Theatre performance in a digital space
Last month I did some work with BA students who were doing a version of imitating the dog’s Airlock, which I performed in and assistant directed on earlier this year. Airlock was a series of three graphic novel episodes made as part of the BBC Arts Culture in Quarantine Filmed in Lockdown series for the BBC iPlayer. Though made in the constraints of the first lockdown - we were all filming from home through Skype on our laptops, the pieces are very much within our sphere of work as a company and drew on a long developed style of performing within a digital space.
It was in the moment of supporting the students with their own performances in a green screen world that the specialism we’ve honed over the years struck me and in this blog piece I aim to explore some of those techniques.
As a performer being filmed in a theatre space what I want to know first of all is, where am I being put? Being on an empty stage (or in my own flat as with Airlock) I need to know what the digital space is I am acting within so I can hold that in my mind whilst performing. In Heart of Darkness, imitating the dog’s 2018 show, the scenes of the narrative were live green screened. The audience could simultaneously see both the construction and the end result of the inhabitation of the digital space. So, in a scene where I played Emilia walking with Marlow in the gardens on the stage I was walking on the spot alongside Keicha Greenidge with us both standing on a table. For this moment I needed to know the shot size, how much of me can you see? This impacted the size of my camera performance and kept my movements within the frame. I wanted to know what the digital image is - where are we walking, what can my character see in that world? I needed to know the speed of tracking in the digital world to be able to match my walking on the spot pace to the world and create that reality for the audience. Finally, I need to know my eyeline for the camera - and with the way that we work in imitating the dog this eyeline for the camera shot is often different to what would be my theatre eyeline. It is the camera eyeline that takes priority, as that is the image that goes into the digital world, which the whole construction is working towards the creation of. That construction is the ‘game’ of the scenographic set up.
Then, having learnt all of this, I want to keep all that information in my mind whilst I play the scene! It could seem like these restrictions in performance could distract from playing your character but it becomes second nature. It is only with new performers, or when working with students I remember that it can be a disconnecting method. But really actors always perform in multiple realities. In a Shakespeare you may be a character in a battle on an empty stage. Theatre is an imaginative medium. By gathering all the visual information that is needed for the camera performance and keeping it with you during rehearsals acting in a digital space becomes as natural as any other type of theatre.
A really pleasurable technique for the audience, and a great way to ensure cohesion, is to make moments of connection with the digital world. In one of the student pieces the scene had a king sitting on his throne. There was great pleasure in the rehearsal room to see the actor sat on a chair covered with green material being transposed on screen onto a plush red velvet seat. We worked together to give the performer the information that he needed for the shot; to match the direction of his knees to that of the throne, to get his head in the direction that would make the conversation with his Queen look ‘correct’ for the screen world and to angle his body for a chair bigger than the one he was really sitting on. But the moment of real satisfaction came from getting him to wrap his fingers over the arm of his throne; as they curled round the digital piece of furniture the picture really made sense. By having the actor interacting with the digital world he truly became part of that space and for the audience that moment of connection between the abstract stage space and the digital world is very, very enjoyable to watch.
The final thing to consider if you are performing in a digital world as part of a theatre show is what can you do to juxtapose or add to the alluring digital space in the live theatre experience. This question challenges the performer to consider the broader picture of the theatre experience. imitating the dog’s work uses digital worlds but is very definitely a live experience. Even with Airlock, which is presented as a film, the ‘live’ element was retained by showing the green screen world of the Skype call at the same time as the digital world.
As a performer I find it useful to consider what I can do to perform concurrently in both the digital and live space. For example, if I know the shot is a close up on my face then I explore what is possible with my performance in my body that gives them something different to what is seen on the screen. I considered this a lot with Night of the Living Dead - Remix, which was made at the beginning of 2020. The show recreated shot by shot George A Romero’s 1968 zombie film and the two versions were projected side by side above the stage. With this show the angles and detailing of the shots were more important than ever, our recreation was in earnest and it was the effort to do that as accurately as possible that made the show. However, it couldn’t be forgotten that the show was a live experience. As a performer I wanted to find what I could add to the theatre experience beyond the digital world. Where could I add character outside of the digital frame? I particularly explored this nightly in Barbra’s monologue. The shots of her are from the waist up and intercut with shots of the character Ben. This gave me freedom with my legs; how could I add to the tension, the feeling of the character in that moment through what I did with my legs. The cut aways to Ben also gave me seconds to move outside the film track as performed by Judith O’Dea in the original. I needed to dispose of the prop table cloth between two shots and I chose to do this purposefully towards the audience and to throw it down hurriedly to heighten the sense of jeopardy of the live performer making the next shot as perfectly as possible as per the challenge that we set ourselves with this show.
These are a few examples of where working in this style has led me and I hope that there will be many more opportunities to continue to push this method. Performing in a digital space is a really exciting way of working and offers lots of exciting challenges to the performer. The rules of the game are quite strict, but it is a very fun game to play. And once you are familiar with the rules then you give yourself freedom with how you can push, stretch and bend these rules in ways that are pleasurable for both the performer and the audience.