Video and Theatre

Anybody with friends in the theatre will have been subject to what I to call the three-step attack.

Step 1) a change in profile picture

Step 2) an invitation to join an event page

Step 3) a barrage of self congratulatory black and white pictures of your friend in rehearsal

In the last few years the theatre-marketing arsenal has developed step 4: video. Previously, video was the domain of the ultra trendy or the ultra well funded. But in the past year it seemed as if almost every show had a trailer. From the depths of the BT midweek 21:30 slot to the Elysian heights of the playhouse, video is becoming the done thing. 

This is an interesting phenomenon seen not only at Oxford. Top-drawer theatres in the UK and around the world have been embracing video by producing trailers for years now. The proliferation of filmed footage is however not only a marketing gimmick. Video and theatre are becoming increasingly symbiotic; their integration may prove to be the distinctive feature of this epoch’s dramatic endeavors. For this reason it is worth pausing to consider what impact it might have on the future of theatre and crucially whether it is a good thing.

Video has of course been around for a while now, but one important thing is entirely novel to this day and age: Accessibility. Previously, if you wanted to have footage in a production, you would find yourself spending money, time and human resources on acquiring and developing celluloid film, let alone projecting it as part of your show. With digital filmmaking this has become quite literally a one-man job.

Take the Hilary Term production of King Lear: On this show the character of the fool swanned around with a camera and filmed parts of the play. This filming was projected live onto a screen at the back of the stage so that we shared in the fool’s recorded memories in real-time on stage. Fifteen, maybe even ten years ago this would have been impossible, especially for a student production. The way digital filmmaking facilitated King Lear shows how much more accessible and consequently much more ambitious the usage of video in theatre can be. 

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Wonderful though the democratization of video is, the results have nonetheless been mixed. Sometimes it has seemed as if the directors use it solely by virtue of the fact that they had not been able to use it before. In David Tennat’s Hamlet we see the footage from a video camera he commandeers during the play within a play scene. Why? I’m still not sure. Now that we know what can be done, perhaps we should start to discuss when and why it should be done.

Let’s start by when it shouldn’t be done. I once saw a production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in which the director made the intriguing decision of filming rather than staging Aslan’s murder. This scene was projected and shown in lieu of the actors performing it live .It became apparent that the motivation for video was to more ‘realistically’ depict the scene. But using video solely to render an action ‘believable’ is to terribly misunderstand and condescend on the nature of theatrical artifice. On-stage action is not believable because it resembles reality. Rather, what happens on stage is believable because the language of theatre has a relationship to reality which makes us believe that what is onstage is real. We should remember that film, while it also speaks a language that imitates reality, is not (as some maybe tempted to think) any more real than theatre. This is not to say that cinema does not also have value, it too has its own language that makes the fictional real. To view film as an enhancing supplement to theatrical artifice would predicate the assumption that cinema is inherently more realistic. Of course film, however, is every bit as artificial as theatre and neither is more ‘realistic’ than the other. Both are languages seeking to relate to reality, but neither is more direct or believable in representing it. Using film as supplement to theatre’s supposed ‘unrealism’ is as strange as using live actors in a cinema in order to make the film more believable.

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Video can however be used to increase the sense of realism when it is integrated into theatrical language. One great example of this was the National Theatre’s production of the The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Here floor projections were used as a sort of shifting set, representing houses or trains. This worked because the video was used as part of the reality of the play, rather than as a substitute for it. It gave the production huge versatility, as it could create almost any set instantly.

Where we see the most innovative and still ambiguous integration of video and theatre is in the productions in which the action is filmed and projected live during the performance. The filming introduces an alien cinematic idiom but paradoxically in a way that amplifies the theatrical language on stage. I am still not sure what to make of this.

Part of my uncertainty as regards the above use of video is that it goes to the heart of how video both supplements and threatens the way in which theatre invokes reality. It has always been the allure of theatre that it turns the materiality of the real world into that of a story world. Consequently, when the show convinces you, it as if fiction has been made incarnate. Video is incorporeal, it is of a different order to the materiality of theatre. As such video cannot achieve this theatrical materialization of the fictional. For this reason it will be the triumph of future productions if they can create a symbiosis by which the power of theatre remains undiluted by the easy temptations of filmic ‘realism’ while harnessing the possibilities of video, to make theatre all the more material.