Digital Theatre works with Britain’s leading theatre companies to capture live performances on screen. As tour budgets are increasingly cut, the aim is to give theatres the chance to extend their reach to global audiences, with partners including the Royal Court, the Young Vic and the RSC. Theatre directors love it (Stephen Sondheim was delighted by their film of last summer’s production of Into the Woods at Regents Park) and although there are other organisations filming theatre, Digital Theatre is the first to bring theatre into your living room, or – and this is where the Digital Theatre Plus part comes in – into the classroom. So what do they do exactly?
Fiona Lindsay, the Creative Producer of DT Plus, tells me how her experience working in the education department at the RSC has shaped her thinking about teaching theatre. “Without me realising it at the time, it really ingrained in me a sense of play – of how to play with plays – and of what works and does not work with a younger audience; what’s important to them and why it’s important.” The desire to share the step by step creative process of bringing a play alive is at the heart of DT Plus, and it was at the RSC that Lindsay met theatre director and Digital Theatre founder, Robert Delamere. When she heard his plans for the project she saw a chance to virtually recreate the kinds of exposé work they had done at the RSC, going behind the scenes and showing how theatre is made. “That is where the hunger is,” she says, “people are so hungry to know all that information”.
Digital Theatre Plus is, as the name suggests, Digital Theatre with extra bits, and the company is going from strength to strength. They are now in schools all over the world together with drama schools and universities, with different age groups using the resources in different ways. Schools welcome the chance to bring the West End into classrooms without the expense of getting a class there on a coach, while for university students, it is an opportunity to get behind the scenes – in a practical, vocational way – of the industry they are studying. Lindsay explains: “To be able to listen to Scott Graham from Frantic Assembly for example, talking about his process; to hear an actor saying, this is my reality; to watch a designer talking beautifully about his or her process – that’s really useful to them.” There is also a wealth of written content by theatre practitioners, and it is this emphasis on turning a younger audience on to theatre through practical insight that defines DT Plus. “The thing I really want to avoid is making people feel that it’s good for them. Of course it is – but you should never have to say that, to immerse someone in the experience and let them feel this for themselves is the most important thing.”
Lindsay admits herself that the ambition is a lofty one. It can be difficult to square your own ideas about teaching theatre and plays with restrictive, changeable school curricula, but DT Plus needs to stay useful in order to succeed. Lindsay notes she’s been around long enough to know that approaches go in cycles and that while she wants to work closely with exam boards she also wants to find a way of offering a true experience of theatre that won’t date, or become too attached to a particular way of thinking. Judging by the process so far the project is doing just this, reaching some far-flung places – among them a school in Ho Chi Minh City, the British School of the Netherlands and a university in Australia.
Partly it is the perception that British theatre is a benchmark for quality that attracts education institutions to the site, but what is unusual about DT Plus is that it offers the very latest theatre – the most current production of Macbeth, say – so that its content is always informing learning. As DT Plus expands, the team hopes to provide lots of archive material as well, so as to provide a well-rounded experience. They are currently working with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and with the Shakespeare Schools Festival, putting together an archive of filmed workshops, and hope to start work with the British Library too.
The resource is in its early stages, but growing fast. As they continue to develop a wide range of supplementary material such as interviews and documentaries, there are lots of new features planned to make the educational package as complete and easy to use as possible, including being able to watch and study plays scene by scene, with select commentary from actors and directors on particular key scenes. What Lindsay doesn’t want to lose is the basic theatricality of the experience: “When you walk into a theatre, you get excited by the thrill of it – just walking into a foyer can be exciting. So I think, whatever educational value this has, it has to be, from the moment you get onto that site, an exciting place to be.” DT Plus is striving to democratise the whole experience of going to the theatre, without losing that very personal sense of anticipation. And she hopes that by next year individuals – for instance a young director looking for inspiration – will also be able to subscribe to the site, in the same way that they can currently access the main Digital Theatre site.
It is worth pointing out that the filmed production really are worth a watch. There is something very intimate about viewing a live production in your own home, and through multiple camera angles it is possible to get a point of view on film that you can’t get as a sitting theatre audience. While getting up close to a stage actor’s face can at times be a bit disconcerting, the films have clear artistic merit of their own. When I ask Lindsay what Digital Theatre brings to the productions in terms of their own style, she tells me that its co-founders Delemare and Tom Shaw both have theatrical backgrounds, “so they are not going in with a heavy hand, they are going in with a really light hand and an open mind and want to capture the show in the best possible way. We work really closely with the artistic director of the piece, and shape it together so that we are telling the true story.” They film a maximum of three shows and assemble the best of the three, making sure they capture the moments a live audience might not get, “so, we bring the close-up; that’s what we bring.” It strikes me that if the films deliver one sort of close-up, the educational features deliver another sort: close-ups from behind the scenes.
“I suppose it is about transportation,” Lindsay tells me. “Theatre is about transportation and I think to transport anyone anywhere properly you have to give it time. It’s very difficult to be transported in a nanosecond, so on this site we will show whole films. Our interviews and documentaries will be a substantial, good length. I don’t want to give anybody a short experience. Now, I wouldn’t expect anybody to come into the theatre and then to be stopped half way through watching and I think that by encouraging people to spend time immersing themselves in this way we can transport them into a really exciting wondrous world that is theatre.”
Have a browse of the Digital Theatre archives at http://www.digitaltheatre.com/production.
Image credit: Frantic Assembly’s Lovesong by Johann Persson