Traverse Theatre simultaneously broadcasts live rehearsed readings

In a great Edinburgh Fringe Festival experiment on 23.08.10, a compendium of new plays, realised as rehearsed readings, were simultaneously transmitted to UK Picturehouse film theatres, including Edinburgh’s Cameo. Despite over-demand for tickets to the live show at the Traverse, Traverse Live! remained a one-off live performance for a small audience, but the show increased its scale, reach impact and accessibility through simultaneous broadcast.

Cameras setting up

As part of the small audience in the theatre, there was palapable excitement as we were directed to our seats, being warned by the camera operators from Hibrow Productions dressed in black not to trip over their kit and the wires! On stage, 1 camera was on a tripod with wheels, 2 were on static tripods, 1 camera was hand-held but could be rested on a tripod which was positioned in a row of audience seating. Another roving camera was in the wings and moved up to the projection box to provide aerial and wide context shots.

As the theatre is a small black box, we were obviously going to be very aware of the camera operators’ presence, but they were all linked in to a floor manager/director communicating with them and the broadcasters by headphones. In fact, once the action began, they didn’t distract from the action, although I was intrigued by seeing the close-up shots of the actors in the view-finder of the camera operator nearest me.

Dominic Hill introduces the evening

Dominic Hill, the Artistic Director of The Traverse welcomed us and explained that there would be breaks in the running order as at our end the stage and cameras were reset for the next play, and as the cinema audiences were shown previously recorded interviews and rehearsal videos (this considered more interesting than making them watch the changeover!). He also explaned that the camera crew would be moving around us, so we knew to expect that they might come and sit next to us, or shove an elbow in our faces as they searched for a better shot! Dominic also then did another introduction direct to camera for the cinema audience, so that they also knew exactly what to expect. He set the context, and gave us an idea of what the experience was going to be like so that we all felt comfortable.

There was usually about five minutes between the plays. In the theatre, we chatted whilst the VT played (video tape – a now somewhat out of date reference to pre-recorded material) and the floor manager shouted countdowns, to warn actors, stage crew, camera crew, and us audience of when we’d be going live again. It felt like Brechtian theatre – we were being shown all the mechanics, but also I felt like an engaged participant, a part of the show: as audience members in the same space, we were on camera as shots panned round to capture our reactions. We had a unique experience, but then so did audience members in the 30 cinemas around the country: the experience was distributed and increased audience numbers for the work at least 20-fold [Traverse to confirm exact numbers].

Actors were mic-ed up for the broadcast, but there was no amplified feedback in the auditorium (not needed). Apparently one mic failed in one of the plays, but the live audience didn’t notice this. The beginning of the broadcast had to be restarted due to some technical failure, but again, this was clearly communicated by the floor manager, we were “re-set”, and off we went again. Friends of mine who were at Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema watching said this did not matter. Obviously the audience at Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema was fairly small due to the majority of us being at the live show, but there were Traverse Theatre marketing staff present, receiving phone calls reporting that “Brixton was full!” and “I can’t believe I’m watching a Traverse fringe show in Malvern”! This is the important significance of distributed, live theatre. Audiences who would never have otherwise seen the work saw it at locations convenient to them; and at an acceptable price point. The work did not have massively high production values – it was a rehearsed reading, so more about giving new work air and audience time.

For cinema audience members that I talked to directly, the format of rehearsed readings worked and translated well on the big screen – they’re minimally staged and blocked and so work with the close-up demands of a camera. This cinema audience member commented on Andrew Dixon’s Guardian review of the show:

“I saw the show from a local cinema last night and really enjoyed it. Yes, there were technical glitches, some a bit irritating – the first piece was marred by one character’s voice being mic’d so low – but mostly I thought it added to the raw energy of the evening. Some really good performances from the cast. A very different experience from the live performances screened from the National Theatre which were very polished. But then this is the Traverse, not the NT. They’re not the same thing at all. I hope this is the start of many more such performances. On a purely mercenary note, I’m very happy to exchange the 90+ minute drive to the NT and a high ticket price for a 20 minute drive to the cinema and a seat that costs under £10. It won’t replace theatre but it’s not TV either. Well done, Traverse.”

And so to the techie bit – how did the Traverse and Hibrow Productions do it?

Simultaneous broadcast is not the same as simulcast. (Simulcast uses military-strength satellite broadband to transmit shows to cinemas internationally.) Simultaneous broadcast is the transmission of a live broadcast using the live broadcast spectrum and network, via satellite. It does not transmit internationally (different segment of the broadcast spectrum are used for different purposes in other countries, so may not be on the same frequency) and special kit is required: receiving cinemas needed receiver dishes and decoders. (Sky Sports for example distribute live UK football matches to anywhere in the UK with a Sky receiver dish and decoder.)

In the theatre, a live vision mixing editor worked with a computer loaded with editing software, all the prerecorded material, a sound feed, and feeds from the five cameras. The editor generated a live mix (this had been rehearsed), which was then sent from the computer as a single stream to be broadcast.

Inside the OB van

An outside broadcast van sat on the street outside the Traverse’s main doors, receiving the high definition live mix from the theatre, and sending it out to the live broadcast spectrum and network of receivers and transmitters via satellite. Fibre optic cable and a back-up copper cable carried the signal, and ran directly from the theatre to the OB van (we traced it running down the stairs and through the foyer!).

OB van outside the Traverse

Sir Richard Eyre says in the Hibrow Productions cinema trailer – “its not film, its not cinema – its something new and unique”. I completely agree, and for theatre audiences to be increased in number, diversity and demographic, this distributed live experience is an essential part of the mix.

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