Robert Delamere is currently CEO and Co-Founder of DigitalTheatre.com, which was established to capture and distribute world-class theatre to global audiences. We had the chance to speak with him following the success of The Old Vic’s sell-out production of The Crucible starring Richard Armitage. Read below for our in-dept interview…
How has DigitalTheatre.com evolved since it was established in 2009? Who is your target audience and has it changed since then?
When we launched in 2009 it was literally the first ever on-demand platform for theatre plays. Thinking about back then, I don’t know what the hell we thought we were doing, trying to launch a global website from an office in Poland Street! But we’re very proud of how it’s grown so far. I think its offer has grown, and we now have clear intentions regarding acquisitions of new content. Obviously with success come huge challenges – such as maintaining a 24h, 7 days a week, 365 days a year service and having to supply content for both our education website and the online consumers. It’s also a new business, a new young market – at the moment we are having a lot of international conversations with multiple countries around the world about partnerships. In a way it’d be like saying, on Monday night you can go to the Old Vic, on Tuesday night you can go to the Bouffe du Nord, on Wednesday night you can go to the Royal Opera House, on Thursday night you can go to the Liceu in Barcelona and so on. In terms of our audience we’re very surprised that, actually, by a small majority, our main audience is in North America, followed by the UK, Canada, Europe, Australia, and then interesting places like Israel, Russia and Brazil; interestingly our Facebook following is predominantly from Medina, from the Middle East.
Nowadays it is almost expected for theatre plays to be filmed and distributed in cinemas and/or online, but that was not the case when you started – what were the main preconceptions about filmed theatre and how did you overcome those?
I had quite a few people telling me that what I was doing was interfering with the theatre experience, but I felt like there was something very disconcerting with the way plays were usually filmed. Sometimes you could see the audience sitting in front of you and for me that was even more distracting in a way, because when you’re watching a play at home you’re not part of a collective group – which you are when you’re sitting in a theatre during the live performance. I feel there was a bit of a dislocation, whereas instead there should be a direct experience. Before this digital explosion people would visit a theatre website just to book tickets but that’s very different now, there are lots of online experiences attached to live events, with so many different offerings that you almost feel kind of crowded because everyone’s finding a different niche.
How do you address the problem of staying true to the original material?
Being a theatre and TV director I have a very particular set of skills that I can rely on when I’m working with theatre producers and directors. Different directors work in different ways but I tend to work with them in advance, and what I try to do is follow the original intention of their directorial vision. For instance, Yaël and I spent about ten hours in the BFI, just me understanding her thematic perspective and what she was trying to bring to life. Though I normally work with a DOP, for The Crucible I still effectively storyboarded the whole thing, which is quite lengthy (being 3 and half hours long). What you’re storyboarding are the key dynamics of the scene and what you’re doing is trying to figure out which perspective the camera should take, to ensure that it is with the vision of the production. It would be very easy for me to shift the interpretation by making a scene about Mary Warren when it’s actually about another character. It does become a bit like the David Mamet’s concept of beats – it’s about deciding moment by moment who is carrying the rhythm of the play at that point. Some directors are like ‘Robert just get on with it’, but some people are actually interested in being engaged in the making of the film. For instance Maria Friedman and Michael Attenborough – he was fascinated by how framing and cutting works in relationship to the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language, and Maria was really fascinated by the process of constructing a narrative through shots and seeing what were the differences between her vision and how that translates onto the screen. With Yaël and The Crucible there was a very deep understanding; it’s a play that I’ve directed myself, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet Arthur Miller when I was 24, so this was one of those plays which had a personal meaning and value. I think it was hugely helpful that I understood it from an actual live directorial point of view.
Do you do rehearsals with the actors?
There are no rehearsals with the actors. I know when people do broadcast they do rehearsals because they’re working to a camera script, but we do something slightly different. What we do is kind of a ‘surveillance shoot’, and we don’t really stick to a pre-ordained rehearsed shot structure – I prefer to have all those options. Nowadays we are very immersed in screen drama and we have an unconscious understanding of it – Eisenstein would be very happy! For me, if you’re watching a screen experience it has to obey (or disobey if that’s what you want) the language of the screen. There’s something extraordinary about live performances – If you think from the actors’ point of view, it’s a very unique environment for them, as they are able to play in a through line, which often they don’t get to do in film and TV, because scenes and even shots can be done days apart. I think that one of the reasons why The Crucible has had the impact that it had is because there are this very achieved actors doing these very complete and intense performances, and we were able to follow and ‘regalise’ them by capturing them on camera.
To me, live performance and filmed theatre don’t necessarily exclude each other, you can experience both – what are your thoughts on that? What are the advantages of watching filmed theatre as opposed to attending a live event?
I completely agree that filmed theatre and live events can co-exist. I think it’s kind of a dialogue, a bit like live concerts. For instance, there’s something absolutely unique about seeing people live, and you cannot replace that experience, but you can also hear the music better when you listen to it on a recording. Theatre is about human presence, it’s about being there, and capturing theatre is about creating a facsimile (almost) of being there, a version of being there, and what we try to do is making it as immersive as the original experience, but I don’t think one is better than the other. I think it’s brilliant that people in New Zealand can go and see the Old Vic’s The Crucible screening. It’s often said that theatre when it’s good can surpass many art forms, and when it’s bad it’s really bad, but I feel immensely proud of being able to express and expand the value of theatre and the way it holds ideas. These Miller narratives from the mid 20th century have equal resonance now, for what is going on in terms of extremism and cultural fear, and they are able to speak to an audience like any other contemporary play or film. Moreover, with filmed theatre you get the advantage of grading and having a proper sound mix in Dolby Atmos. The composer of the Old Vic’s The Crucible, Richard Hammarton, had actually done a spacial stereo mix in the Old Vic and when we came to the Dolby Atmos mix we took the structure of his spacial mix and translated that into an enhanced cinematic environment, which was incredible.
What is your creative process as a producer/director like?
Tom Shaw (Exec. producer at DigitalTheatre.com) and I have done 24 of these productions together in 5 years and that’s a lot of films to do, it’s probably showing on our faces! We have now an almost unconscious shorthand, and I think he knows when I’m in the ‘zone’, so he starts to get concerned when I’m not in it because that means there are issues with the capture or with the environment. We had a very frustrating process with the Old Vic. Because The Crucible was staged in the round, all the exit signs were in the back of every shot, so we had to paint them all out – and you can imagine the pain, that’s thousands of shots!
Talking about The Crucible – How was the live performance captured on camera? What were the challenges/pleasures of filming it?
It’s almost like the camera is the theatre director in their final run-through before going to an auditorium. I’m sure when Yaël was in the round she would have to constantly shift her perspective because she was trying to direct the actors around that space. I think there’s something interesting about being the director’s eye at that point, and I think that the play being staged in the round made it easier for its cinematic transposition. When we did Ghosts, the design was essentially these three planes of existence, these transparent walls, and it had an incredible cinematic sense because of the depth of field. You could see how Richard Eyre and the designer Tim Hatley had been thinking, and I found it very easy to connect. It’s all about connection – me trying to connect with the director’s vision and the actors’ performances and bringing them into play. With The Crucible we did a lot of weekend editing… a lot of midnight editing in fact. Some of it we did here and then the all-night was at Elstree in the Dolby Atmos Sound Mix. There’s something fantastic about working on a giant screen, experiencing it like the audience does. That’s all to do with trying to get the film experience up to a certain level because you’re putting something in a cinema that is sitting next to – in people’s imagination – what else they’ve experienced at the cinema. You can’t make excuses – the audience wants to watch something that is good, that is shot well, and whose sound is effective. That’s why we use stunt mics – the tone of the human voice is very important. At the beginning we used directional mics but it meant that everything was a bit ‘boomey’; it didn’t have the intimacy of talk, and sound is something that we’re very conscious about.
When I spoke with Yaël Farber she said that that ‘using cinematic shots affects deeply the viewer’s experience’, especially with the ‘intimacy of the close up’. With such an intense play as The Crucible you really get to see the ‘sweat and tears’ on the actors’ faces – how do you chose those shots?
Those shot choices came from the live performances. In a rehearsal room I would know when an actor is what I would call ‘singing’ – when their blood is ‘singing’, when they are absolutely on it. And actually if you shot three shows you could also see when actors were really in synch, so later you can try and protect those moments. Sometimes we cut in between different performances, but a lot of the time you’ll find that the sections that are absolutely ‘alive’ are using shots from the same evening, because of what happened then between those two performers or five performers or twenty-four as in The Crucible. Shooting in the round was interesting because you’re effectively in a cinematic environment and you’re changing the angle all the time. In terms of crossing the line it was deeply challenging; it was also the biggest headache during the edit. On The Crucible we had nine cameras which we shifted and adapted in relationship to our onscreen learning, each time considering if the height was correct, if the lens was correct, if it became distracting etc. That’s why we don’t use tracking shots or cranes. I guess it’s a personal choice, I’m sure lots of people will disagree, but I feel that that’s too much of a self-conscious filming and positioning. You don’t do that as an audience, your eyes act like a camera in the sense that they focus on a specific area of the stage but you’re not moving in three dimensions.
How do you choose the theatres/theatre companies to approach? Or do they approach you? Isn’t there a risk that only profitable productions will be filmed?
In terms of choosing work, now it’s really an interplay between people approaching us and us approaching them. To be honest we don’t have the capacity to deal with everything that we’re asked to do which can be very frustrating, because there’s some stuff that I really wanted to capture. Unfortunately the event cinema aspect of what’s happening with captured theatre will only adhere to the given marketing and revenue expectations of cinema. I think there will be breakthrough projects that people didn’t expect to do well, but most of the times you are dealing with the value system of ‘what’s the title, who’s in it’ and that frustrates me. In an ideal world you’d want to be capturing a world that’s slightly more diverse. The Old Vic’s determination to capture the production of The Crucible and Richard Armitage’s willingness to commit to that was actually amazing. He would do press and marketing campaign like he would do for a movie – and actually at the time he was also doing press marketing for The Hobbit. It really takes the actors, and the lead actors, the director and the producers – a whole collective engagement – to make things fly. And there’s a growing attitude here which is ‘let’s just shoot everything and knock it in cinemas and see what happens’, and that makes me slightly nervous. One of the reasons why I’m doing this now and not directing is because I was concerned that this whole theatre capture process would go the wrong way, that it would actually be really detrimental to the theatre, that it would make theatre look bad and be very cheapening. I do think it’s a market place it that sense you will always have a ’99p shop’. But we are really proud of the four pieces that we put into cinemas – Merrily We Roll Along, Private Lives, Ghosts and The Crucible.
What’s Digital Theatre Plus?
Digital Theatre Plus is our main education resource which we established about two years after DigitalTheatre.com was launched. It was part of our original concept of what we wanted to do – to make the performing arts accessible to a wide audience. We’re now in 12% of UK secondary schools which is great, and there’re over 3 million students worldwide with access to it so it’s become a very influential and effective learning resource. We have institutions which subscribed from Shanghai to Rio and across the Middle East, as well as lots of European countries. What we offer on the website are essentially the films plus complementary material and downloadable information, which is curated by our guiding light on education, Fiona Lindsay, who used to be one of the founding members of RSC education department. The great thing about it is that we release content into it every single week, that’s a commitment we made early on. And that’ll actually increase to twice a week, as we’ve got a lot of material to put out there in our curated way. Digital Theatre Plus has been really growing – last month by 280%. All the interviews on the website are about dignifying the theatre process and creation, and it’s not someone talking about things 30 years ago, it’s someone like Andrew Lincoln talking about Macbeth, so there’s a contemporary resonance to it. A lot of performers said how amazing it was to talk about what they do, especially designers and directors and wardrobe people who literally are never asked – there’s so much wisdom in these people and it’s so great to capture it. To hear from someone who’s actually doing it, that’s their job, helps students understand what a career in media is and means.
The Crucible will be released worldwide on Tuesday 17 March 2015.