Honour Bayes: Digital Theatre, are you a believer or not?Date: 25 April 2012
This week the thorny issue of digital theatre has once again raised its querulous head. The idea of capturing a medium that prides itself on its ‘liveness’ is so divisive it doesn’t just have fans or cynics but believers and non-believers.
Just as Whatsonstage.com's brilliant deputy editor Andrew Girvan left to work for media company Digital Theatre, Headlong’s new video (below right) for their upcoming season was fanning the flames on twitter.
As arguments of style over substance swirled around me and I thought about the new world Andrew was going into I found myself getting sucked back in to the discussion; am I a believer, or not?
Of course it’s not as easy as a yes or no answer; digital theatre has just as many faces as theatre itself does. Trailers, vlogs, educational material, archival recordings of plays, live streaming of performances, performance where technology plays an integral part in its creation, each plays a different role. You don’t have to like all of them to appreciate one.Much has been written about theatre trailers and the exciting new terrain of networked narratives, primarily in the work of Pilot Theatre and RETZ. But in honour of Andrew’s move, I’ve decided to concentrate here on the filming of performance and its reproduction on screen.
The reductive nature of recording live performances is a criticism that won’t be shaken; “It’s just never as good as the real thing” is a taunt that rings in the ears of advocates of National Theatre Live and Royal Opera House Cinema (programmes where performances are live streamed into cinemas across the country).
Non-believers feel the very nature of what they love is being eroded whilst believers think this is an exciting way to find new converts to the cause.
But is this form of digital theatre attacking the essence of our beloved art form? Peter Brook infamously said “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” But he didn’t say the person watching had to be in the same room.
Whilst many theatre trailers are cinematic in style, productions are filmed to imitate the single perspective of Brook’s viewer much more faithfully. In partnership with a number of theatres, Digital Theatre aims to “Capture live performance authentically onscreen. Using multiple camera angles and high-definition technology, we bring the drama and emotion of each production to a global online audience.”
Having watched a few of these productions the recordings do not seem to flatten the theatrical experience, merely to capture it in a moment which can be dipped into again in the future.
How many of us have wished that we’d seen a certain production we either missed through the perennial ‘I’ll see it next week’ or if (slightly more virtuously) it was produced before we were born?
In such cases archives such as Digital Theatre, or the National Video Archive of Performance are a goldmine giving us first-hand experience of shows that would otherwise have been lost to us.Available to watch online at any point, these recordings do raise questions of communal audience experience. Could a filmed version of theatre speak as personally to you as a one-on-one performance at BAC?
After consideration, I don’t think so, but in this area of digital theatre, are you a believer, or not?