Charles Lewis III SEES YOU.
“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”
– William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act I, Sc. 1
I was originally going to write this post about the similarities between professional sports and theatre – what with baseball season now in full swing, the Warriors kickin’ ass in the play-offs, and Wrestlemania a few weeks back (the latter would have included several nods to my ‘Pub colleague and fellow wrestling fan Anthony Miller). But as I took a peek back at my last entry, in which I pondered on-camera work vs. on-stage work, I found myself stuck on a lot of recent conversations about the two possibly converging in order to survive.
Let me start off by saying something we all know: theatre is neither dying nor dead. It’s been around longer than any of us and will still be around after we’re gone. The reason for that being the fact that in the end all one needs for theatre is at least one performer and an audience. That’s why you can’t look any changes to it the same way you look at recent changes to film (going digital), television (cord-cutting and Netflix binging), or radio (also transitioning to digital and competing with Pandora/Spotify/Rdio/etc.). All three of those of those formats are technologies first, performance art media second (if that). Theatre should never be wholly dependent on technology (despite the fact that tech people are super-amazing powerful wizards in whose hands we put our lives and whom I love dearly).
But what about when theatre does incorporate tech? Hell, going from soft blue to a spotlight to a blackout can mean the difference between a play being brilliant or just confusing. In recent years we’ve all seen a significant rise in theatre productions incorporating technology not traditionally associated with theatre, even here on the indie theatre scene. Some of them, when done right, can add a powerful new element to the story (video projection), whilst others are just a plain intrusion to the entire process (tweet seats). And of course, there’s technology that allows you to watch theatre when you’re nowhere near the theatre. And that, my friend, is what I’ll be focusing on today.
Recently, as I was scrolling Facebook, I came across this article posted on the wall of Melissa Hillman, Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley. It’s an op-ed blog about two new apps – Periscope (owned by Twitter) and Meerkat – that allow you to live-stream events directly from your phone. Naturally this has led to heated discussion as to when using such an app would be appropriate, if ever. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go to a play and sit behind someone holding up their phone or tablet like some concert-goer (something that actually has happened to me in recent years: once at a Thunderbird show and once at BOA). And that’s not even getting into the whole piracy question; the whole reason Google Glass is banned in American cinemas is for that very reason.
Still, I’m not opposed to the idea of live-streaming theatre. I mean, why not? The big guys are already doing it. I’ve been part of productions for the SF Opera that were either broadcast live or recorded to re-air on PBS. Fathom Events is a company specifically dedicated to transmitting live sporting events (like boxing and wrestling – I still mentioned wrestling this week) and performances into cinemas across the country; most notably those of New York’s Metropolitan Opera before they also re-air on PBS.
And we in the indie theatre scene have HowlRound TV. I’m sorry to say that I’ve never attended the One-Minute Play Festival (for which the ‘Pub’s own Marissa Skudlarek has written several plays), but I make it a point to watch HowlRound’s annual live-stream of the production. Now think of how many productions you’ve done that friends and family members wished they could attend, were they not halfway across the country. Before I inherited this piece of internet real estate from the esteemed Claire Rice, she made a Top 10 list of things she thinks theatre needs. After re-reading No.s 8 and 10 (and maybe even No. 5), I can see live-streaming of plays as something that could be a real boon to the indie theatre scene, if done right. In fact, in regards to No. 10, I’d love to see our friends at Theatre Bay Area take this under consideration, even if it meant teaming up with a company like HowlRound. Imagine the TBA Awards – which, incidentally, is now Claire’s jurisdiction – streamed across the country (nay, the world) for theatre-lovers all over?
And how, pray tell, do we do it “right”? I’m glad you asked. I happen to have a few suggestions that would appeal to both the folks at home and those with butts in seats:
1. Mic. The. Stage. I really should say “Use the best equipment” because this first suggestion comes from being told personally by a member of the 1MPF crew that they don’t have the capability to use HD camcorders, so the cameras they do use are archaic. I hope this is something they can solve soon, but I also hope they don’t resort to the mobile phone antics of Periscope or Meerkat. Still, I’ve always been able to see what’s happening on stage, even if it wasn’t always clear. But it can be a real pain in the ass to hear what’s going on. In a perfect set-up, there would be unseen mics either on or directly pointed at the stage, so as to not be drowned out by the ambient noise of the theatre. If live-streaming or recording for archives, tap into that audio. I’d like to actually hear a playwright’s words before I criticize them for using the word “irregardless”.
2. Good camera location. For the past few years now, me and Paul Anderson have been the officially unofficial chroniclers of the Olympians Festival. I take photos, he records video – not something we planned, just what happened. Both of us have to do these from rather static positions. When I saw the above article on Melissa’s wall, I immediately began thinking of exactly where I’d place cameras around Impact. Then I started thinking about The EXIT. PianoFight. Cutting Ball. Even the SF Playhouse. Each and every one of these venues could easily use some discreet, high-quality cameras that would transmit in crystal clarity whilst remaining invisible to the audience. Just be sure that your camera operator and sound person are part of the rehearsal process, so the folks at home don’t miss out on the moments that the live audience sees. Speaking of the live audience…
3. Audience quota. I’ve been in a couple different productions that had to cancel performances due small audiences. Let’s be real: with the average indie theatre ticket running somewhere between $15-$30, some folks would be tempted to never leave the house if they knew they could just watch it at home – that’s the “dying” aspect of theatre people fear. Now, I don’t know if services like HowlRound TV will always be free, but I certainly think live audiences should always take priority. Which is why I propose that live-streaming be done ONLY if a certain audience number is met each night. It doesn’t have to be a full house, but depending on the capacity of each theatre, there should be a minimum number of filled seats or no broadcast that night. This is less about the folks at home seeing the seats filled and more about the folks putting on the show being able to pay to keep the lights on. The actors can perform with a small live audience, but for the folks at home it should be a privilege.
And that, to me, is the point: this isn’t about taking away from live theatre, it’s about enhancing it for a wider audience. I’m not against the idea of apps for theatre. Hell, I get what apps like Periscope and Meerkat are trying to do, but they’re not solving a problem, they’re adding to it. But if a life of being a tech buff has taught me anything, it’s that’s folks will eventually choose low-quality convenience rather than having to wait for top-quality expense. That’s why VHS beat out Betamax and why people are losing their hearing with crappy digital music. Live-streaming represents a bold opportunity for indie theatre to get in on the ground floor of both a new technology and a new wider performance venue.
Technology in and of itself does not improve art; it’s just another tool of the artist. The most important thing to remember is that in the end, the folks at home and the folks in front of you are both hungry for the exact same thing: they want to see a good show.