Filming Shakespeare: Interview with John Wyver, Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part series, the first of which was Shakespeare, from Theater to Cinema: Interview with John Wyver, Producer of the RSC’s Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon Productions

On Wednesday, I attended a production of Henry IV Part 2 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This was the second time I saw the production (read my review here), and this time I was present as the Royal Shakespeare Company was broadcasting the play live to cinemas in the UK and around the world.

I was given tickets in a position where I could get a good look at how the production was filmed: I was sitting in front of the stage, eight rows back, behind one of the two cameras on tracks. I was to the left of center, and the camera was not in front of my very often, but I could watch how that camera was used, as well as a camera on a crane to its right.

Naturally, seeing a play live on an evening when it’s broadcast to cinemas is a bit different than a normal performance. There were many empty seats in front of the stage: the first four rows on the left were full, but the seats on the right and behind those rows were removed, and only a handful of invited guests were in the sections behind the cameras. There were other empty seats around the various cameras, especially for the other camera on tracks on the left of the stage.

Before the performance began, one of the ushers was walking around, checking empty seats, and asking people if they wanted to move, so all the seats that would be on camera would be filled. And just before the performance began, the director came on stage and “warmed up the audience” a bit.

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Other than that, though, the performance was exactly the same as any other night. As John Wyver told me, “There’s no sense in which the possibility or the likelihood of a cinema [broadcast] influences the casting, or the productions, or the director, or whatever.”

To prepare for the broadcast, there are two camera rehearsals. The first one is without an audience, and the second with the stalls and first circle filled. “It’s important for the audio. The number of people you have in the auditorium makes a huge difference.” This second camera rehearsal is also used “as a backup tape in case it goes down on the night. At least we have [a recording] available, with an audience, in case something catastrophic happens on the night.”I find that some of these theatre-to-television broadcasts are long; with a Shakespeare play, you’re going to have a three-hour evening at least. The RSC doesn’t overload the cinema audience with a lot of cruft. John Wyver told me “we respect the theatre interval; we put into the theatre interval about eight or ten minutes additional material.” In the theatre, the house staff urged the spectators to get back to their seats earlier than usual, not even leaving us enough time to eat our ice cream.

“Before the show, we do between 13 and 15 minutes of scene-setting. Should we do that? Does it extend things too long? Is it useful? These are questions we talk about all the time.” This is the same type of bonus material found on the later DVD releases.

“I think it’s important to give people in the cinema something they’re not going to get in the theatre, and I think also, in the cinema, you’re getting a slightly different audience, maybe who aren’t as familiar with Shakespeare or the play, and you need to provide them with some access points.”

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The camera set-up, “six cameras, one of which is on a crane, three others of which are on tracks,” has been similar for the three productions filmed so far, “because they’re all directed by Gregory Doran, they’re all designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, and they use the stage in a similar kind of way. We’re just thinking now about how we approach The Two Gentlemen of Verona [opening in July]; do we have the same camera positions, do we think of it differently, are there other ways of doing it?”

I asked John Wyver how much time it took to get to the first camera setup. “The process is, as soon as the production is fixed, on press night, we take a scratch tape, which is a single camera recording of the whole stage. Director Robin Lough breaks down that with the script into shots for every line of the play. Writing that first camera script, which will have probably 700 to 800 individual shots, takes him about a fortnight.”

“Yesterday [the interview was on the day of the first camera rehearsal], we talked through those shots with the camera teams and the grips and now we’re going to try those shots out in the theatre. We record that, and tomorrow, the whole team will look at that on a cinema screen to see what it’s like. Then Robin Lough will, over the next week, change between 15 and 20% of those shots. Then we come back next Tuesday, the day before the broadcast, and we do it again. Hopefully, we’ve got it pretty much right. But, still, between that and the broadcast the next day, we probably will make 3 to 5% changes to the shots.”

I asked whether the lighting is changed for the broadcast. “A little, not a lot. It’s very important that we are presenting the staging in the cinema. But because of the way the camera registers light differently from your eye, things like contrast levels need to be adjusted a bit. So David Gopsill, who’s the associate producer, and a very good lighting director, also studies the scratch tape and determines what small adjustments we’re going to make to the lighting plot.”

The production is shot in 1080p (HD), but not in 4K. “I’m unconvinced that 4K can handle multi-camera live broadcasting, because the camera and scanner technology isn’t in place to allow you to do proper, flexible live broadcasts.”

So what about the future of the theatre in the cinema? “What you get in a decent cinema, is a big screen, good sound, better sound than you’re going to be able to replicate at home, and you get to do it with other people, in a social context, with a sense of occasion. Those social factors are important. I don’t think they get replicated even if you have friends around to watch it on your screen [at home].

“The question is whether there is an audience that can sustain a significant number of these productions. What the cinema calls ‘event cinema’ – theatre, opera, dance, Monty Python, non-film – that’s growing incredibly quickly. Next week, Henry IV Part 2 is playing on Wednesday, but on Tuesday, the ENO are doing Benvenuto Cellini. Different audience, or the same audience? Competition or not?”

I pointed out that, also, the Thursday after our interview, there is an NT Live broadcast of A Small Family Business, giving even more competition. With more and more such broadcasts to cinemas, there’s a lot of choice for viewers, but there’s more competition for each production.

“The cinemas like it, they charge more, they get a pretty upscale audience who buys more chablis. [But] the film distribution people are not so happy, because it takes out one or two showings of the latest Tom Cruise, or whatever. The impact of that, when there’s a dozen a year, isn’t so great, but when it’s fifty a year, it starts to change the whole basis of the business.

“The other question is what impact, if any, positive or negative, does this have on regional and touring theatres. The availability of these [broadcasts] across the country is perhaps taking away people who have limited disposable income from going to see live theatre that comes to their neighborhood.

“I think this works because it’s performance, and, because, the first time it’s done, it’s live. There’s a comparable sense of jeopardy in the cinema as there is in the theatre. Jeopardy is part of what the theatre is about. They may trip up or forget their lines, and you don’t want that, but, at the same time, it’s what gives a charge to theatre. And that charge is transferred across to live cinema.”

We’re living in a wonderful era of this access to culture. If you haven’t seen either of the Henry IV productions, there will be repeats in certain cities: check the RSC website. You can get an idea of what the filmed productions look like in this onstage trailer from the RSC:

Photos by Kwame Lestrade for the RSC.