I want you to tell me a story

12th August 2012

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.

Comments

  1. Anna says:

    John,

    Firstly, I found that I had very few problems with buffering. Maybe every 10th or 15th change would be 2 or 3 seconds slow, but normally it was no slower than, say, changing channels on the TV. It also seemed to get faster as the night wore on. Some of the feeds did seem to be out of synch, though, so dialogue would be lost or repeated. However, having camera-hopped like a hyperactive child for a few minutes I found myself in the routine of Camera 1 at the start of scenes to get a wide shot of the whole stage, then one of the close-up cameras as the scene was underway, diverting myself off to Camera 6 for a peek beneath the stage from time to time.

    I watched it on my iPad because my laptop has email, twitter, and loads of other browser tabs open, which always slows things down, so perhaps some of the problem was at your end rather than theirs?

    I think your comment of wanting to have the camera tell the story for you is unfair. As far as I’m aware, Marcus Romer isn’t a film maker. Certainly I only know his work from the theatre, and what he was presenting here was just that. Theatre on camera. But whereas with, say, NTLive you’re at the mercy of the director’s choice of camera feed, here, as in the theatre, you have much more freedom to look where you like, with the benefit of close-ups that would only normally come from front row seats (or not at all with a stage as large as last night’s). For me, this was the exciting next step in presenting live theatre to a remote audience, and I absolutely applaud it. The usual caveats about nothing beating the experience of actually being there obviously apply.

    I don’t see how you can even begin to compare it to the BBC’s Olympics coverage. That’s like walking into a multiplex cinema and moving from auditorium to auditorium. OK, maybe a multiplex showing nothing but action films where the “good guy” is always British; but their task is to use the cameras to create a story. 20 or more different stories at peak times. Surely the remit of Pilot Theatre last night was to give you the experience of being at the theatre where you’re free to place your attention where you will, and construct your own story within the bigger one.

  2. John Wyver says:

    Many thanks, Anna – a fascinating response (and so much for our opinions aligning 🙂 ). I really hope it prompts a debate here.

    I’m absolutely prepared to recognise the buffering issues were at my end – I was watching on my home broadband and a MacBookPro, but I closed almost all of the other applications and had only The Space and Twitter open in Chrome. The appreciable lag in changing from shot to shot meant that it felt very different from switching TV channels.

    I take the point too that it wasn’t trying to make a film of the event – and I would love to have this kind of opportunity available for NTLive and the like. But I really didn’t feel drawn in – in the way I am with good theatre and television.

    My reference to the Olympics is precisely because the cameras there (as in all mainstream film and television) are being used to tell the story – that’s exactly what movies and televised sport and so much more do so well.

    Last night I found myself wanting something of that visual story-telling – alongside, and not instead of, the multiple options. Then I might have got beyond feeling that the experiment was more about technology than about theatre.

    I’d love to know the reactions of others who watched.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.