The film and television industries are increasingly looking to theatre to source new screen productions. But what are the limitations of this burgeoning trend?
It’s hard to imagine a moment on television in 2015 more simultaneously joyous and – to the uninitiated – baffling than Jess Thom’s rousing grand finale to Live from Television Centre. Giant plush-toy cats hung from the ceiling of a large sound stage above dancers in silver bodysuits and masks shaped like biscuits. Thom, a performance-maker and ‘real life Tourettes superhero’, sat in a wheelchair in her superhero outfit, surrounded by dozens of theatre-makers from across the United Kingdom. Together they sang of how much they love cats – and how much cats love biscuits.
Thom punctuated this song with other things she loves – exclamations crafted by her Tourettes – and the result was mayhem and a celebration of the best that theatre can be. Perhaps somewhat improbably, two hours of BBC Television programming and a soon-to-be-defunct television studio had been given over to Battersea Arts Centre and some of Britain’s leading experimental and contemporary theatre artists – and they had pulled it off. As the finale closed, Thom stared down the camera and implored her audience to remember: ‘Art should be invested in with every fibre of your energy bean!’
Live from TVC was a critical success. Lyn Gardner wrote in the Guardian that the experiment ‘reminds us that TV and live theatre have much to offer each other’. Indeed, this collaboration was part of a greater international trend emerging in the United States and Australia; of bringing live performance-makers to the world of the screen.
These art forms, of course, have never been completely disparate. The ABC once programmed performance every Sunday, featuring recordings of the Australian Ballet or Broadway shows filmed by the Public Broadcasting Service. The history of Hollywood is bound up in the history of American theatre, with adaptations from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to August: Osage County (2013). Theatre-makers such as Katie Mitchell and Benedict Andrews have long integrated video into their work. And, of course, actors frequently traverse genres.
In Australia… we’ve started to see the filmmaking process taken over by performance-makers themselves.
But this current trend is bigger than one form simply borrowing from another. Television and film producers are considering what contemporary performance and theatre-makers can bring to the screen. By creating a space for collaboration, new terrain is being explored.
Live from TVC was both a celebration of contemporary British theatre and the legacy of the BBC. In the United States, home of the commercial Broadway musical, we’ve seen a new investment in live made-for-TV broadcasts of classic musicals in all of their glossy glory. And in Australia, a comparatively small country with an equally small cinema industry, we’ve started to see the filmmaking process taken over by performance-makers themselves.
Australian films have always intertwined with our theatre: Andrew Bovell is more often listed as the writer of Lantana (2001) than of his original play, Speaking in Tongues (1996); the masculinity of 1970s and 1980s Australia is best documented in the big-screen adaptations of David Williamson’s The Removalists (1975) and The Club (1980). Theatre continues to be a rich source for film, with new adaptations regularly produced.
But in 2015, three films were released that signified an exciting trend: adaptations not created by a new team of experienced filmmakers, but by their original theatre-makers. With Spear (2015) and The Daughter (2015) playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Girl Asleep (2015) at the Berlinale, they demonstrate new possibilities for the direction of Australian cinema.
Girl Asleep was first staged by the Windmill Theatre Company at the Adelaide Festival in 2014, with the film already in pre-production. Director Rosemary Myers roots her film – about a teenage girl trying to settle into her new school and burgeoning adulthood – firmly in the theatrical. Jonathon Oxlade’s production design is a punchy and bright homage to the 1970s, with strange creatures bursting out of walls and from behind trees. Myers doubles her cast, many playing characters of the real world and of the fantasy of the forest – often a practical financial consideration in theatre, here having the same actor play multiple roles becomes a purely artistic choice.
If occasionally the film falls down when the temptation of theatrical storytelling takes over to the detriment of cinematic sensibilities, it remains an intriguing risk that few other directors would have had the vision to take.
The Daughter was originally staged as The Wild Duck (2011), Simon Stone’s contemporary Australian adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1884 play – about a teenage girl desperately trying to hold onto the life she loves – which toured throughout Australia and Europe. On stage, Stone placed his actors behind a glass wall: claustrophobic and trapped under voyeuristic observation. On screen, the film untethers it from the theatrical completely and opens up to wide vistas of lakes and bush filled with gum trees, always hazy and cool under a blanket of winter. He shows long roads and wide shots, cutting back on the dialogue from his play to use close-ups and editing to tell the story visually, utilising silence. In his feature debut, Stone has a unique cinematic vocabulary that feels like it has been developing for years.
Stephen Page’s Spear sees a young Indigenous man walking through Australia, observing his country and trying to discover who he will become. As a dance film, there is a direct association back to Page’s original Bangarra Dance Theatre production, Skin (2000), for which he won Helpmann Awards for Best Dance and Best New Australian Work.
Integral to much of Bangarra’s work is a sense of connection to country, and film allows Page to break out of the confines of theatre into the built and natural environment of the Australian landscape. Watching Page’s lyrical direction of Bonnie Elliott’s cinematography, it is easy to think Spear could have been constructed as a moving-image piece for an art gallery: for its artistic merit, but also for the simple and practical consideration of the difficulties art-house dance films face at the box office. It feels like an important statement, then, for Page to occupy a traditional film space with such a radical and original work.
The divide between performance and screen has perhaps been artificially widened in Australia by segregated funding: with screen projects supported by Screen Australia and the Australia Council supporting all other art forms. Under these circumstances, the Adelaide Film Festival was crucial in pioneering the model that lead to both Girl Asleep and Spear being produced.
Under the AFF’s HIVE program, launched in 2011 and funded by Screen Australia, the Australia Council and the ABC, artists from different sectors were brought together in a workshop setting to explore collaborative possibilities, after which selected projects received production funding and support. Not only did this model create a space for conversation between practitioners of different art forms, but the unique tripartite funding situation meant Windmill and Bangarra could be directly involved in producing the screen adaptations.
Myers, Page and Stone developed their craft by creating work for live audiences, where stories have to be contained in fixed spaces, are mutable to change and are essentially ephemeral. The films created by these artists demonstrate their unique vision and practice, a deep knowledge of the source material and also carry with them the ghosts of their original performance. In this way, Girl Asleep, Daughter and Spear act as records of artists’ visions that would otherwise be lost in the transitory nature of theatre.
If, in Australia, there is a growing trend to develop films from the artistic avant-garde, in America there is a turn towards theatre to provide surefire commercial hits. NBC’s 2013 broadcast of The Sound of Music Live! was the first live broadcast of a musical created for US television since Cinderella in 1957. It is doubtful the production was organised out of loyalty and deference to the theatre. Rather, in a market with increasingly fragmented audiences, a live event was a way for the network to pull in ratings, trading on nostalgia and hugely popular country singer Carrie Underwood in the lead role.
The Sound of Music Live! reached an audience of nearly 20 million people, and (no doubt due to its success) the format returned again on NBC in 2014 with Peter Pan Live! and in 2015 with The Wiz Live!.
The Sound of Music Live! was a triumph for the television network in every aspect, excepting the quality of its artistry. Underwood was, at best, uncomfortable, and, at worst, frightened by her obligation to act. A script crafted with an expectation of audience response fell flat in the quiet of a soundstage. The set was largely unimaginative. Ultimately, the production’s biggest failing was just how safe it felt: television producers clearly willing to shoulder risk of a live broadcast, but without the artistic gamble to match. The resulting work felt static and uncomfortably artificial.
Peter Pan Live! was more theatrical, with an exciting meld of design and camera work, but it came off considerably worse in its casting of a frazzled-seeming Allison Williams as the eponymous lead, and an achingly awkward Christopher Walken as Captain Hook.
It wasn’t until last year’s The Wiz Live! that the network started to take its live screenings seriously. Casting an unknown actor as Dorothy – 18-year-old Shanice Williams – meant they cast talent over celebrity, while allowing star actors in bit parts to ensure broad appeal: Mary J Blige as the Wicked Witch of the West; Queen Latifah as the Wiz. But still, a flatness plagued the production: comedic and dramatic beats didn’t work in the absence of an audience.
Theatre revivals are most engaging when they act as a conversation with the text of the original and the politics of contemporary culture.
It wasn’t until rival network Fox – home of Glee – stole the format in early 2016 to produce Grease that the live-for-television broadcast musical felt like it could achieve artistic credibility. Fox went all out with their directors: pairing the staging knowledge of Hamilton’s Thomas Kail with the live television experience of Dancing with the Stars’ Alex Rudzinski. They crafted an ambitious production with a strong cast, punchy editing, and a live audience dressed up as students of Rydell High. Filmed throughout the Warner Bros. Studios lot, Grease moved between inside and outside sets, adding a much-needed element of real-time risk to the live production with the skies threatening to rain at any point, and the opening song performed under umbrellas.
At their worst, these productions were a diverting television flirtation with stage nostalgia, good for a night of casual viewing if nothing more. But it seems this programming, dictated by commercial interests, will always be artistically safe. Established works do bring in audiences through name recognition – and the available rights for broadcast, unlike most contemporary musicals.
Theatre revivals are most engaging when they act as a conversation with the text of the original and the politics of contemporary culture. Works like The Sound of Music, Peter Pan and Grease will always struggle to be part of that conversation. The Wiz, originally staged in 1974, in many ways remains thrilling because of the way it manages to be explicitly about Black American culture while simultaneously existing in a world without white people, and yet in 2015, this means it exists outside social and political movements about racism and race relations in America today.
Theatre, at its best, is exciting and anarchistic: looking at this work, you feel network television will never give it a chance to rise to such heights.
Central to the NBC musicals and Live From TVC was the live aspect of the programmed event: they demanded immediate and collective watching of television through once-off appeal and the risk that something might go wrong. This was, of course, mitigated by rehearsals and reams of risk-management plans, but there are some things that can’t be planned for. It was this that made the programming of Jess Thom’s Broadcast from Biscuitland as the finale to Live From TVC so exciting. A leading artist and activist among her generation, Thom’s work deals with notions of access and inclusion for people with disabilities. In Live from TVC Thom opened with exactly what could go wrong: with her Tourettes ensuring she was ‘neurologically incapable of staying on script’ there was no script to be vetted; and there was also the possibility she could have a fit and would have to leave the broadcast.
In the United Kingdom, live-theatre broadcast cannot be separated from National Theatre Live: the phenomenally successful filming of stage works in London that then screen throughout the world. NT Live began in 2009 as an experimental outreach program for the company: in 2015 Hamlet, staring Benedict Cumberbatch, made almost £3,000,000 at the UK box office alone.
NT Live is an attempt at simulation: trying to capture the experience of theatre attendance honestly for a cinema audience. In this, Live from TVC could perhaps be positioned as in defiance to NT Live. Cameras weren’t neutrally introduced into the space. Instead, the artists reworked their material directly in response to the cameras, to the BBC, and to the unseen audience at home.
Central to this conceit was that, rather than using a theatre, the television centre itself was the stage: former glory and current construction site.
In their contribution titled The Time of Your Life, physical theatre company Gecko placed a camera operator with a Steadicam in the middle of a circular set, and spun the audiences’ vision around the concentricity of a man’s life before, in death, he and we, were spun out into the world behind the scenes. Theatre as television as life, they suggested, are all mere constructions. Common Wealth’s No Guts, No Heart, No Glory remained closest to its original staging inside boxing gyms, but the incredible defiance and claiming of broadcast space by these Muslim teenage girls reverberated powerfully on screen and in front of the audience of teenagers who moved among the action. If the American musicals celebrated uncritical nostalgia, Richard DiDomenici’s Redux Project – shot-for-shot remakes of BBC archive material – actively destabilised nostalgic notions.
Through the four theatre companies involved, Live from TVC became a slightly messy, incredibly ramshackle, utterly endearing love letter to performance and to television, all at once. For Thom, there were no major mishaps: just her trademark joy and hilarity. It was a conversation with theatre, with screen, and with audiences. When held in direct comparison, NT Live is clearly no such conversation: it’s merely a facsimile.
Among the celebration of NT Live and other replica broadcast models, there has been consternation. If audiences can be reached without the need for touring funding and infrastructure, does touring need to be supported? If theatre can be broadcast centrally, do smaller cities or regional areas need to be involved in its creation? Will performance be homogenised into forms that easily lend themselves to broadcast, rather than forms that interact with the audience? These are questions that will be grappled with more and more in Australia in the face of decreasing arts funding.
Models like NT Live, or the fledgling Australian National Theatre Live, are merely a practical way of documenting this century’s theatre. They themselves aren’t an interesting consideration of what theatre is and what theatre could be. But in the face of broadcast-as-outreach, artistic considerations are being made loudly and passionately: in broadcast musicals, in film adaptations, in anarchic television takeovers.
This is where the exciting questions about theatre and screen will take place. Some experiments will fail, and some will succeed gloriously. As the messy limbo between each art form is increasingly occupied, who knows what sort of art will be created?