It feels unfair to say we have gone without theatre entirely over the last 14 months. Where most shows have remained closed since March 2020 and others have opened or reopened only to close again weeks later, we have been in the midst of a theatre revolution. Theatre had to adapt to stay alive somehow and so we saw a boom in online streams. While nothing can compare to the experience of being there in person as part of the audience, it was a much needed lifeline for all of us theatre lovers. If it wasn't for streams, we would have gone without completely.
While I know most people are now all streamed out, there have been some truly phenomenal shows that have kept us all sane over the last year and a bit. As theatres now begin to open their doors again, we are seeing some of the shows that started life as online streams transition to the stage. With that, I am starting a new series called "From Stream To Stage" which looks at these shows that began life online and are making the leap in person. Through this series, I will speak with creatives involved with the shows to see their feelings on streams and the challenges involved in adapting them for the stage.
First up is Public Domain. Streamed live in January, the innovation of the show blew me away (Check out my original review) and is now moving to the West End for a limited run at the Vaudeville Theatre this week. I caught up with the shows producer Adam Lenson to find out more about the process and bringing Public Domain to the stage.
All That Dazzles: How did the idea for Public Domain first come about? Adam Lenson: In December 2019 I was asked by Southwark Playhouse to curate a new musical theatre evening for them and came up with the idea for newsfeed where a group of writers had to create a song of any style based on that week’s news. Francesca Forristal & Jordan Paul Clarke had been obsessed with the recent interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg by Congresswoman Katie Porter and decided to turn it into a verbatim song. The allotted time for the questioning was six minutes and the song they wrote was exactly six minutes long. They performed the song themselves with Jordan as Mark Zuckerberg and Cesca as Katie Porter. It was a huge hit with the audience and ever since London Road I had been wondering about verbatim musical theatre and where it could go next in the UK. Immediately after the concert I told them I had a slot in the next SIGNAL concert in a week and would they consider writing another verbatim song. They quickly found an interview with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan that took place in their home and it offered a completely different perspective to his narrative. Again this next song brought the house down and I knew there was something special here. I suggested that they might be writing a verbatim musical about the internet and Public Domain was born.
ATD: What were the challenges of streaming the production? AL: We had always intended the show to be an in person piece of theatre. It was conceived by Jordan and Cesca as something that ripped words and stories off our screen and brought them into the three dimensional shared experience of live in person theatre. However with theatre unable to take place in a traditional way, we realised that there was also something incredible about the opportunity to do a piece about the internet on the internet. In many ways we reconceived the show entirely for the medium and decided to use overlays and video content to merge musical and internet. Making songs look like YouTube and instagram. The idea of what a screen is and how they present information was something we interrogated a lot. The main challenge was the technical complexity. We executed the show entirely live and had to programme the switches between the five live cameras, the overlays and the lighting to interact live with the performances. This meant there were over 1500 cues all timecode with the tracks. There were only six people in the room including the performers so a great deal of the show was preprogrammed like a fairground ride. It was then a rollercoaster that we all got on together. Myself and stage manager Roni Neale operated the cameras between us.
ATD: Were there any advantages to streaming it rather than staging it? AL: The main advantage was that audiences tuned in from all over the world and watched the show together. Despite the show being a multimedia experience it was also able to be a very theatrical one that was performed in a single live moment and the feeling of being joined by hundreds of people at the same time to share that was incredibly moving. The material is so contemporary (much of it gathered from the internet over the last twelve months) and so it felt right to be able to do something so immediate. In the past year everyone has been interrogating what digital theatre is and how it works and as well as creating a live piece of theatre it also felt amazing to be trying something so risky and innovative. There was real trust from everyone involved in doing something that none of us had really seen before.
ATD: As the original Public Domain streamed live, is that easier to translate to a live audience than something that was filmed beforehand? AL: I think because the piece was originally intended for in person audiences it is definitely where we intended and imagined the piece going but I think by interrogating the way the show works on the internet has given us so much creative breadth for the upcoming Vaudeville shows. The digital version made us realise how important video design and visual overlays were to making the show feel like the internet from which all the content is drawn from. The West End production is going to incorporate everything we learnt from the digital production including a feast of integrated multimedia from video, to lighting, to soundscape. The fact that we executed the digital show live means that all of the time coding and processes we developed for the show as well as some of the visual language is all still usable and expandable in person. If we had made a film then a lot of the effects would have been created in postproduction, but because we made a piece of live digital theatre, all of the media integration was executed live and thus is something we have been able to draw upon and use in this next iteration. The in person premiere will take the digital discoveries and multiply them to make a unique piece of multisensory theatre that I promise is unlike anything audiences will have seen before.
ATD: How do you adapt a piece that originally streamed for the stage? AL: When we streamed the show, we lit the actors and then overlaid the cameras with live video. But onstage it will all be layered together. Video screens, lighting and performance will be seamlessly integrated into one fused experience. We will be using camera footage overlays too as well and basically just layering everything we found online with everything that is great about live in person theatre. I think if we hadn’t made the show for screens first we never would have felt comfortable exploring such an integrated approach. It feels like a digital production was - by accident - the perfect first step for making a show about the internet. Of course none of us expected to have go that route but we are now understanding the advantages that digital theatre has given us.
ATD: The original streaming production was very tech heavy. I remember seeing your tweets about just how complicated it was to stage. Is it less complicated to do it on a stage or more so?
AL: I would say it is still very complicated but we now have more experience and knowledge of how to pull it off. The same timecode and cueing information we used onscreen is going to form the skeleton of this show. In many ways we have taken the digital production and made it more rich and layered and added a lot more surprises and theatricality to it. ATD: Have there been any necessary changes since the original stream? AL: Most of the changes have been about expanding and clarifying the world of the piece and really interrogating the characters to make them as well rounded as possible. Because this is a verbatim musical the people onstage are real people with all of the complexity therein. We have taken time to make sure that the influencer protagonists Millie and Z are as three dimensional as possible and do as much justice to the original speakers of their words. In many ways 2020 was a huge paradigm shift for the internet and we are still experiencing all of the things portrayed in the piece. But of course since it is a contemporary show there have been small tweaks to make sure that it speaks to the present moment as clearly and directly as possible.
ATD: Why should people see Public Domain? AL: Because Jordan and Cesca are two of the most talented writers of new musical theatre working right now and this is your chance to see not only a show they have written but also to see them performing it. I truly believe this is going to be one of those “were you there” moments and I really don’t want audiences to miss out. The show has the most extraordinary, vibrant music and also there is something so impossibly moving about knowing that every word spoken and sung onstage was spoken or written by an actual person. This isn’t a fictional show, it is a show about the lives we are living. If you are interested in great pop music, in journalism, in technology, in responsibility. If you use social media and sometimes love it and sometimes hate it. If you wonder about how to use the internet better or how the internet can be better. If you want to be part of a revolution in new UK musical theatre. Then you should come.
ATD: As someone that has been involved with a lot of streamed productions, how do they compare to live audiences? AL: I of course miss in person audiences. But there is something about the accessibility and reach of digital productions that has been really startling. There is also something incredible about being able to make work that perhaps wouldn’t be able to get straight onstage via traditional means. For new work and new musicals I think digital theatre is a revelation. We were programmed at the Vaudeville because we were able to send NIMAX the digital production to watch. We gained interest and momentum in a load of different countries for a small new show that no one had heard of before 2020. In fact in 2020 I was able to direct six new musicals which is a significantly more than would normally be possible. I was also able to curate live digital concerts and create friendships and collaborations with writers. Creatives, audiences and producers all over the world. The main thing missing is that feeling of sharing a space and an experience with other human beings. Of being able to laugh and cry and applaud together. But I think digital theatre and in person theatre should go hand in hand from this point onwards. I think development and sharing of work online can lead to many more pathways and opportunities for in person work and I think can help make theatre more progressive and innovative. New musical theatre is a difficult form to work in because in many ways audiences don’t want to take a chance on the unknown. But giving more opportunities to reach audiences and show them what work is and could be is a brilliant advantage. Public Domain began its life in December 2019 and has already managed to have a digital production, a cast recording and a west end run. I don’t think that any of this would have been possible without digital theatre and livestreaming.
ATD: Do you think streamed shows will continue now that theatres have begun to open their doors again? AL: I truly believe they will and I will certainly keep making them. One of my favourite lockdown productions was Shift+Alt+Right by Hilmi Jaidin. A musical curated entirely to be performed and watched online. It is a show that literally was made for streaming and enabled a whole load of people all over the world to discover the dark, beautiful work of Hilmi. It was streamed from my flat and didn’t require a traditional theatre at any point in its creation or viewing. I think there is power in realising that theatre isn’t just buildings. For me musical theatre has always been about writers. Centering writers and giving them space and opportunity. Every one of the SIGNAL concerts I have produced since 2017 has been fully archived online and there is something about making digital collections of work that I think is hugely important to the growth of musical theatre. In addition I think hybrid experiences are essential, I think every piece should be thinking about how to give access to audiences without them coming the theatre. I hope all theatres find a way of streaming every one of their shows going forward but I also hope we will continue to make and absorb work that is purely digital.
ATD: What have been your online theatre highlights over the past year? AL: I was incredibly taken by What Do We Need To Talk About by Richard Nelson which the Public Theater premiered early in the first lockdown. It was a live play that took the form of a family meeting on Zoom and the acting and writing were just spectacular. I was watching it at 1am in bed and suddenly realised that I could go to the Public Theater in New York even though I was in London. It was a moment of revelation for me. Circle Jerk by Fake Friends was also an incredibly innovative live show that interrogated the internet. Romantics Anonymous was the first time I saw someone else attempt a live musical and I was so glad to see that catching on. I know a lot of people have claimed that digital theatre is just bad filmmaking but for me it is the ingenuity of making it live that really changes that. Theatre is about sharing a single unity of time, film is about editing different takes and times together. Everything I have loved has engaged with the idea of temporal continuity.
ATD: As someone who champions new writing, what more could people do to help support? AL: The main thing audiences can do is buy tickets for work that isn’t yet proven. Audiences seem to pile into shows that have had already won awards or been gold stamped by American critics but often steer clear of new work until it has been somehow proven to be good. But the issue is that a lot of incredible work isn’t getting seen because people are not giving work a try or a chance. It is a chicken and egg situation. Work becomes popular because it is produced and work is produced because it is popular. So I just say to audiences, please do try and see new work when it is produced. If you like Six and Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen then why not buy a ticket for Public Domain?, those shows will still be there next month but you could be part of making a new show happen. I have made the tickets for Public Domain incredibly reasonable. They are the same price in the West End as they would be at Southwark Playhouse. I always set ticket prices low because I want audiences to be able to give things a try. Commercial theatre especially has tended to become a place where audiences like to feel they are buying tickets to a safe bet. But if audiences don’t give less tested work a try then where will the next UK hits come from that aren’t movie adaptations by pop stars. If you want to be part of the next Six, the next Hamilton then take a chance and buy a ticket for something new when you get the opportunity.
ATD: While the world of theatre has changed drastically over the last year, are there any positives you have taken from it? AL: As I have said the main opportunity has been realising that you don’t need to go the traditional route to get a show on. Previously the shows we see get selected by a very small pool of gatekeepers. Digital theatre is more democratic than that. Like the internet it gives writers a chance to make work and create opportunities for themselves. I hope this is something that can continue. For too long I have seen musical theatre as an intensely hierarchical form and I think we must try to create opportunities for it to be more democratic wherever we can.
ATD: What are you looking forward to most now that theatres are beginning to reopen? To crying in a theatre again. To that feeling of overwhelm when the lights, the sound, the staging, the words and the music line up in a perfect vertical stack and when everyone sitting around me knows it at the same time I do. ATD: What’s next for Public Domain? AL: I have no idea. But I feel it is one of the most relevant, beautiful, fun, thought-provoking shows I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of. I think it could play in many different countries in many different types of production. I would love to see students sing these songs, I would love to see different directors bring this world to life. One thing I know is that the show is about what is happening to us right now. We have moved quickly to ensure that we are able to chronicle this time as we are living it and we hope there will be more opportunities to expand and develop it in the near future.
I'll be posting a new review of Public Domain this Friday to see how it compares to the original streamed version. Look out for more instalments of "From Stream To Stage" over the coming weeks and months with looks at Cruise and I Could Use A Drink coming soon.
Public Domain is at the Vaudeville Theatre from May 27th - 30th. Tickets are available from https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/public-domain/