Simon Baker: 'Streaming shows used to feel like an ordeal – I hope we've changed that notion'
The sound designer has helped oversee some of the biggest live-streams so far
As part of our brand new Curtains for Theatre Without You, we've been chatting to industry leaders about both their experiences during the pandemic and hopes for the future – here's our interview with sound designer Simon Baker, who has helped live-stream a variety of shows including Lungs at the Old Vic, Romantics Anonymous at Bristol Old Vic and, most recently, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk at the same venue.
1) No one ever expected streaming to become such a pivotal part of the theatre community during 2020 – can you give a bit of background on how you helped get these incredible live-stream shows onto the web?
I knew the moment lockdown was announced that Wise Children needed to stay present somehow. My early years were spent in pirate radio so that need and passion to get back on air, coupled with ‘the show must go on' mantra motivated me to figure out how.
My youngest son spends a lot time watching people on YouTube play video games – people like NerdCubed. These YouTube shows are genius – the hosts talk directly to their fanbase, they create an online community, and they are interactive through chat messaging. They are a modern equivalent of local radio. I felt that Wise Children needed its own version. If the gaming community can do it then so could we. I quickly devised a way to get our own podcast series online and streaming live over Twitch (YouTube is feeling very 2010 these days).
I borrowed the techniques from these home broadcasters – we used bits assembled from internet orders and software from GitHub. Once the live podcasts were happening, I soon realised we could scale this up.
Matthew Warchus asked me to get involved in helping get their IN Camera season up and running. With the tech and knowledge learnt from the podcasts, streaming a show didn't seem like a massive jump – we were just up scaling the number of cameras.
Once that was happening, I felt that back at Wise Children we should be brave a try a whole fully staged show. Around this time there was much talk of elite sport being allowed back into training so I felt that if football could get back, so could we.
I'd figured out capture, but I next needed to figure out the box office and user experience.
2) What would you say was the biggest learning curve for the experience?
We went from being a theatre company to a digital media company overnight. We had to build everything from scratch and learn everything from vision mixing to camera focal lengths. So everything has been a challenge. When we started, we didn't know what we didn't know – we had to make everything up.
Figuring out the box office has been hard. Traditionally, companies like Wise Children are more akin to content providers to theatres but now we're suddenly doing everything, from box office, through to marketing. Figuring out how to provide a robust HD broadcast along with an easy-to-use experience for our audience was tough.
All this happened as we tried to keep the company afloat – Wise Children is now run from several kitchen tables as we let go of the office to reduce our overheads.
'I think the pandemic has taught us that technology can be our friend rather than something to fear'
3) You've worked on both musicals and plays over the course of 2020 - what distinct challenges have different forms thrown up for online viewing?
I think in the past a live stream of a show has been the cinema/at home audience witnessing an event happening in a theatre. This version of live broadcasting means that the audience at home aren't witnessing an audience watching a show – they are the sole audience – it's directly for them. That idea changes how you shoot the show. Finding that style has been tough. Both plays and musicals alike are far more intimate on a screen than in a theatre. By its nature, theatre is a permanent wide shot - on screen we have to choose the shot but still encapsulate that sense of scale theatre has. (If I'm honest – my normal job as sound designer is far easier for online than in a theatre – every cloud, as they say…)
4) What sorts of innovations to streaming technology have been most exciting and what are you expecting to see more of in 2021?
The cost of HD or even 4K streaming is coming down in price which means the quality will get better and better – so too will the delivery methods – we already have ways you can watch us on Amazon or Apple TV; we have to keep working on the ease of use for our audience.
The use of smaller wireless cameras means we can be less intrusive. And our skills in this area are strengthening day by day.
The integration of live streaming is becoming easier too – it's becoming an extension of the technical team and process.
5) Covid testing, streaming, Zoom shows and digital rehearsals – technology has been a big friend to theatre during the pandemic – what do you make of that relationship and where do you think are the unexplored frontiers?
I think it's taught us that technology can be our friend rather than something to fear. The idea that we'll all travel across the country to a production meeting to then say "nothing for the group" surely must be over – we'll make much more use of video conferencing. I think streaming rehearsals for the creative team is also a big plus.
Before Covid, streaming or capturing shows felt like such an ordeal with a huge price tag. I hope we've changed that notion. We can never replace collectively gathering to hear stories in a public place nor can live streaming replicate the excitement of a night out, but it can get our work to people that might not normally come and see us – for whatever reason be it financial, physical, or geographical. Now we have the technology to provide a choice.
Imagine students watching our show live but not having to take hundreds of notes as they can download the show to their phone when they get back home… that alone would be brilliant.
Central to Wise Children is the idea that you're not buying a ticket to a show; instead, you're going to come and hang out with us while we tell you a story. Our digital and online work is about letting everyone be part of the tribe – live streaming has been an extension of that. You can't come to us so let's come to you has been our mantra during this time and we'll continue to use technology to find way to hang out with our mates – just like the Twitchers streaming nightly do.