To the London Olympics and the York Mystery Plays on the same evening, although both only virtually. I spent Saturday night somewhere between 2012 and the medieval world, as I watched athletics and diving on the BBC and Pilot Theatre’s transmission of the Christian Creation on The Space. Each in its way was remarkable and both raised interesting questions about media in a multi-stream world. Only one of them, however, was truly successful in telling me a story.
Marcus Romer of Pilot Theatre has a punchy blog post that explains the framework of last night’s live feed of the York Mystery Plays. The Mystery Plays themselves are one of the most ancient of English dramas, having come together as a civic and religious spectacle in the late 1300s and then suppressed in 1569. The plays were revived in 1951 for the Festival of Britain (Judi Dench played an angel) and since then the cycle has been staged every four years, most often on wagons passing through the city. (My thoughts on watching the 2010 presentation can be found here.)
The 2012 presentation is on a more lavish scale than in recent years, with many more performances in a specially constructed playing space in York Museum Gardens. And it was this that Pilot Theatre brought to The Space, although I learned (thanks to Twitter) that the traditional street showing on carts had taken place during the day. The 2012 production is set in the mid-twentieth century, being ‘told from’ 1951, as artistic director Damian Cruden details in a York Press interview. On The Space here is a trailer for the show.
Marcus Romer’s blog, written in advance of last night’s show, promises:
A six camera / six encoder / three audio feed / interactive livestream…
You can select your camera from the row of 6 thumbnails and make this your main player.
You can choose from 3 separate audio feeds – a) The live action; b) The headphone cueing from the Stage Managers; c) The live audio described feed.
You can read the transcript of the text. You can select any of the thumbnails to be your main point of view. You can change these at anytime. The views allow full coverage of the stage action. Three robot cameras with operators. Two onstage cameras with operators. We also have a livepack roving camera under the stage with an operator. Which captures the backstage action.
All of which he and his impressive team delivered (you can get a sense of the interface from my poor screengrab above, taken from just before the main play began). Technically it worked wonderfully well, as you will be able to see when next month the archived streams are to be posted to The Space to allow the user to mix and match their own version of the drama.
One of the things that struck me was that the experience for the user was close in some ways to what I imagine it must have been like the early television producers. Before 1946 there was no way to cut directly from one camera to another, and changing shot involved a dissolve that lasted some four seconds or so. And such is the nature of streaming technology that I was unable to cut from one camera to another last night.
Changing streams involved a short wait each time of between one and three seconds, with a dark screen and a familiar spinning arrow to indicate buffering. Even so, the ability to move from viewpoint to viewpoint was (initially) immensely engaging, especially as there was the chance to look backstage to see which new position an immensely energetic operator had managed to find.
As the drama unfolded, however, the novelty of being offered the interactive choices was revealed as just that. What I increasingly wanted was for the cameras to tell me the story – as cameras (and their operators) do in the classical language of film and the refined forms of television. I needed the narration of the image to draw me in, and the slightly clunky channel changer was not a satisfying substitute.
So I think the project missed a trick by not offering alongside the six video channels its own mix of the mediated drama. This is what I increasingly came to crave, and it was the absence of this that, in part, nudged me back to the stadium and the aquatic centre where, of course, visual stories galore were on offer thanks to more than eight decades of television’s development of its own narrational languages.
I recognise, however, both that this was a brave and bold experiment (and just exactly what The Space should be making possible) and also that for others the experience was more satisfying than I found it. On Twitter @AnnaBrk, someone whose opinions I often find myself aligned with (not least in the great Troilus debate of the past few days, for which see the Comments to Michael Billington’s Guardian review), wrote:
Live streaming of York’s
#MysteryPlays has been wonderful. Loved being able to choose which camera to watch. Congrats to @pilot theatre
There are, of course, some interesting parallels here with the multi-stream options that the BBC has spoilt us with during the Olympics. On my Freeview red button, and even more impressively via my Sky channels, the choice of which sport to watch at any one time has been truly remarkable – and quite clearly, um, game-changing. But this is different from the Pilot Theatre experiment (and not just in the vast disparity of budget and resources).
Each of the BBC channels was constructing a story for me, even when (and this was particularly interesting) there was no verbal commentary from the experts. Framing, editing, pacing were all making the action both comprehensible and, invariably, compelling. These tricks and tropes were enfolding my imagination in the events in front of the cameras – and it was this that I missed last night from York.