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Video and Theatre

May 2003

Video is one of the best things that ever happened to theater. With modern video technology, a theater willing to master a few basic skills can create lasting records of their work that are not only valuable, but beautiful and entertaining in their own right. To make best use of the technology, however, theater people have to learn a few things.

First, we have to learn that video can’t ever really capture the esthetics of live performance. Live performance happens to live people in a real space; it isn’t wrapped in a frame. So don’t expect video to do that. You don’t expect a CD of a singer to capture what it’s like to see that singer because you know that’s not realistic, so don’t form unrealistic expectations of what you can and can’t capture on video.

Second, remember that you’re not making a movie. You’re trying to capture everything you can about a real event. In other words, you’re shooting a documentary, not a dramatic feature. So, as you plan and as you shoot, acknowledge and include the live theatrical reality you’re recording. Don’t worry about showing the edge of the stage. Include the audience. Do some backstage footage. Make a documentary, not a movie.

Don’t go crazy on equipment. You need one digital camera, a simple mixer, a few microphones, assorted mic cables, and a computer that can edit video. If you buy good used gear, you can do the whole thing for less than $3,000, if you can’t find an enthusiastic hobbyist who has all the toys and would love to play with them.

Remember, when you’re shooting stage action, to shoot it in a way that reflects the audience experience. TV-style talking-head shots are completely unrelated to what you see in the theater. Include the bodies of the actors. Let us see all the actors who are speaking. Let us see the full range of body movement and arm gestures. The basic shot of a single actor is not a head shot; it’s a waist-up or knees-up shot that allows the actor’s arms enough room to do whatever gestures are going to be done.

Let the camera work be very, very smooth and unobtrusive. Let the frame move the way the audience's attention moves, pulled this way and that by the action. Don’t force a point of view. Let what happens on stage drive the camera, just as you would if you were shooting live action on a news crew or at a sporting event.

Shoot on more than one night, and be brave. Don’t ever lock the camera off on a wide shot and let it run on the theory that "this way, we won’t miss anything." You won’t miss anything, but you won’t have anything worth watching either. That kind of shot is useful only for the most boring kind of archival record-the sort of thing that nobody ever watches.

To get the best coverage in the fewest nights of shooting, plan the shoot by marking up a script, and have the camera person on headset with someone who’s following script and giving warnings of key moments-entrances, exits, fast stage action, hard-to-anticipate stage action.

Shoot using the existing lighting. Modern cameras can darn nearly see in the dark, and are perfectly able to shoot in theatrical light if operated properly.

Get some microphones close to the stage.
Run them through a simple mixer to the camera.
Review each night’s footage the following day and plan accordingly.

If you do the job right, you can sit down after the show is over and edit together a really enjoyable video that doesn’t just document the show, but is fun to watch in its own right. And by so doing, you’ll partially ameliorate one of the theater’s great sorrows-it’s ephemerality. A good video of a production doesn’t capture the live performance, but it makes it easy to understand what the live performance was like, and that’s well worth it in and of itself.

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