Stage and screen: first questions for The After – Illuminations

For those of us who have been working in screen adaptations of stage performances it feels as if, in the specific as well as the general, over the past three weeks the world has turned upside down. From being just one strand in the work of theatre, opera and dance companies, nice-to-have for many but perhaps not absolutely at the heart of things, recordings in many forms of stage performances have become central. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been enjoying free streams of content that, until ten days ago, and in large part because of rights restrictions, was accessible only by scholars.

Performance companies, large and small, have been showcasing their work online, for one night only or for just seven days or for months, and for free or for a donation or as part of a trial for a streaming service. We have been privileged to engage with productions from the National Theatre, Berlin’s Schaubühne, Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London’s Royal Opera House, Rosas in Belgium, The Wooster Group, Royal Shakespeare Company and countless others. And there’s much more to come, from the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine initiative and from other projects still being worked through.

A greater degree of mainstream critical attention has been paid to stage to screen translations in the last three weeks than in the past decade. There have been numerous coordinated Twitter parties, watch-alongs and post-show Q&As on Zoom. Companies are also beginning to make original work for online. In many ways all of this digital activity is thrilling and heady and more-than-slightly overwhelming.

Surely this is all entirely positive? Or probably? Maybe? For it’s not too early to endeavour to assess all this, to take stock somewhat, and to start to consider what may happen in The After. In whenever and whatever the new abnormal world will be, how will screen adaptations be regarded and consumed and discussed? What place will they have in whatever shapes are adopted by whatever is left of the cultural ecology?

There’s a lot to unpack in this article, notably a series of questions that the author, John Wyver, poses about what will happen in the future.

I live three miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon, and attend performances at the Royal Shakespeare Company regularly. I got to know John Wyver, the author of this article, back in 2014, when I interviewed him for this website. This interview took place shortly before the live broadcast of Henry IV Part II, the third play that the RSC filmed for live broadcast. (After Richard II, with David Tennant, and Henry IV Part I, with Antony Sher as Falstaff.)

Since then, I have had the opportunity to attend performances both of live broadcasts and camera rehearsals, and seeing how they are produced shows that they are different from the live theater experience, and that they bring a new language to the way theater is expressed. One of the key elements in these films is the proximity. With a number of cameras – usually six, one on a crane – directors have a great deal of options as to how they present plays. They can shift between long shots and close ups, they can use tracking shots, and the crane can offer interesting angles. Whether or not these films should be considered as separate from the stage productions is a question for critics, but as someone who has seen both, I feel that they are a very interesting replacement for not being able to attend the live performances, but are also works that stand on their own as versions of the live productions. I’ve seen similar films from other sources – notably the National Theatre – and they all bring the audience much closer to the play than is usually possible in a theater.

But the broader questions of the future are certainly worth considering. Wyver asks:

  • How will audiences return to bricks and mortar auditoria?
  • Will there be caution about sitting close to 10 or 100 or 1,000 others?

This is the big question. Before the lockdown, my partner and I had tickets for a play in early April at the RSC. Some time ago, we had decided that we would not attend it, and, if it wasn’t canceled would return our tickets (as members, we can do so, receiving a gift voucher in exchange). Because even on the best of nights, the theater is full of people coughing, and we couldn’t imagine sitting for three hours in close proximity to people with the thought that they could be infecting us.

Just the other day, we were discussing the issue about returning to the theater. Will there be caution about sitting close to large numbers of people? If I may be blunt, hell yeah! I think that, until we have a vaccine for COVID-19, there’s no way that I’m attending anything in a closed space, or even in an open space in close proximity. I’m not elderly, but I do have asthma, so that puts me at risk. And since the majority of people attending productions at the RSC do skew toward the elderly, I think a lot of other people will feel the same way I do.

This is an important question for all types of performers, for theater, for live music, and even for cinema. There are certainly people who think this illness is not a big deal, and they will continue to flout lockdown rules, but you can’t fill performance spaces only with people who think they can’t get infected.

This is a truly terrible situation for all those in the performance arts, and the questions in this article are worth considering for perhaps establishing a new relationship with audiences post-COVID-19. The fact that filmed theater has become popular now, or at least recognized, is partly because there is a substantial number of such films available; in the article, Wyver points out that several RSC productions are available on a streaming service, and others will be broadcast on the BBC. (Don’t miss the Macbeth, with Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack!) Many people who weren’t aware of these films are discovering them, and this could, at a minimum, interest them going forward, if they cannot afford or are too distant from theaters.

However, the price of these broadcasts in cinemas is out of reach of many people. At £20 a ticket where I live (cheaper in other cities), it’s too much to expect people to pay for something they may just want to “try out.” Cinemas love these productions, because they often sell out, and if they can double their take for one screen on an evening, that’s always desirable. But the prices are discriminatory, and they prevent lower-income people from partaking in the experience. I would love to see these films available on streaming services; not the subscription services, but ones like iTunes. I don’t know the economics of these productions, but it should be profitable if they charge a bit more than the price of a movie without gouging.

Finally, I think the most important issue for the creative arts is the fact that so many people are out of work. In the UK, if a business furloughs an employee, the government covers 80% of their salary, but many if not most creative people are freelance or self-employed, and they risk serious financial problems if this continues. And the real question is how long? Until we have a vaccine, there is no answer to this question.

Source: Stage and screen: first questions for The After – Illuminations