No one would doubt that the pandemic has had a devastating effect on people from all walks of life and especially to those who have lost loved ones. We hear also, how the theatre world has been severely affected as well. Countless freelancers and creatives have lost work and are struggling. Theatre buildings have closed and there is no guarantee that some of those theatres will reopen at some point. There is no easy answer as every individual is different with varying degrees of commitments. We at AMA Theatre Co have naturally been affected with loss of contracts and bookings. The current situation is having a detrimental effect on many people’s mental health which is understandable. When the first lockdown was announced it was a very frightening time for us. Everything we had worked hard for seemed to have the sword of Damocles hanging over it. Now, not to go into details, but we have suffered with personal loss in the past and we have strived by summoning up a strong fighting spirit to fight back against the negative situation we have found ourselves in. It was to this inner strength that we turned back in April 2020. To start with we were fortunate to be contacted by a chain of play schools to produce weekly videos for the students. This, although not a huge income, did allow us to limp on. But finance aside, what the project did do for us was to really get the creative juices flowing. We had to write, film and edit one 20 mins video each week.
As the year progressed, we tried to keep up with the never-ending changing situation. We produced a socially distanced outside show, “A Covid-Night’s Dream” But then things started to change again, especially the weather and we were forced back inside.
Right. What are we going to do? Screamed in both our heads. “Work from home” was what we were being told. How can you work from home when you are an actor or theatre producer for God’s sake?
Wait a minute….. we could work from home. When we tour to venues not specifically built for stage plays, we always tour a full staging rig complete with lights, black curtains, sound system and radio mics as well as the set and costumes. It dawned on us that we could use our equipment to turn our front room into a theatre. So, we set to. We fixed curtain tracks to the ceiling along with fixing brackets for backdrops and lights. We had a basic stage!
But there was no way we could sit an audience in the front room, not just because of the lack of space but because of social distancing.
Everyone was talking about streaming recorded shows and businesses were using Zoom for meetings. Now, we are not tech whiz kids, but we know enough to do what we have to but broadcasting live was something we knew nothing about. So, turning to the internet we began a week’s intensive research marathon on live broadcasting on the internet.
We learned how to connect our HD video camera to the computer using a capture device and we found a free broadcasting software program called OBS. We then had to learn how to connect this to Zoom. Finally, all the bits fell into place and we were able to broadcast live over Zoom and with some further research discovered how to use Zoom properly for what we wanted and to stop someone else’s screen becoming the focus everytime they coughed!
By using our new equipment, we introduced aspects to give those little extra touches to give the audience as far as possible, the feeling they were in a real theatre. When each audience member is admitted onto Zoom, they see the stage curtains and hear background music with general chatter going on underneath. When the show starts the screen cross fades from the curtains to the live stage. So, we had done it. We had created a Live Online Theatre!
Although we had sorted the stage and the broadcasting equipment, one thing we did not realise was you cannot have a stage at one end of the room and a broadcasting suite at the other. You cannot connect 2 separate mediums without using an interface. In this instance the interface was the way we lit the stage because it was not just lighting the stage as you would in a theatre, but it was necessary to light the stage that the cameras were happy with and still had the atmospheric effect. This did take some experimentation, but we achieved it in the end. We could have used OBS (the broadcast software) but we didn’t want to use camera or computer trickery other than what was necessary. We wanted the audience to see a live show complete with live sets and live theatre effects, including stage lighting.
The other “interface” was the acting technique. Just as one acts differently on stage to performing in front of the camera, we found it was necessary to combine both techniques. Take panto for example. On stage one would speak to the audience and scan the auditorium as if you were talking to everyone present. But on camera if you did that, even though we can see the audience on the large monitor screen in front of the stage, no one in the audience thinks you are talking to them. It appears that you are ignoring the audience. So, one must speak constantly into the camera when talking to the audience. Every member of the audience watching on their screen sees exactly what your camera is broadcasting. So, by speaking directly into the camera each member of the audience thinks you are talking to them individually. This is rather like a news reader on TV.
Other aspects of acting in this medium is the actor must operate their own close up and long shots. Not by physically operating the camera, but by moving nearer to and away from the camera in a natural and realistic way without it seeming contrived. After the programme was complete and a period of hectic and rigorous rehearsals had taken place, we were ready!
For us, one of the most satisfying aspects of our online theatre was letting the audience in for the shows. This was particularly true for the panto on Boxing day evening. As I said, when the audience were admitted to the “Zoom meeting” they could see the stage curtains and hear music playing. But what they didn’t realise that although they could not see us, we could see them. It was so heart warming to see people getting ready in front of their screens. Some had popcorn, others had trays of drinks and they were sitting as if they were in a theatre. Usually, children sitting on the floor and the adults sitting on the sofa behind them. You could hear them reading the front tab announcements and singing along to the background music. And then, to hear the applause as the screen cross faded to the live stage was really satisfying. Standing in our hallway (Backstage) and then walking into the front room (the stage) was exactly like working in a theatre and then to see all the audience on the screen really was the icing on the cake.
We are so proud that we achieved what we set out to create. A real live theatre Live online. Okay, its not quite as good as being on a real stage in front of a real audience but it is way more satisfying to be actually working on stage when so many of our peers are out of work and all the venues are closed and to have a real live audience. (Over 40 families for panto!)
Not only have we succeeded in our endeavours, but we know Live Online is here to stay. Yes, we have more shows coming up but even after lockdown and theatres can reopen, we intend to use our system to live stream our shows from the theatre we may be working in at any given time. Any theatre is only visited usually by people relatively local to that theatre but using Live Online as well your show can be seen not only by the local audience but by anyone anywhere in the world.
Although we are proud of what we have achieved it could not have been done without an audience and so, to all those who bought tickets we are eternally grateful, not just for buying a ticket and helping us to keep going, but by being an audience because even the best show in the world is nothing without an audience. So, as we go into 2021, we are producing the next round of live shows but we are also interested to hear from other theatre companies or small actor groups who may wish to stage their shows on our Live Online stage. But above all when all theatres are closed, ours is wide open and we are waiting to see you soon!