Translating Live to Online – Pius McGrath

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.

As a Performer, when you first hear the phrase ‘Translating Live to Online’ it sounds like a straight forward enough process, ‘just point a camera at a stage where the performance is happening and stream it right?’… Simple, it isn’t.

Well, to do it effectively with regard for the experience of the audience member at home aswell as the audience in the space (if any) it isn’t. It isn’t exactly Theatre and it isn’t Film either, it lies somewhere in between, in uncharted territory, a space that is new, exciting and potentially quite daunting.

This week-long workshop facilitated by Belltable:Connect funded by Creative Ireland and Limerick City and County Council offered an opportunity to research and explore the many facets and pertinent questions that pre Covid-19, didn’t normally crop up during the mounting of a production i.e. ‘How do we ensure the audience member at home who’s in their pyjamas eating a bowl of pasta doesn’t turn the stream off five minutes into the performance if they get bored?’

I have been a performer for a couple of years now and I’ve never really considered the fact that someone in an audience would turn the performance off if they could, how naïve of me because now, THEY CAN. Game Changer.

To say this week of discovery with Simon Thompson blew my creative little socks off would be an understatement. Let’s take the journey so far step by step.

I first discovered the term ‘Shared Experience’ over 10yrs ago when I worked with Simon for the first- time during Orchard Theatre company’s production of ‘Bouncers’ circa 2011. He introduced me to the ideas and concepts of Ensemble and Complicité, he directed me to the work of Jacques Le Coq and Philippe Gaulier. We practiced and drilled the principles of Le Jeu (The Game). As an Ensemble we were pushed both physically and mentally in pursuit of our character development, subsequently even more so during the rehearsal process of ‘Freud’s Last Session’ by Mark Saint Germain back in 2012.

I had a suspicion of what to expect being back ‘in the room’ again with my mentor from years gone by.

Monday started cordially with a coffee and a chat, Master and Apprentice reunited once more, and then, the neutralising began. We have a short hand developed from over the years, so I know exactly when the physical isolation fatigue is gonna hit me, and he knows what I’m thinking in my pre-emptive movements to lessen the pain, “Toes pointing down, no cheating!”, the game was afoot!

Monday morning was a whistle stop tour of old drill staples and routines comprising of everything from Laban and Commedia, to Mask Work and Improvisation. Tuning up the instrument because the band was about to learn a whole new piece of music in the afternoon.

Kinetic Empathy, here’s where we started to scrape the surface. Kinetic Empathy encompasses the concept that we can choreograph an audience’s emotional journey and make them feel a particular way at a moment in time through the way we Play.

This is interesting as this is where we can first test the Audience as being either an active or passive observer. The passive observer, buys a ticket, sits in a seat and might just let the performance wash over them, not fully engaged or just partially engaged. The active observer is where we, as performers, give credence to making a connection immediately upon entry into a space and share the space with them, they know we’re present and we acknowledge their presence, we invite them to play the game with us, giving them the opportunity to be a part of something, this creates a hugely different dynamic.

For the uninitiated the term ‘Clocking’ is used to describe when a performer enters a space and makes connection with the audience straight away. Putting the Audience as the focus allows us to run these processes of ‘kinetic empathy’ and ‘clocking’ in tandem to garner direct engagement.

Direct engagement is subconsciously forceful and can result in mirroring, this can be mirroring of physicality, breath or perceived emotional states. Here we begin to play with impetus and drivers, not just of the characters but of the audience, to play the game with us, and follow the narrative before them.

The traditional questions of who, what, when, where and why, get muddled when you bring in elements of transforming the space, no Pros-arch or traditional theatre presentation, not black box style, not even site specific, but by becoming site responsive. The Play responds to its environment and now that sets the scene and influences the rhythm of the text. The environment is now a hybrid virtual environment somewhere between Live and Online, it presents the quandary of how do we achieve Virtual Complicité?

Tuesday and Wednesday were taken up with examining how a performance is consumed through the prism of multiple viewing platforms and how this changes the mechanics and ultimately the DNA of a Theatre piece. Considerations now have to be made with regard to what devices the viewer at home is watching/consuming content on, is it a laptop? a phone? a projector and screen/wall set up? as opposed to being seated in the second row of a theatre a few metres from the action.

How do we share the action? For example, if we zoom the camera in to give a close up of an actor’s face for the online viewer then that is a completely different perspective to the one the audience member actually present in the space receives.

How do we guarantee the fidelity of the presentation online? And how do we leverage the platforms effectively for this? Whilst at the same time emancipating the spectator and trying to understand their pre-conditioned ideas around online content which ultimately determines who this audience might be from 2020 onward.

There are so many permutations once you deep-dive into this area that by late Wednesday afternoon I wondered could we just put the lid back on this virtual Pandora’s box.

Thursday Morning feeling recharged, we attacked it again with new Vigour, relishing the task before us. We took charge with the passive and active audience member again, character profiling the habits and routines that are different. Examining the conscious effort required to physically attend a Live Theatre show versus, the flexibility a recorded online presentation can provide to fit into people’s lives easily working around obligations such as work and family.

We understood we needed to make the physical audience member comfortable but we needed to give the virtual audience member confidence. The virtual presentation has to deliver the ‘Live Feel’ with sensory fullness to even compete with the multitude of online offerings out there. We concluded the need for Technical Infallibility, the audio cannot drop out, the visuals cannot have latency due to buffering or bandwidth issues, if we lose any element of the technicals we lose the virtual audience, it has the same effect as a ‘full black out’ in a Live space.

During the week running parallel to all this investigative research we were also devising and layering a new piece that came from the research I carried out earlier in the year as part of the Belltable:Connect 10 Bursaries. This really helped anchor some of the new found principles from the ‘Translating Live to Online’ journey. We were able to take scenes and aspects of character dynamics and develop counterpoints of narrative and balance.

Similarly, we exposed the text to Duplicity of Voice and Duplicity of Physicality, creating deliberate contradictions as touchstones and reference for further examination in a complete rehearsal room setting.

On Friday, we examined our findings, ultimately coming to the sobering conclusion that from this moment in 2020 onwards, we have to consider making theatre with a virtual method in mind, it might not work for every piece initially but we must acknowledge that the landscape has changed utterly, and we must adapt or, risk ostracising a large portion of society from experiencing theatre in some way, shape or form. That would be a travesty and that would be the complete antithesis of what shared experience represents.

The final segment of the ‘Translating Live to Online’ week was held on Saturday, an intensive virtual workshop with film-maker Nathan Campion, exploring the options available for content creation and how to deliver the content in an easy and identifiable way. Nathan gave a robust analysis of composition and connecting visuals to the subtext of a story. In a comprehensive mornings work, we covered everything from Lighting to Audio recording, to camera angles and editing. We looked at how framing can underpin a narrative and enhance the audience’s engagement with a performance.

On reflection, the ‘Translating Live to Online’ workshop week has imbued me with a new energy for pushing the limits of what we can create for audiences at home and in a theatre setting. It has piqued my interest in asking questions that a little more than twelve months ago would have seemed like a futile endeavour and It has allowed me put the shape on a new script that will hopefully be on a stage and a screen near you very soon.

Sincerest thanks to Marketa, Simon and Nathan for a most exhilarating week.

Onward, the game is afoot!