just have to stare over the demilitarised zone between theatre and film.