What does theatre look like streamed directly into your home?

Howie the Rookie at The Lock Inn is running online on Wednesday nights until June 10th

Howie the Rookie

Howie the Rookie

 

On Wednesday night, 150 people gathered online to watch a production of Howie the Rookie at an innovative new live performance venue called The Lock Inn. It was conceived by Toronto-based events manager James Stafford who, like his peers in the Irish arts industry, saw an entire year of work commitments disappear with the Covid-19 crisis.

He began with an idea of doing online quizzes to bring Irish expats like himself together. After a conversation with actor Ross Gaynor, the pair began to consider “what theatre might look like if it was streamed directly into your home”. For Gaynor, “it was the liveness of the encounter online that really excited me. What sort of theatre would it be possible to create given the current restrictions? What sort of show would work?”

A recent production of Mark O’Rowe’s monologue play Howie the Rookie, featuring Stephen Jones and Rex Ryan, immediately came to mind. The pair had only recently finished a tour of the play, which took them to different venues around the country, as well as Geneva, so the material was still fresh. As Gaynor says, “it wouldn’t be as challenging as creating a new production from scratch”. However, that did not mean that there were not other, new challenges to consider.

Ryan, who calls himself a person who has “never been known to say no to anything”, immediately jumped on board with his company Glass Mask Theatre.

“The most important thing about delivering work online is making sure you match the right material with the form,” Ryan says. “And if you can deliver it in the right way, the direct address of the monologue play is the most obvious choice for an online performance. Like, if you were delivering a kitchen-sink drama live, it would probably just look like a student film.”

In Howie the Rookie the two characters never meet. “So it was totally possible for myself and Stephen to get back into rehearsals and perform while keeping social distance.”

Fittingly, Gaynor and Ryan have joined me on Zoom to chat about The Lock Inn and the logistics of their live digital project.

Before they could even contemplate the technical challenges, the first thing they had to consider, Ryan explains, “was the practicalities of the production. We knew we didn’t want it to be a case of us being squeezed into the corner of our bedrooms filming ourselves acting. We wanted it to be something professional; a real working set-up, but one in which we could maintain proper social distancing.”

Ryan had recently worked on a short film with John Anderson of Conference Services Audio Visual, who had just opened a studio in Ballymount. Anderson agreed to host the theatre company’s performances over four nights in May and June.

“The venue”, as Ryan describes it, “is a little like a black-box set in a theatre: the Peacock, say.” The actors perform in front of a giant LED screen, with a director of photography filming proceedings. Everything else about the production is manned off-site, with a broadcaster in Toronto operating the live stream. “So you are basically performing for the cameraman. When he says action, we can see that the live feed has started; that’s the curtain up, so you just have to go for it.”

On opening night, the production was framed by a prerecorded introduction from Gaynor, addressing us against the backdrop of Dublin Bay. As well as providing context for the circumstances of the innovative production model, it also worked “to highlight the liveness of the streaming”. As Gaynor notes, “It is easy enough to record something and then upload it but that is different entirely to liveness.”

Indeed, during the 90-minute performance, my own view of the stage was compromised several times by a dodgy wifi connection, though not enough to hamper my experience of the performance overall.

The experience of watching live theatre on a computer screen, meanwhile, is entirely different from experiencing it in communion with an audience physically gathered in the same space, as Ryan acknowledges. “A huge consideration for a performer is the immediate, live feedback you get from audiences, the adrenaline rush of 100 sets of eyes.

“Since lockdown,” he elucidates, “I’ve been in a few situations where I’ve had to do Zoom meetings, or a theatre workshop for 20 people, or an audition – where you would do a similar task that you would have done live – but you don’t have the hit from being in the room, and that’s the strangest thing that you are trying to reconcile with [considering the closure of theatres for the foreseeable future].”

To accommodate the different medium of delivery, then, the actors had to make certain small adjustments to their performances. “You have to moderate it a bit for the camera,” Ryan explains, but that can enhance the performance as much as it might limit it. “Because you don’t have to hit the back wall in a 360-seater theatre, you can internalise the character a bit more, and get across nuances of behaviour.”

Behind the scenes at The Lock Inn
Behind the scenes at The Lock Inn

Working with the director of photography, the actors have worked out some simple blocking to “keep a bit of movement in the performance. O’Rowe has this sort of muscular language that is really exemplified by physicality.”

At key points too, close ups bring us close to the actors, but the effect is less like the framing distance of film than the intense immediacy of the live act: you can clearly see the beaded sweat gathering on the actors’ faces, the spittle settling in the corners of their mouth in rare moment of stillness before an explosion of sound sends it shooting out towards the camera again.

The performance is also structured by a real-time interval, which offers an important opportunity to echo the rituals of live theatre, while a question-and answers session in a Zoom Room offers a post-show release instead of applause.

As Gaynor elaborates, the most successful digital models – the National Theatre Live’s cinema broadcasts, for example – pre-show set-ups, backstage introductions and intervals “prime the audience in the cinema to act like a theatre audience. That’s why it works so well. So if we can prime the audience – say ‘Look! This is live! There is something at stake here’ – we can provide a sort of substitute for the essence of theatrical experience until we get back to normal.”

Of course, the entire theatre industry – in Ireland or elsewhere – has no idea when theatres will be open to the public again. Both Jones and Ryan were due to start rehearsals for a new production of Juno and the Paycock at the Olympia this month, which will not go ahead, while two new writing projects that Glass Mask were due to bring to life this year are being reimagined in light of the new reality.

Ryan reflects upon the uncertainty: “There is no solution making itself obvious, either globally, or here in Ireland. And when theatres do open, will we be restricted to a point where everything is just a standalone monologue play? I can’t personally imagine a [play with more than one person] where you don’t have a fight or a punch or a kiss or a hug.

“But restrictions are the core of great art – restrictions cause you to think outside the box.” Gaynor takes up the baton of buoyancy. “We are really operating in the unknown, so it will come down to being innovative and radical and to take the mantra to heart that doing something is better than doing nothing.”

Howie the Rookie runs at The Lock Inn Wednesday nights through June 10th thelockinn.io/howie

Digital innovation

As local theatres have closed down, digital innovation has opened up a wealth of material from international stage innovators. Recorded performances of recent and archive material are available from major theatres across the globe.

The weekly releases from National Theatre Live (ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk) and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Show Must Go On (andrewlloydwebber.com) are a highlight at the spectacular, big budget-end of things; brilliantly filmed to be viewed on a screen. The work of Berlin’s Schaubuhne Theatre satisfies the avant-garde appetite, and even its vintage work from the 1970s is impeccably shot.

Other theatres are taking a more innovative approach to disseminating work, both new and old theatre projects. At the Donmar Warehouse Michael Longhurst has reimagined Adam Brace’s stirring 2011 play Midnight Your Time for digital format, with Diana Quick starring as a disgruntled mother trying to connect with her estranged daughter. The video-message structure is perfectly suited to viewing on phones and tablets (donmarwarehouse.com).

The Unicorn Theatre haves also reimagined one of its critically acclaimed children’s shows for YouTube. Anansi The Spider Respun is being filmed by individual cast members in their homes and released in weekly instalments www.unicorntheatre.com.

The Abbey Theatre’s digital compilation Dear Ireland (abbeytheatre.ie) and the New Theatre’s Fight Back Theatre Festival (thenewtheatre.com) have given Irish writers and actors a platform for engaging with the current health and social crisis. At the Royal Court, meanwhile, the empty theatre space itself has become material for Caretaker, an installation conceived by performance artist Hester Chillingworth.

Ticket prices for these digital events vary, with much of the material being offered free of charge with a suggestion of donations to help theatres deal with the challenging economic circumstances born out of Covid-19. Runs are typically short, with digital material available on limited release only; a reassuring reminder of the ephemerality of the theatrical form.

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