Wanted: Alive or…

29 Nov 2012 in Robert Livingston Blog

At a recent meeting of members of the Highlands and Islands Theatre Network, a colleague from the Edinburgh-based company Stellar Quines gave a fascinating presentation on the company’s experiments with live streaming their work, and also recording one of their most ambitious productions, Ana, as a 3D film.

Stellar Quines had been supported by the AmbITion programme (funded by Creative Scotland)  to undertake this work, for a number of reasons. First, by live streaming rehearsed readings and rehearsals, the company enables potential bookers and audiences to get an advance flavour of what their new productions will be like. Second, it’s very expensive to tour a production on the scale of ‘Ana’ and only a modest number of venues exist outside the major cities which could physically stage it, so a film version potentially gives the production a much wider and longer life. And, third, using 3D may—or may not—give those screen-venue audiences a more palpable sense of what the ‘real’ theatre experience would be like.

As readers of a previous blog will remember,  my one experience so far of a live satellite relay—‘The Nutcracker’ from the Bolshoi—was entirely positive, and I’d like the chance to have more such experiences. But, so far, Inverness venues are only offering ‘delayed’ relays—for example, of the National Theatre’s acclaimed production of ‘Frankenstein’. I have an odd reluctance to go to such presentations. It seems to me to be neither one thing nor the other—neither a film nor a live relay.

My sense is that there is, or should be, a substantial difference between a ‘filmed play’ and a ‘live relay’. In that Bolshoi relay, the camerawork was as simple and unobtrusive as possible, with basically just three camera positions: whole stage, a focus on one or two dancers, and the rare close up. That approximates very closely to the real theatre experience of sitting in the stalls and now and then using a pair of opera glasses. But a ‘filmed’ play should, I feel, be very different. It can, and should, make use of every opportunity that small, handheld, and remote cameras can offer to give a truly filmic experience—think of Scorsese filming the ‘The Last Waltz’ or his Stones movie. So simply offering a ‘delayed relay’ of a live show is for me an uncomfortable compromise.

But there are deeper implications here. Rural touring is very expensive. For even a small production, with only two or three actors and a couple of stage crew on the road, the total public subsidy per audience member may be more than for an audience member at an average Scottish Opera performance. Live, delayed and streamed relays offer (once the capital cost of the equipment has been met) a very much cheaper way of enabling remote and small communities to share in a high quality theatre experience.

Is that, however, the way we really want things to go? For very many years Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and its predecessor the HIDB, ran a scheme which provided additional funds to enable touring companies to meet the extra costs of touring in the Highlands and Islands. Sadly, budget cuts meant that fund was withdrawn a few years ago. But its existence was predicated on the concept that remoteness and rurality should not, by themselves, deprive those communities of quality live cultural experiences. Are they, are we, prepared to accept that now, in the name of financial stringency, we have to put quotation marks round that word ‘live’?

There is of course another argument that will increasingly come into play—the low carbon economy. It’s probably more energy-efficient to bring shows to communities, rather than expect the members of those communities to travel often very long distances to their nearest cultural centre. But will it be even more efficient to provide those communities, instead, with a virtual, digital version? Intuition says ‘yes’, but this may be a case where the counter-intuitive proves to be more accurate. Consider this: most such tours happen in the ‘down’ season from October to April. A touring production with five people visiting ten venues generates 50 bed nights in small communities at a quiet time of year, plus an equivalent number of meals, drinks, and incidental expenses. Multiply that by the number of tours and venues that take place across a year, and that’s quite a contribution to the local economy that will be entirely lost if there’s a switch to digital equivalents. And, to make the comparison truly fair, we also need to know how much energy this alternative satellite-relay process requires.

That counter-intuitive argument turns out to apply directly to the most apparently extreme version of the costly touring model—the Screen Machine mobile cinema. Though now operated by our sister organisation Regional Screen Scotland, the Screen Machine was developed, and originally operated, by HI~Arts to bring the highest quality cinema experience to the most remote communities, from Durness to Barra. If the live relay of plays model is about enabling small communities to share in a high quality urban experience, then the Screen Machine is about bringing the urban, arthouse/multiplex experience direct to those same communities.

Intuition would say that it’s very inefficient to use a huge gas-guzzling truck to bring movies to remote and island communities. But intuition may be wrong. A pilot survey undertaken by Carbon Diagnostics while the Screen Machine was in Ullapool for four screenings appeared to indicate that the carbon produced by the Machine on that trip was less than half what would have been produced if, as they said they would, many in those audiences had instead driven to Inverness to see the same films. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, however, and so, with funds from that same AmbITion programme, RSS and Carbon Diagnostics are now undertaking a more comprehensive survey to ascertain a broader and more accurate picture.

If it’s true that 7:84’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil kicked off the whole process of small scale touring in the Highlands, back in 1973 (some argue for earlier precedents) then perhaps we’re seeing the final stages of a forty-year process. But not if bodies like the Promoters Arts Network have their way . PAN’s Director Sam Eccles has been undertaking her own touring show, presenting to local promoters around the Highlands and Islands PAN’s bold and ambitious plans for the future—plans which, incidentally, also involve AmbITion support. So, let’s hope live theatre still has a healthy future in the Highlands and Islands, from Achiltibuie to Ardross, or Lochgilphead to Lyth.


© Robert Livingston