With Much Ado has Digital Theatre come of age?
We get fleeting glimpses of quality plays, critically-acclaimed musicals which close before their time, and all-star casts engaged for 12-week West End seasons.
This has always bothered me, living in a world surrounded by screens and recorded media - DVDs, CDs, Blu-ray discs - why were the great shows of the West End (which were a long away when I was growing up in an admittedly culture rich Edinburgh or studying in Liverpool) not recorded for posterity and distributed to a broader audience?
I was brought up on frequent weekend viewings of the Les Miserables tenth anniversary concert, filmed at the Royal Albert Hall, and an increasingly worn VHS copy of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1998 recording of Cats. They probably played a formative part in the person I am now. So I was aware that capturing the magic of the stage for the screen was not impossible, just not often done.
That same question, "can you really capture live theatre for the screen?" and a step further, "can you apply the language of film to the theatre?" also occupied Digital Theatre co-founders Robert Delamere and Tom Shaw. At the time the pair were working for Amnesty International, bringing Monty Python and friends in The Secret Policeman’s Ball to just such a broader audience on the big and small screen. They went on to establish Digital Theatre in 2009.
One of the major technological advances which has made Digital Theatre possible are the video cameras available. Far from the days of invading an auditorium with an army of camera men and their rigs, Digital Theatre films productions without taking any seats off sale, using remotely controlled cameras which are distributed throughout the auditorium.
"I think there’s something very unique about not taking physical cameras into space," Delamere tells me, "Not taking seats out, or having technical staff, camera men and women in a theatre auditorium.
There’s something about the fact that it’s all remote controlled that allows the relationship between the audience and the experience to remain pure and unadulterated."
It also means that instead of relying on a single take of a chosen night, Digital Theatre can mix shots from multiple performances. "We tend to shoot subsequent performances," Delamere continues, "we might do a matinee and evening or two nights on the run - and then we basically apply filmic editing techniques and use film language to try and recover the moment by moment reality of the live theatre experience."
And here we encounter one of the most common objections theatregoers have watching theatre on screen, large or small: when you use a camera to capture the traffic of the stage, it stops being theatre and starts being something else entirely. That's something Digital Theatre work to conquer by engaging with production's original creatives.
"When you’re in the auditorium you can kind of choose where you're looking; at the guy falling over, or the woman cooking, you get to choose. We get to choose, in conjunction with the directors, where you’re looking, but whether it’s Howard Davis, Ian Rickson or Gemma Bodinetz, we work alongside them to follow their original directorial intentions."
Which brings my conversation with Delamere round to how he has gone about signing up Digital Theatre's raft of theatre partners. Common consensus within the commercial theatre industry says that if audiences had the opportunity to see shows without having to go to the theatre, then that viewing would cannibalise potential theatregoers.
Delamere is dismissive of the idea when I put it to him. "People do say that, but I can’t see that’s true. It's a bit like saying, 'I'm into Coldplay or Jessie J or Mumford & Sons. I’ve bought the albums, so I’m not going to see them live,' or 'I’ve seen to them live, so I’m not going to buy the album or listen to them on the radio'. I just think we want to experience culture in multiple ways in different moments for different reasons."
But it's not just music industry examples that he draws from, looking back at the national sport almost two decades ago. "That's initially what was said about football, everyone thought the terraces would empty with BskyB broadcasting games. Yet it totally reinvented football in the '90s."
The impact of All My Sons and Much Ado
So how have these arguments gone over with commercial and subsidised theatre producers? "At the beginning, we call it the 'belief hurdle'," Delamere tells me. But then things changed. "Something happened in the middle of last year when we worked with Stephen Sondheim on Into The Woods and Kim Poster, who was our first commercial producer, on All My Sons.
Something happened when David Suchet, Zoe Wanamaker and a very well known and successful West End producer and director of the scale of Howard Davis all say 'yes'. It changes things and makes it much easier. We are approached regularly now, instead of us going round with calling cards, which is fantastic."
Digital Theatre worked with another commercial producer, Sonia Friedman, last summer to capture Josie Rourke's sell-out staging of Much Ado About Nothing, reuniting Dr Who David Tennant and his assistant Catherine Tate at the Wyndham's.
The Digital Theatre recording of Much Ado was released just before Christmas (Why the lack of warning? "We couldn't really announce it," Delamere advises, "until we had completed our work.") and by the CEO's own admission it's had a "transformative" effect on the organisation.
When Much Ado was first released it was announced only through PR and social media; Digital Theatre admit they had done "zero marketing", but suddenly the company had gained 10,000 visitors a day to their website. The Much Ado effect didn't stop there, "our visits, the unique visitors and page views have just shot through the roof. I just think it proves that there is an audience and it’s a global audience. It's had a pretty incredible effect on the rest of the catalogue."
So where next for the Digital Theatre? "There’s something very pertinent right now about the economy meets culture, meets the arts, meets digital," Delamere says when I ask. "We have an extraordinary global reputation for our creative arts. This is one way we can promote that and also return income to the artists and the producers and the venues who create the material in the first place. It just means people can witness what’s going on in the centre of excellence, which is London, and now we're shooting in Liverpool and elsewhere."
Does Delamere see a future in which every West End production is given the Digital Theatre treatment? "I think it's something that Dominic Cavendish said in his summary of 2011, he said there may be a time toward the end of this decade where watching theatre online is a mass market experience. As a lot of people say to me, 'it’s not like you’re selling automatic weaponry, Robert. It is a good thing.'"
But it's not just the headline figures of website traffic or download numbers that make Delamere tick, "There’s something very exciting about having a school in Ho Chi Minh City emailing you and saying they're watching Jez Butterworth's Parlour Song or a school in Malawi going, 'we just watched the RSC's Comedy of Errors.'"
So Digital Theatre appears to have set its course on a very global mission, but there are also projects underway closer to home, particularly Digital Theatre's education offerings. Delamere says these were mainly developed in response to customer demand. "We had conceived it in the early days, when I look back on the project planning we did. Template number seven: Education. Number eight: Sponsorship."
"I think that’s phenomenal," he continues, "because there are school children who really aren't going to be dragged down from the North West to London, even possibly to the Manchester Royal Exchange, they’re just not going to have that cultural arts access. To be able to deliver to them what everyone else is able to see, is really quite motivating and moving. Makes you feel like you can turn around and say, 'look at this and see what it does to your imagination.'"