Translating Live to Online – Johanna O’Brien

BelltableConnect Translating Live to Online funded by Creative Ireland and Limerick City and County Council through Creative Ireland Made in Limerick Grant 2020. Photo by Simon Thompson
BelltableConnect Translating Live to Online funded by Creative Ireland and Limerick City and County Council through Creative Ireland Made in Limerick Grant 2020. Photo by Simon Thompson

The certainty of being able to perform and share stories in a theatre space is painfully fickle in these difficult times. I applied for Translating Live to Online to explore whether it was possible to reach out and share stories with others while the barrier of government guidelines are in place.

We had 5 days to see if we could start to answer the question of how to engage audiences with live theatre online and the pessimist in me thought this might be an impossible task. I’ve seen a lot of recorded theatre pieces shown online but they often times lack audience engagement from viewers watching the piece from a laptop screen. These pieces were not specifically made for people watching at home but rather for the live audience in front of them. They lack the “live” feel despite them being live recording. It was easy to record a play and put that recording online but I wasn’t sure if it could be made to share an experience and to engage someone watching at home through a phone or laptop.

So the week began. I met Simon and Justyna who I’d be working with for the week. We spoke a lot about what gives theatre a “live” feel. We talked about producing work through play, about creating work with empathy and a sense of complicite so that it’s shared with the audience. On paper, these ideals sounded great but then we had to go about practically exploring these elements.

We worked on body, movement of the body and how it much it communicates. We introduced some masks to the work and watched each other play and explore movement, pace, tempo and character. No major discoveries were being made but it was all still very interesting to note importance of body and simple movements to communicate story. The dreaded realists in me still wondered if we were going to make any progress on answering how to translate engaging live theatre to online. We started to play some more this time using Boom Whackers and Larval Mask which are full faced masks with abstract expressions. After about an hour and a half of devising through play, we had created a very simple piece which told the story of a hunter hunting a very rare bird all told using movement, body percussion, the boom whackers and the masks. Later that day, we also devised solo improv scenes using more Larval Masks. At the end of the day, we noted that the masks were most alive when facing the audience and the most important point was that the inclusion of the audience was key to the performance especially when using the masks.

The following day Simon brought in some half masks that only exposed the mouth exposed and a very fun script that involved multiple characters. For me, this was the most exciting day in the entire week because we were starting to answer some of the questions of how to translate live to online. By the end of the day we had the bones of a 10minute piece. We played with and explored the piece over the final 3 days of the workshop and roughly recorded it on the final day.. This piece would be the vehicle through which all these lovely exciting discoveries were made.

Here are a few reasons why what we were making made me very hopeful for translating live to online (to my realist’s dismay)

1) Use of half the Mask: The use of the half mask immediately engages the audience. The expressions on the masks are so full of life and when the actor creates a character and adds voice to it, it is a pure delight to watch.
2) Genre: the genre of the piece was very witty, funny and fast paced which is also engaging to an audience.
3) Production: The production value was high but economical including everything from props to the movement of character. We had put a great deal of thought into designing a slick show with minimal props and set but with very high production value. This minimalism allows the audience to share the actor’s experience of imaging the world. They are very active in creating the piece with the performers who are only working with a table, masks and (in this case) 2 other props.
4) Playing space and perspectives: we created a show that would fit into a laptop screen as such. We considered the audience and the camera all through devising the piece so the movements were contained to a stage that was approx. 3m x 3m. This allows a camera to get as close as possible without losing the performance. We also favoured moving vertically on stage rather than horizontally to further contain the piece and create lovely depth as one actor stood up stage and the other down stage. It allowed for Close ups without jeopardising the story telling so the audience is never excluded.
5) Multi-functionality of the piece: due to all the above reasons, the piece can be performed in front of a live audience while recording it for online use and it will engage both audiences. It will maintain a “live” feel as it will be shot in one take with multiple cameras set up in the audience seats.

We ended the week by planning to shoot the piece in a black box theatre with cameras to see if all our research and discoveries will hold up. Overall it was a very exciting week and I was delighted to be able to start answering the question of how to Translate Live to Online. The insights we made were significant and hopefully this research can help artists and audiences connect again. Thanks to Simon, Justyna, Marketa for the very inspiring week.