Intimate Distance: On Moving Images in Live Performance

By Jack McNamara

waves-stephen-cummiskey.jpgA scene from The Waves

It is a cultural condition to receive works of art through an accepted course and yet it seems that our views on this have little connection with the quality of the medium itself. A painting’s status as a ‘painting’ has little to do with paint featuring in its composition but rather the distinct nature of its exhibition. The same can be said for ‘film’, which is clearly no longer defined by any relation to celluloid. Exhibition is the principle method of identifying and accepting our art forms. It has been decided, for example, that painting and sculpture must be presented in open spaces that allow the distance and duration of their display to be decided upon by each viewer. In turn, both theatre and cinema direct their audiences’ attention towards a selected area from a set point and for a precise duration.

Conventions like these actively shape our responses to the works even before we encounter them directly. Within these greater exhibitive rules, there are subsets of more detailed features strictly separating one art form from another. Whether we are browsing a video installation or seated in an opera box, specific preconceptions enable us to process our experience according to an established set of terms and conditions. This mental partitioning of different forms is deep-rooted and rarely open to revision. Blurring the boundaries between them is as challenging and precarious a feat for practitioners as it is for audiences.

Incorporating filmed images into stage production often earns marks for innovation regardless of the substance of the work itself. The term ‘multimedia’ has innately modern connotations in the theatre. This is not because the individual media themselves are new but that the combination has yet to prove itself in a durable and sustained way. Theatre’s fears of becoming old-fashioned might be countered by embracing the younger technology, but the distinct properties of the filmed image resist this relationship becoming too settled. There is a sense of the arranged marriage in bringing them together in that what may seem a fine idea to hopeful parents can often lead to chemical disaster. Specific qualities, within more general similarities, set film and theatre in clear opposition to one another, making them blood relations but not necessarily bedfellows. The material presence of a set and living actors engages a different sensory region to that experienced between the viewer and a flat screen. How then do these two powerful and dissimilar modes of engagement have any chance of supporting each other on one platform?

If the general purpose of a ‘medium’ is to provide a distinct route of communication, then within a multimedia production one of these routes is bound to dominate. A theatrical experience is defined as much by living performance as it is by the overall sense of being present in a performance setting. Beckett demonstrated this in thirty-five seconds with ‘Breath’, made up only of light, set and pre-recorded voice. Theatre asks that we co-habit the construction physically, while the flat-screen dimension of film requires a mental transportation out of our live surroundings. Rather than moving between the two media on their separate terms, the dominant medium will take precedence and adapt the other accordingly. In a theatre production, everything from the seating arrangement to the audience expectation supports the event as a theatrical one.

valparaiso-vali-mahlouji.jpgValparaiso, 2006

Film, in this setting, is naturally transformed into another living stage presence. The filmed image loses the autocracy that it achieves in a cinema, instead becoming equal to every other material feature of the production. The living environment is to be ignored during a cinema screening, as it is not of intrinsic support to the film experience. While theatre directors can be enthusiastic about incorporating projection into their productions, few film directors would consider live contributions to their screenings. Theatre performance is at less risk of losing its audience’s attention to the live environment because it is a material part of that environment itself.

Using video projection in the theatre reflects a desire to reach past live confines to a different texture, not only visual but also temporal. Film bears a particular relationship to the past tense that is inaccessible to the living features of stage production. No matter how many times the same piece of theatre is performed in the same way, each audience is distinctly aware of the performance’s existence in the present and subjection to those laws. This requires an unspoken agreement to be made. The performers will ignore the audience and carry out the project’s demands, while the audience in turn accept their invisibility and contribute only by means of peripheral encouragement. This is an established tension that exists in even the least engaging of theatre experiences.

Film, on the other hand, is always a completed entity. It is not sentient nor is it dependent on a shared ‘real time’ with its audience. Even if the filming and projection are live, the image possesses a separate authority that is somehow outside of our own tense. This was demonstrated perfectly in the London National Theatre’s recent production of The Waves, in which live camera operators were positioned in front of actors onstage to compose immaculate images of them on screens overhead. While both the onstage and projected images were occurring ‘live’ in front of the audience, the staged filming reflected a current process, while the projection portrayed a completed process.

The cliché of being ‘immortalised’ on film not only refers to a record being kept but also to the capturing of a surface-level existence; an alternate form that makes a totality of a selected feature above all others. Positioned amongst material elements, from actors to furniture, filmed images achieve an even greater sense of elevation than they already possess. The reflective influence of a more distant dimension accentuates the immediacy of live presence, refreshing our engagement with it through momentary detachment. Brought together, the live and the pre-recorded should invoke separate but concurrent mental responses to an overall dramatic entity. The screen images in The Waves gave a visual nostalgia to the narrative delivered onstage by the actors. If theatre reflects our live experience then film presents it as lucid memory.

A danger in filmed images becoming too much a part of theatre’s diet is that the special and volatile nature of the relationship becomes overlooked. Film should be used onstage not for its own properties but for the particular properties that it lends to theatre. It should be resisted as a means of gaining points to disprove concerns that the stage has become an outmoded platform. As is decreasingly the case, the core substance should continue to prescribe the means of delivery. Film projection is just one tool at a theatre maker’s disposal. But it is a tool with its own fierce properties and in most cases would rather be left alone. Its application to theatre production is not dissimilar to the use of music in film. However effective it may be on its own, in collaboration it is required to be subservient and supportive to the greater demands of the dominant form. If it cannot comply with these demands then it is likely to be the wrong tool for the project and would best be discarded for another.

Jack McNamara is a writer and director for stage and screen. He is the artistic director of the theatre company Future Ruins, who will be performing the mixed media work Lucid Dreams for Higher Living at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2007. See