Australian Theatre Live is among many local arts and cultural organisations filming performing arts events for digital distribution
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This year, audiences in Australia could see Killing Eve's Jodie Comer tread the boards as a sexual assault lawyer in Australian play Prima Facie, watch Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones do Chekhov, and catch Ralph Fiennes (aka Voldemort) in a new play by award-winning writer David Hare.
They're just three of the offerings from the UK's National Theatre Live (NT Live), which brings star-studded British theatre to local cinemas.
During the pandemic, they launched National Theatre at Home, where audiences could stream productions such as Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, for free on YouTube (it is now a standalone subscription service).
NT Live has proved a popular initiative: In July, Prima Facie became the highest-grossing 'event cinema' release in the UK since the start of the pandemic.
In Australia, the market for filmed theatre is still developing — and local productions are yet to receive wide releases in cinemas. But it may just be a matter of time.
Australian Theatre Live (ATL) has been filming theatre productions from across Australia since 2014; the pandemic — and a hefty chunk of government funding — spurred their activities, and in October they launched a subscription platform where audiences can rent and watch from a library of more than 15 filmed Australian productions from the last eight years.
ATL on Demand joins a growing number of arts and cultural organisations that started to film and digitally distribute their work during the pandemic, including the Sydney Opera House, Melbourne Theatre Company and Opera Australia.
The efforts of these organisations have opened up access to the performing arts, while also contributing to a growing archive of Australian theatre.
But it remains a costly exercise, with more needing to be done to make streamed theatre feasible for arts companies — and enticing to audiences.
Australian Theatre Live kicked off with a modern Australian classic: Emerald City by prolific Australian playwright David Williamson, directed by Griffin Theatre Company's then-artistic director Lee Lewis (now AD at Queensland Theatre).
Lewis knows what it feels like to yearn for access to great theatre: When she was growing up in Goulburn, regional NSW, she would read newspaper coverage of shows she would never get to see.
"I felt so frustrated that I was unable to go," she says.
That feeling stuck with her into adulthood and a career in theatre, reading reviews of overseas productions. But in 2009, NT Live launched, with Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren — giving Lewis the chance to see international theatre in Australia.
"It's not the same thing as live theatre, but I got to see things that people were talking about," she says.
When the opportunity came up for one of the plays she directed to be the first production filmed for ATL, she knew she wanted to be a part of it.
"I wanted to be able to capture Australian work, to be able to share with people overseas, because I don't think the rest of the world knows how great Australian performance of Australian plays actually is," says Lewis.
Lewis's Emerald City can now be watched on ATL on Demand. It's one of 26 filmed plays that are either currently available or in the works, including Griffin's entire 2022 season, with Merlynn Tong's Golden Blood and Dylan Van Den Berg's Whitefella Yella Tree.
Lewis is not concerned that an increase in online theatre will be detrimental to live theatre.
"I think it's for that little girl that I was in Goulburn," she says.
"If there had been a filmed production of the things that I was seeing [in the newspaper], I would have gone to see it, but that would have made me want to see the live performances more."
Put simply, the challenge of digital theatre is applying filmmaking conventions — close-ups, wide shots and crosscut patterns, for example — in a way that still feels inherently theatrical.
The Australian Theatre Live team attend at least two shows during the season of the production they're planning to film, to begin plotting out camera positions and important moments in scenes.
"A lot of thought and consideration goes into where those cameras sit in order to capture the theatricality," says Grant Dodwell, co-founder of ATL.
Theatre companies will supply – or ATL will film their own – wide shot from the back of the room, which Dodwell and ATL co-founder Peter Hiscock go through meticulously, marking down the timings of entrances, exits, lighting changes and special effects.
ATL has such a painstaking planning process because they only shoot one performance straight through – bar an occasional 'pick-up' later (if, for example, an audience member's phone rings during recording).
Usually, six camera operators work on an ATL show. Four additional fixed cameras – often GoPros — are also used as safety shots. The operators work from within the seating banks, never on stage interrupting the show.
In a theatre with an elevated stage and one seating bank, two cameras are set up at eye-level in the centre, with two more on each side – one to capture a close-up, and the other a wide shot. The camera operators on each side are responsible for shooting the action on the opposite side of the stage – that's their "territory".
Dodwell says: "Each cameraman knows what they're there to do."
Hiscock adds: "We basically say, 'Follow the face.' Whoever's talking on that side of the stage is that operator's responsibility."
But those rules are sometimes broken: Hiscock may direct operators to follow an actor outside their territory, "because we know they're coming back, or we know something interesting is happening on that side of the stage".
The success of a filmed play then comes down to the unique skills of close-up camera operators, who capture not only actors' facial expressions at pivotal moments, but the movements of important props.
Many of these camera operators have backgrounds shooting film and TV drama.
"What we're asking them to do is quite difficult; it's not easy to follow an actor running across the stage and keep them in focus the whole time and anticipate what they're going to do next," says Hiscock.
"Drama camera operators are good at anticipation. They've got their eye on the bigger picture rather than what's in front of them."
The team adjusts their basic set-up depending on the needs of each theatre – such as Griffin's corner stage, with its two seating banks – and each production. They might put a camera on stage looking back towards the audience or at the back of the room to capture a wide shot of the whole performance.
Pinchgut Opera's Platée, directed by Neil Armfield, included a live video element, which the ATL team incorporated into the final film.
Hiscock says: "We put as many cameras in there as possible to try to get us out of trouble or to capture specific moments."
Audio quality is another important factor for ATL, with three people on hand as part of the audio crew for every production: a recordist, someone on hand to fix technical issues, and someone who can disguise microphones.
"A lot of time and money goes into knitting microphones into earpieces or wigs or costumes," says Hiscock.
"You need that audio to be as crisp as possible."
It all comes together in the editing room. During post-production, the ATL team will invite directors and playwrights to share their feedback and make changes accordingly.
"Honouring the storytelling of the playwright — that happens in the edit. That's where we're focused," says Hiscock.
"[But also] we're very big on capturing as closely as possible the intentions of the director."
Declan Greene, artistic director of Griffin Theatre Company, says the main reason the company films its productions is to make them accessible, as their venue in Sydney's Kings Cross does not currently have a lift (it will undergo renovations in 2023).
"We're always looking for avenues where we can try to make that less of a barrier," he says.
For Lee Lewis, geographical barriers are front of mind.
"It will be one of the ways that we make up for some of the geographical problems in Australia, so people in remote spaces can actually see great performance," she says.
In 2020, Australian Theatre Live received almost $1 million in RISE (Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand) funding from the federal government to film 10 productions for distribution in cinemas, online and on free-to-air TV, and as a resource for schools.
This year, Griffin received more than $300,000 in RISE funding to film their 2022 main slate of works for ATL.
Griffin is a relatively small company devoted to producing new Australian work, and making filmed performances available on demand means their productions can be seen by a wider audience for longer than the traditional six-week theatrical run.
"There's a real joy in knowing that there's a permanence around these things now, and that they're not just gonna disappear," says Greene.
Lewis too notes that productions will live on – not just as plays, but as historical documents of an audience and a space at a particular point in time.
She notes that people will be able to watch ATL shows and see what audiences were wearing in a certain era, and what theatre spaces like Griffin's Stables theatre once looked like.
"People will be able to see their family members, 50 years from now, watching a show," Lewis says.
In the future, Greene would like to use streamed versions of Griffin's shows as a "test balloon" to figure out if a work is popular and should be remounted, or to build anticipation for an upcoming remount.
Without ongoing funding, however, he says the theatre company will not be able to continue filming their productions.
"It's prohibitively expensive to do without funding. At Griffin, everything beyond us flicking a light switch on a wall requires extra funding," Greene says.
In 2021, ATL filmed two of Queensland Theatre's shows – Steve Pirie's Return to the Dirt and Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew — to stream online through the company's own program, Queensland Theatre at Home.
It's something Lewis would like to do again – but also cannot currently afford, with each ATL show costing between $40,000 and $110,000 to shoot, depending on the size of the production and the number of actors involved.
"If I had the money, I would film all of the new works that are being made, just so that there is an archive of those performances in their time when they were written," she says.
"In the current COVID times I just don't have that cash."
She says to make it work, she would need to bring on board a corporate sponsor. But she believes that in time filmed theatre will become commercially viable, with overseas audiences jumping on board.
"I think we should be doing a lot more … If we build up that bank of Australian works, then I do think audiences overseas will find Australian works online."
Lewis says that Queensland Theatre couldn't afford to film their popular 2021 adaptation of Trent Dalton's bestselling novel Boy Swallows Universe, due to the difficulty of contract negotiations.
"We wouldn't have made any money on it … [But] it would have been extraordinary for the state to be able to share that theatrical moment, especially in COVID times," she says.
The show was too large-scale to tour regionally, but a filmed production would have made it accessible to people outside of Brisbane, especially people interstate (the Queensland border was closed during the play's run).
Lewis says that agents and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA, the union representing arts workers and artists) do not understand the digital space or the fact that organisations like ATL are not trying to rip actors off.
"One of the primary things getting in the way is the lack of actual understanding of the financials of this," she says.
"The contracts are actually very generous and are not asking for rights for all time or anything like that. In the event that there was one [production] that went off and made money, the contract is renegotiated to allow for that."
State theatre companies are not commercial enterprises, she stresses: "Any money that we make goes back into the making of work; there is no profit."
Both Lewis and Greene point out that pre-existing film or TV rights to a play can stop a theatre production from being filmed for wider release; for example, the original (Australian) production of Prima Facie, starring Sheridan Harbridge, couldn't be filmed by Australian Theatre Live once NT Live had a contract to film the UK production.
There are also licensing issues that can make the cost of filming theatre prohibitive, or can lead to artistic compromises.
For example, music used in the stage production of Griffin's Orange Thrower needed to be changed for ATL because of licensing costs.
"There isn't the existing infrastructure yet in terms of royalties or licensing for something like what ATL do," Greene explains.
"It just switches into screen or cinema usage, and suddenly it's tens of thousands of dollars for use of a song that we could afford for live performance because it's much, much cheaper."
Only people who had seen the original production would know that the music had been changed, Greene admits, but it's still "an artistic negotiation or point of compromise".
NT Live's Prima Facie was a big hit — but the play, written by Australian Suzie Miller, had its first production at Griffin in 2019.
"There's something so awesome about the fact that that work started at Griffin," says Greene.
He's not concerned that a cinematic or streaming release of a theatre production would discourage people from attending in person, or that it would reduce the potential for a show to have a longer life — whether through touring or as part of an arts festival.
Instead, Greene sees it as an opportunity to bring in new audiences – who might be more inclined to taste-test theatre at the lower price point of a film, and then be inspired to see a live performance.
"If theatre and captured theatre developed in that way, kind of symbiotically, I think there's something really exciting there for the future of the art form," he says.
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Lewis also thinks that filmed theatre has the potential to bring in new audiences.
"I do think that the way theatre is situated sometimes — where it is in the newspapers, who talks about it — sometimes people do go, 'I don't think that's for me,'" she says.
"Reaching out through film is a low-risk entry point … It can make the theatre space a little bit less scary for people who've never been before."
Greene also suggests that filmed theatre is appealing to audiences because it aligns better with consumer habits.
"Theatre is facing a potential existential moment where ticket-buying trends are showing that it's hard to get people back to the theatre [after COVID]. People have got very comfy in their homes and they're used to high quality entertainment being very accessible, and at their fingertips when they want it.
"It's incumbent on us as an art form to be able to meet people where they're at."
Theatre critic Cassie Tongue knows from personal experience that filmed theatre has the capacity to make an enormous impact on people.
When she was 10 years old, and living in Dubbo, regional NSW, she had her first 'theatre' experience watching the 1994 filmed production of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Pirates of Penzance, starring Jon English, on the ABC (the production had premiered at QPAC earlier that year).
"[It was] one of the most profound theatre experiences of my entire life," she says.
"It's shaped my sense of humour and my approach to theatre in general, and [shaped my understanding of] how Australians specifically take pre-existing plays or musicals and adapt them, with irreverence and challenging things and subverting them, while still caring about the form."
Tongue emphasises the importance of having an accessible archive of Australian theatre.
"Having access to things that have informed other Australian theatre makers, or in conversation with things that are on stage, is really powerful. You get a sense of where we've been and where we're going artistically," she says.
"It just helps build that cultural literacy of theatre, of play making, of theatrical performance and direction."
She also emphasises the importance of an expanded catalogue that includes independent productions, within an education context, where prescribed texts can be limited to Shakespeare, Australian classics such as Ray Lawler's The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, and contemporary works such as Michael Gow's Away.
"If that's where your intro to theatre class stops, you don't know that some weirdos in a black box in Kings Cross are making avant-garde theatre," she says.
"[Then] how do you know that you can do that? Or that there's a space for you in the theatrical world?"
Jonty Claypole, an arts leader, producer and writer, was the Director of Arts at the BBC from 2014 to 2021.
One of his goals at the BBC was to bring performing arts organisations back into the broadcaster's arts programming. He did that by funding those organisations directly.
During the pandemic, he commissioned arts companies to create digital content; for example, the BBC's Lights Up theatre festival in April 2021 showcased 18 new productions created especially for TV, radio and online.
He says the biggest challenge facing theatre makers looking to distribute their work online is cost: "It's a real struggle to make it work."
The answer, he says, is a mixture of public and private investment – not just for filming live shows, but for training.
In the UK, he says, the government has incentivised theatre practitioners digitalising their work, making it a condition of funding from the Arts Council (the UK's answer to the Australia Council) and providing additional funding for that purpose. Broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky Arts are also a source of funding.
At the same time, bespoke agencies and organisations such as The Space offer additional funding, as well as training and resources to arts and cultural organisations to film and stream their work.
With that support, it's possible to entice corporations and philanthropists, such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, to contribute funding.
"There's a fragile, but effective and growing, ecology there [in the UK] which has enabled more and more work to happen," Claypole says.
He thinks that such an approach could be effective in Australia, and hopes it will be part of the forthcoming National Cultural Policy.
"It's not just banging on to the government for more money, although that is important," he says.
"It's also about how the cultural organisations are working together, and how the offer is made to feel appealing to private and corporate sponsors who like the money they give to go to something that feels rather special and unique."
On top of that, for streamed and filmed theatre to be viable, he says, Australia's broadband network, digital literacy, and skills and training resources need to improve.
"But all of that comes secondary to the fact that for most organisations, they do not have any financial means of doing it, except on a very rare, case-by-case basis," he says.
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