Digital Manifesto: Addendum #4

People Are Watching – Do you care?

There is a line in the original Manifesto which reads: “The stage and the screen are two extremely different platforms and if concessions are not made, the work will not translate as you feel it should.” Along with many other strongly worded hints at this concept, this line encompasses the thought in a nice compact form. After watching more on-line offerings (some after seeing the in-person version days before) I feel it needs to be highlighted and expanded upon.

Yes, things seem to be getting better out there, and yes, live performance is coming back, but, the digital format should continue to be offered and improved upon. It might, by some, be seen as a burden or dismissed for lack of budgets, but this is ‘The Now’, that format is, more than ever, at your disposal so it must be explored. Digital performance should be seen as a way of expanding your audience and your art, and not as a chore that must be accomplished. Still, this medium is being treated like an afterthought and not with the same focus and respect given to the in-person audience.

Recently I watched a show in-person, then a few days later, watched the streaming version. It was not a tremendously pleasant experience. Besides a few different camera angles/options and some basic side to side cuts, there was no shifts in the lighting, sound, or performances. It was the exact same show, only now coming through the cameras and not my own eye balls. This didn’t need to be a completely new show, but there was no concession, no adjustments for the digital watching experience and this has to change.

Lighting is not the same through the eye as through a lens. The eye will adjust quite easily, the lens will not. Low light in a space can be intimate, low light on a screen can be pixelated mud. Shadows in a space can be soft, subtle, but on a screen, are harsher and have greater contrast. This is the same as seeing vibrant and dramatic publicity photos of a show and then seeing the space in person and feeling like everything so much more faded and flatter. The lighting for a streaming performance needs to be rehearsed, experimented with and re-imagined for that specific transmission.

More often than not, the sound is a mess in a streamed show. Depending on the placement of the speakers and microphones, some music and SFX are too loud and most of the dialogue is too muffled – whether that’s with a mask or not. If your mics are too far away, or you’re not using enough of them, you’re going to create dead spots and as soon as an actor turns, that sound level will change. And the discrepancy between vocal strength becomes glaringly apparent. Overlapping sounds or dialogue in a space can work if the audience knows where those sounds/words are coming from. On a screen, without a clear focus, it’s just confusion. If a show is hard to hear, if dialogue is a strain to understand, you will lose the audience and guarantee a mediocre experience at best.   

The streaming performance is still, for the most part, just the rehearsed in-person performance, with no adjustments. So, if I’m watching at home, I realize the performance isn’t for me, and my viewing experience has not been considered. Now, this has been the case for years of filmed performances, and those audiences are probably used to that, but this is ‘The Now’ and things need to be adjusted. We might have a generation whose first option will be streaming art and not in-person, and we are not offering anything specifically for them – unless the show was conceived in that way. So, if an actor is delivering a brilliant monologue to the in-person audience and I’m sitting at home watching, is it for me as well, or am I just eavesdropping? Use the cameras, use what they can offer. Find the right moments when it makes sense to have your actors look right into the lens, and at the streaming audience.

What are the solutions? They are simple and complex, as most solutions are. If you are producing an in-person performance that you are planning on streaming, you need to direct both versions of that show. If it’s a filmed (not live) version that will be offered after the live run, one of those live shows, or a dedicated night, needs to be set aside and re-imagined for the on-line experience. Lighting, sound and performance need to be adjusted. Even having a camera person inside the action during a live in-person performance is not a big deal. The audience understands this, and if you have advertised that performance for the purpose to film the streaming version, they will be even more into it. Like going to a taping of a TV show, the audience will follow you if you are up-front with them.

Live and Streaming are two different spaces and need to be treated that way. It’s more work, yes, but if done well, it’s more literal and digital ‘bums in seats’. Someone has taken the time to go on-line and watch your show, don’t make them an after-thought because closing a lap-top is so much easier than walking out of a theatre. It’s not all doom and gloom (in the theatre, the real world is another story…), I have seen performances that are understanding these concepts enthusiastically. Allowing a camera person to move freely within the performance, using mics with more focus on clarity, and taking both spaces, live and screen, into consideration.

Moving forward, think of your art and all the work you put into the show, only to have it simply dumped on-line. Is it the same show? Are you maximizing the tools at your disposal? Are audiences actually seeing your vision? Are you respecting the audience, no matter the platform?  

We can do better.

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