‘The Future of theatre.’ The Times
Founded in 2009 by Robert Delamere and Tom Shaw, Digital Theatre is the world’s biggest on-demand platform specialising in arts content. Viewers can watch the world’s finest theatre productions with Digital Theatre, anywhere, anytime.
Recently acquired by Big Clever Learning, Digital Theatre has an ambitious development and growth plan aimed to fulfil its aim of providing unprecedented access to the arts for audiences everywhere, regardless of social geographic or economic constraints. Digital Theatre is the world’s leading on-demand arts entertainment and arts education platform. Working in partnership with leading theatre and arts companies to capture stunning live performances authentically to create a fully immersive onscreen experience, the company collaborates with some of the most exciting talent of British stage and screen.
“Britain’s performing arts are world-renowned for their outstanding breadth, quality and diversity. This was the inspiration behind the launch of the world’s first, online, performing arts platform. Digital Theatre collaborates with world-class producing houses to capture and curate their shows and stream them to the consumer in broadcast quality. Up close and personal, for a best-seat-in-the-house viewing experience.”
Digital Theatre’s founder, Robert Delamere
A feature interview from The Stage
‘In the past few years developments in digital recording and broadcasting technology have advanced with speed. One result has been the opportunity to find new ways of providing wider access to theatre and other live arts events.
How best to do that? Is it most important to know that a play is broadcast in your local cinema as it is actually happening? Or is it better to use technology to convey the optimum digital version of the live performance?
Robert Delamere, co-founder and creative director of Digital Theatre – and an experienced theatre and opera director – notes a constant factor whatever the method: “You will be watching a screen experience whether in a cinema or on a laptop or a phone. Just pointing the camera means nothing: the camera must have a perspective and we must acknowledge screen grammar.”
Digital Theatre’s process is quite different from live streaming, where the cameras are given priority over the theatre audience and, if necessary, lighting and make-up are adjusted to take account of the needs of the broadcast. As Stephen Quinn, Digital Theatre’s production manager explains: “Our objective is to be invisible to both audience and performers.”
Three performances are recorded, with up to 12 cameras, some manned and some controlled remotely depending on the circumstances. Although they do not work to a camera script or have a camera rehearsal, Delamere, as director, and the camera and sound chiefs watch the show, talk to the play director about his or her intentions, make notes and do a technical reconnaissance with the show’s stage management and technicians. As Quinn puts it: “Prep, prep, prep, all down the line.”
Cameras are rigged as unobtrusively as possible and a control gallery is created wherever there is space. “It is quite a guerrilla operation,” says Delamere. Light levels are monitored throughout the show and the cameras calibrated accordingly. For musicals, a sound feed is taken from the show input for remixing later and there are also hanging mics for general atmosphere. For plays, actors have concealed radio mics and, Quinn says: “On one occasion some actors had two mics, one for very loud scenes where they were shouting and one for quiet ones.”
On recording days a show ‘caller’ gives the gallery and camera operators advance warning of important set pieces and major entrances. Delamere is in the gallery calling the camera shots to ensure that over the three performances he has all he needs for the post-production edit.
It is here in the editing that the wish, in Delamere’s words, “to marry the sensitivity of theatre with the technology” really takes place. With up to 27 hours of recording, the ambition is to produce a genuine sense of the production and “to be the whole audience; to be in the best seat for any given moment”.
The director, lighting designer and sound designer of the production are all involved in the post-production process. With musicals, the orchestrator and musical director are also consulted. The edit is balanced for sound and colour levels and the relevant designers will be consulted to make sure that the images and the sound closely reproduce the effect they achieved in the theatre.
“Working with creatives is one of the most important things we do,” says Quinn, “and we don’t cut corners at all.”
Some technological tricks can be used in post-production – the removal of intrusive exit signs, for example – but Delamere stops directors trying to change too much of what was on stage. “It is important to keep the recording within the universe of the stage production,” he says.
All recordings are prepared for surround sound in a cinema or in stereo for online or downloads. The images are either 4K (four times HD) for big screens or in HD for other uses. As well as recording productions, Digital Theatre provides talks and analysis of the productions, which are increasingly popular with its education audience. This now runs to more than 1,000 institutions worldwide, including all the Ivy League universities. The company also licenses content from others, including orchestral concerts, opera and ballet, under the title of Digital Theatre Collection to distinguish them from its own shows which are known as Digital Theatre Originals.
Of choosing shows, Delamere says: “Often we will be approached by individual producers or directors and sometimes we approach them depending on personal contacts and working relationships. A key factor in deciding is whether the work has qualities that are extraordinary or memorable – for instance, Lesley Manville’s performance in Richard’s Eyre’s production of Ghosts.”
The technology and techniques for using it are always advancing, and Digital Theatre says it is committed to “trying to move the technology forward” to bring the experience of live performance to the widest possible audience.’
Production available on Digital Theatre include Richard Armitage in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, triple Olivier Award-winning Ghosts starring Lesley Manville, Noël Coward’s Private Lives starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor, and Much Ado About Nothing starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate.