John Wyver is the producer of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon series, which broadcasts live performances of plays from Stratford-Upon-Avon to cinemas in the UK, and around the world. I met with John in Stratford-Upon-Avon on the day of the first camera rehearsal of Henry IV part 2, to discuss the process of preparing and carrying out this type of production.
This is part one of a two-part interview. We discuss how the RSC began approaching cinema broadcasts, and the difference between being in the theatre and being in a cinema. In part two, to be posted soon, we look at the technical aspects of producing a play in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for the cinema.
The broadcast of Henry IV part 2 takes place on June 18; you can find out more on the RSC website.
Kirk McElhearn: The first RSC Live cinema broadcast was Richard II with David Tennant. This was quite an event.
John Wyver: It was unquestionably an event, with David, and that contributed to the success of the cinema broadcast as well.
KM: Did they get David Tennant for this production planning it to be a cinema broadcast?
JW: No, as a principle, they program and cast for the theatre. Period. There’s no sense in which the possibility or the likelihood of a cinema [broadcast] influences the casting, or the productions, or the director, or whatever.
…as a principle, they program and cast for the theatre. Period.
KM: But they were certainly thinking about broadcasting this production before they started planning it…
JW: I have done a number of performance films for television, and did a production for Channel 4 of Gregory Doran’s Macbeth with Antony Sher back in 2000. It had been a very successful stage run, it had gone to the United States and Japan, it came to London, and Gregory Doran and Antony Sher wanted a filmed version of it. I’d done a couple of similar things before, and we started talking about how you might do something different with a staged piece that you wanted to make a screen version of.
We took the production, right after the end of the run, to the Roundhouse, in North London, which had been restored, but it hadn’t been reopened yet, so it was empty. We used the big round room and spaces underneath to shoot the whole thing, across two weeks, with a single camera, almost like a documentary film version of it.
That worked very well, Channel 4 were very pleased, it got some great reviews, and we thought we had a different way of doing stage productions on screen.
Greg and I wanted to do other things, so we tried to do his production of Othello, and his production of Antony and Cleopatra, in that way, but the broadcasters simply weren’t interested. In the early 2000s, there was a sense that theatre wasn’t of interest to television; it was too intractable to do. But, then, in 2008, Greg was planning Hamlet [with David Tennant], and we took that to the BBC initially, and we got a very lukewarm response.
The Metropolitan Opera had just starting to do live broadcasts [of operas to cinemas], so we thought, why don’t we try to apply that to the theatre. We spent a lot of the summer of 2008 planning that, but we had to get the individual permissions and agreements of all the cast, and one of the cast didn’t want to do it, and that made it fall apart. [That production of] Hamlet became a big success and we did, the following year, make it as a television film, so that worked out okay.
While Greg was very interested in exploring this, there wasn’t great enthusiasm within the company as a whole.
KM: The actors?
JW: Probably within the executive.
KM: Wouldn’t the actors want the additional exposure?
JW: Most, but it’s another demand on their time, it’s not completely straightforward for them, it’s another set of stresses and strains, but most of them are very pleased, particularly now. But then, it was a very new form and people were unsure whether it would work on the screen and whether the stage performances would look too big on the screen.
…it was a very new form and people were unsure whether it would work on the screen and whether the stage performances would look too big on the screen.
When Greg was appointed artistic director [in September 2012], he felt it was very important that the RSC go into this area. At that point, which was the end of 2012, David Tennant was already cast, Richard II was already in place, it was going to be Greg’s first production as artistic director, so it felt like the most sensible thing to try and begin these broadcasts with that.KM: So you were thinking about this before the National Theatre [which began broadcasts to cinemas in June, 2009]?
JW: I would say that, yes.
KM: You were both thinking about it at the same time; they just got it into the cinemas first. And they actually proved for you that it’s viable.
JW: Yes, they proved that it’s viable, they also did a lot of the groundwork in terms of putting in place agreements with Equity and the musicians’ union, and that was very important as a way of introducing people to this and a way of beginning to put in place a framework as to how people would get compensated and how the rights would work. We haven’t replicated their framework, so within our agreements we’ve got possibilities of doing DVD releases, and they, at the moment, have chosen not to do that.
KM: Are they not releasing DVDs because of their agreements?
JW: I don’t know if that’s the case. I think they’re also not releasing DVDs because, under Nicholas Hytner, he has felt that they want to protect the specialness of the theatre-at-the-cinema experience. If you release a DVD, you, in some way, take away from the unique quality of the live cinema experience. It’s also the case that the National Theatre does encore showings [of some of their broadcasts], so I don’t quite buy that, but I think that’s his thinking.
KM: My first thought when I heard about the RSC Live project was that this is probably the biggest long-term decision that the RSC has made since building their new theatre. By doing this, you’re extending the RSC brand around the world, you’ll have people going to the cinema, buying the DVDs, and coming to the theatre. And, in about seven years, we’ll have all the plays on DVD in versions from Stratford-Upon-Avon.
JW: At the moment, we’re doing cinema versions of the main Shakespeares. We haven’t committed to doing all of them. At the moment it doesn’t cover its full costs, so there’s a real question about sustaining that. But it’s an important project for the RSC, and we hope that it will extend the brand, extend awareness, extend audiences and be very important for the company in terms of its new shape going forward.
There’s still a lot of discussion about whether the cinema audiences cannibalize the theatre audience. I don’t think anybody yet has done any rigorous research about what the impart of these are in commercial terms, and it’s going to take a while before we really understand that. It’s really hard to get any kind of definitive answers to those questions, and people have got a lot of their own opinions and prejudices about what the commercial and creative impact of this is. We’re only doing the third one in ten days’ time, so it needs a bit of time for us to understand.
KM: The broadcast of Richard II was hugely successful; cinemas had dozens of encore performances. What about Henry IV part 1?
JW: Not as successful.
KM: Because you don’t have a star.
JW: That’s what we’re trying to understand. I can honestly say that there is no pressure to change what the company does here, in the house, because of the impact of the live [broadcasts]. The casting is about the right actor for the right part on that stage. Everything else comes from there.
KM: Ticket prices can be very expensive for the theatre. Does this affect whether people will choose the cinema instead?
JW: This does make the cinema broadcasts very good value for money. It’s not the same thing. You don’t get the same experience. I think you get a different, distinct experience that has its own esthetic validity.
You don’t get the same experience. I think you get a different, distinct experience that has its own esthetic validity.
KM: What do you think the cinema adds to the theatre, and what does takes away?
JW: I think we’re just learning those things. I’m fascinated by that question, and I don’t have any easy answers to it. At one level, it clearly takes away the experience of coming to Stratford and entering a theatre, and being in the same space with the actors at the same moment. For many people, that is the essence of theatre: simultaneous co-presence is, for many people, the irreducible essence of theatre.
If you watch these live, and if they’re done with care and sensitivity, as I hope they are, I think you get a comparable but different experience of a stage production. You’re not getting a movie; you’re getting a mediated, live experience of what is happening in the theatre at that moment. If that’s done with rigor and care, it can be at least as rich in terms of all the things you want to get from the theatre as sitting in the theatre. It is a different experience, but it’s not an inferior or second-order experience.
If you watch these live, and if they’re done with care and sensitivity, as I hope they are, I think you get a comparable but different experience of a stage production.
KM: One of the things you can do is close-ups, which lets you see much more than if you’re in the back of the theatre. I saw Richard II here in the theatre, and when I watched it on disc, I felt that I was in the theatre because of the way you had close-ups and long shots at the right moments. You don’t get the smells, you don’t hear the boots on the stage, but you did manage to reproduce the intimacy of this particular theatre. I think you’ve got a trump card here with an extraordinary theatre that gives you more options than a standard proscenium arch theatre.
JW: It is very important to recognize, on screen, the theatrical contents from which the broadcast is coming. Which means a number of wide shots which incorporate parts of the audience and the presence of the audience on the soundtrack. If you compare this with Private Lives [a Noël Coward play broadcast to cinemas], which I saw recently, it’s all shot inside the proscenium arch. I think that misses a trick; I think that tries to turn it into television or cinema, whereas this is about presentation of a theatre-staged piece.
KM: I have dozens of operas on DVD, and most of them only have one establishing shot showing the pit, then everything else just shows the stage.
JW: Particularly in opera, and with proscenium arch theatres, that’s the standard way of doing it. Partly it’s a matter of choice, the stress we put on the audience, but also, it’s quite hard to avoid that on a significant thrust stage with the audience on three sides. Maybe that is an advantage. When we first started working at it, people were very skeptical about whether you could replicate that immersive quality with a thrust stage. Our solution at the moment, having six cameras, one of which is on a crane, three others of which are on tracks, does get pretty close to that.