Stage and screen: first questions for The After

13th April 2020

John Wyver writes: For those of us who have been working in screen adaptations of stage performances it feels as if, in the specific as well as the general, over the past three weeks the world has turned upside down. From being just one strand in the work of theatre, opera and dance companies, nice-to-have for many but perhaps not absolutely at the heart of things, recordings in many forms of stage performances have become central. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been enjoying free streams of content that, until ten days ago, and in large part because of rights restrictions, was accessible only by scholars.

Performance companies, large and small, have been showcasing their work online, for one night only or for just seven days or for months, and for free or for a donation or as part of a trial for a streaming service. We have been privileged to engage with productions from the National Theatre, Berlin’s Schaubühne, Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London’s Royal Opera House, Rosas in Belgium, The Wooster Group, Royal Shakespeare Company and countless others. And there’s much more to come, from the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine initiative and from other projects still being worked through.

A greater degree of mainstream critical attention has been paid to stage to screen translations in the last three weeks than in the past decade. There have been numerous coordinated Twitter parties, watch-alongs and post-show Q&As on Zoom. Companies are also beginning to make original work for online. In many ways all of this digital activity is thrilling and heady and more-than-slightly overwhelming.

Surely this is all entirely positive? Or probably? Maybe? For it’s not too early to endeavour to assess all this, to take stock somewhat, and to start to consider what may happen in The After. In whenever and whatever the new abnormal world will be, how will screen adaptations be regarded and consumed and discussed? What place will they have in whatever shapes are adopted by whatever is left of the cultural ecology?

Needless to say, I don’t have any answers. But I do have some questions, lots of them in fact, that just might help us start to explore some of this together. I write, of course, as someone who is deeply involved in all this stuff, as the producer of the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcasts — a selection of which are on Marquee TV and some of which are soon to be seen on BBC Four and BBC iPlayer (including Macbeth with Niamh Cuzack and Christopher Eccleston, above) — and as a collaborator on projects with, recently, the Donmar Warehouse, Hofesh Shechter Company, Studio Wayne McGregor, Gecko and the Almeida. So please be aware of that if you read on.

My sense is that this nexus of questions and possible answers will not quickly be exhausted, but I’m going to begin today with just a few of my questions – and with the hope that you, esteemed readers, might add you own, in discussions with loved ones and valued colleagues and sympathetic strangers and, perhaps, in the Comments below.

  • How will audiences return to bricks and mortar auditoria?
  • Will there be caution about sitting close to 10 or 100 or 1,000 others?
  • Or will we all be desperately seeking the social?
  • Will screen work have different places in reconfigured companies?
  • Will screen adaptations be differently valued – by creatives, by companies, by audiences?
  • Will audiences accept that many productions offered online will return to the archives or be only available for a fee?
  • What part of the current online and broadcast audiences will stay with these forms and delivery mechanisms?
  • What models may remain or become viable – online subscription? pay-per-view? cinema showings?
  • Might the interest of broadcasters, including the BBC and Sky Arts, but also others, be encouraged and enhanced for future projects?
  • Will the new streaming services like Netflix and Disney engage more fully with stage adaptations at all levels?
  • Will we see closer and more collaborative relationships amongst funders like The Space and Arts Council England, broadcasters, performance groups, production companies, distributors and exhibitors?
  • Will there be a more strategic engagement with this work across the cultural sector?
  • Are audiences differentiating between low-cost ‘documentation’ recordings, mid-cost ‘captures’ and high-cost reworkings?
  • Do the differences in technical achievement, production values and screen aesthetics matter to audiences and to those involved in making the digital versions?
  • Or is ‘the play’s the thing?, or rather the stage production – and is this, or will it be, all that’s important, with technical achievement, production values and screen aesthetics all secondary?
  • Will new critical cultures emerge, in journalism and in non-professional contexts, to engage with and explore digital recordings?
  • Who will pay for digital versions, when the cultural economy of this work in The Before was, at best, fragile, and when in The After the cultural and overall economies are likely to be much more constrained?
  • Will there be interest among creatives and agents and guilds and performance companies and broadcasters and funders and distributors to examine the current economic models together and to consider new ways of collaborating?
  • Will the well-established aesthetic conventions of screen versions be challenged, shaken up and transformed?
  • Will the new aesthetics of online performance, which are just beginning to break out, impact on screen versions of the stage?

Lynne Joyrich, professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, wrote a super-smart piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books last week (which I included in this week’s Sunday links). ‘Watching television in a pandemic’ prompted this post, not least because as well as reflecting on how television is changing before our eyes and ears, the essay looks to the future:

TV is producing a “new normal” for us in these strange times, and it can incite us to ask what new productions might emerge — new forms of media and, more significantly, new forms of sociality, communication, intimacy, and care. The making of television is currently being shut down just like so many other industries — though there is still, of course, a huge backlog of material that can be aired. But might other possibilities — a remaking of television — come to light?

Perhaps more television shows based on linking diverse locations and including diverse communities; more innovative formats from more people than are usually given the power of the airwaves; more options for user-produced television and related digital media; more direct outreach from those in the business, as we’ve seen from those in music and theater, as well as from those more typically shut out of that business? And what possibilities for viewing, discussing, and interpreting might emerge?

If we substitute ‘screen adaptations’ for ‘television’ above, then ‘Might other possibilities — a remaking of screen adaptations — come to light?’ is a pretty good final question. At least for the moment.


  1. John Wyver says:

    First thoughts in response from Kirk McElhearn on his blog Kirkville:

  2. John Wyver says:

    This challenging essay by theatre artist and writer Nicholas Berger is central to this discussion:

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