Shakespeare takes to the screen
Our hemisphere has proved warmly hospitable to the plays of William Shakespeare. Apart from the productions of his works that many theaters offer in the course of normal business, playgoers stream to the Bard-intense summers at such theatrical hot spots as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Utah Shakespearean Festival, California Shakespeare Theater (“CalShakes”), and New York’s Shakespeare in the Park. But for Shakespeare aficionados in the brave New World, the ultimate pilgrimage site is the small city of Stratford, Ontario, population 30,000. There, the Stratford Festival has grown from its modest founding in 1953 to become a huge enterprise that keeps four separate theaters buzzing from April through October with a dozen or so productions that always include a rich infusion of Shakespeare played by some of the world’s most acclaimed actors.
The Stratford Festival is now leaping into the arena of high-definition transmission to distant movie theaters, joining such already-established industry leaders as The Met: Live in HD (from the Metropolitan Opera in New York) and National Theatre Live (purveyed by the National Theatre in London, though presenting plays from several British and even American houses). The Stratford Festival puts on plays of all sorts, but Stratford HD, as the new incentive is called, will focus on its Shakespeare offerings, with the goal of eventually distributing its productions of the entire Shakespearean canon, which runs to 37 or 38 plays, depending on whose scholarship you subscribe to. In Santa Fe, the productions will be presented at The Screen, where the initial offering, King Lear , is set to roll on Sunday, March 1.
The Stratford Festival has already tested the waters by producing one-off filmed treatments in recent years: Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (from its 2008 production starring Christopher Plummer and Nikki M. James), The Tempest (from its 2010 season, again with Plummer), and Twelfth Night (from 2014, with Brian Dennehy as Sir Toby Belch). “Plunging into this field with a consistent presence is necessary to make this really successful,” said Stratford Festival’s executive director, Anita Gaffney, in an interview with Pasatiempo . “From a distribution perspective, the cinemas were more interested if we were providing a whole series as a suite of material. Particularly in the U.S., some of them felt it would be difficult to gain momentum through just occasional single productions. For some time, artistic director Antoni Cimolino and I had been thinking it would be great to capture the whole canon over 10 years. Now we can do this. Producing three or so per year will fulfill the needs of the distributors while allowing us to offer great Shakespeare to an audience throughout the English-speaking world.”
The executive producer of Stratford HD is Barry Avrich, who has overseen the Stratford Festival’s film productions since its initial Caesar and Cleopatra . The many non-Stratford films he has produced and/or directed — nearly 35 at this point — include such fascinating entries as The
Last Mogul (a portrait of Hollywood kingpin Lew Wasserman) and Glitter Palace (about the Motion Picture Country Home, a retirement complex for retirees from the movie industry). He explained that, as executive producer of Stratford HD, he is responsible for “making sure everything from the producing perspective comes together: selecting the right crew to film it, scheduling, budgeting, post-production, getting it delivered, managing the entire process from the development of the film to getting it onto the screen, working along the way with different constituencies like actors, directors, and production teams.” Apart from that, he has also “directed for the screen” this season’s ensuing productions: King John (directed in its stage presentation by period-performance expert Tim Carroll, with a cast that includes Tom McCamus and Seana McKenna) and Antony and Cleopatra (with Geraint Wyn Davies and Yanna McIntosh, directed by Gary Griffin). For Cimolino’s production of King Lear (which stars the distinguished actor Colm Feore), the film direction is assumed by Joan Tosoni.
To Avrich falls the task of directing for film what has already been minutely directed for the stage. “I sat down with each director,” he said, “to talk about what filming brings to the process, about taking the scale of their productions and adding a layer of cinema. In the theater, you don’t have the benefit of the emotive power of the close-up, of editing, of cutting. In film, we can add a dimension, present a larger perspective than you might get as a member of the live audience.” For Stratford HD, his approach straddles the processes of live theater and film shooting. Certain performances were designated for filming, and audiences were carefully prepared for what they would experience. The cameras would roll, and then suddenly the performance would stop. Cameras would be repositioned on the stage or in the hall, and a scene would be played again. “This allowed us to capture steady-cam shots, tracking shots, really take the audience on a journey,” Avrich said. “In every case, directors have been comfortable adding a layer of cinema. I love the moment when they sit in a screening and hear how we have captured the dialogue with amazing crispness, beautifully recorded. On average, we use 128 tracks of sound, so you can really hear a pin drop in the theater.” The filming or refilming may sometimes involve minor changes of blocking — where an actor enters or is positioned — to achieve optimal camera angles, and lighting might be adjusted to achieve a certain effect, but on the whole, Avrich said, “We are striving for a sense of purity in what we’re filming.”
Although opera- and theatergoers have widely embraced other companies’ high-definition screenings, it is not always clear how they fit into the organizations’ overall business plan. Said Gaffney: “It’s a challenge for all of us to figure out how much market support you can get into something that’s beamed through the world. In our case, we have very modest budgets, and we rely on our colleague organizations to spread the word. But for us, it is a part of our strategic direction, part of a larger plan to let people know about the work we do at the Stratford Festival. We have raised money for this project through private donations, so it is separate from the operating budget. There are some opportunities to earn revenues through downloads and broadcast fees, but the financial foundation is from private donors. They consider the festival like part of their family, and they have really been excited about making it possible to help its production go around the world, providing not just a viewing experience for audience members but also a tremendous resource for teachers and students.”
Capturing the Shakespeare canon on film will mean finessing the demands of the Stratford Festival’s four very different theaters, from the Studio Theatre (260 seats in the round, often the venue for experimental productions) to the keystone Festival Theatre (with its 1,833-seat auditorium). Two of the company’s venues figure in the first three plays, all of which were filmed during the most recent season. King
Lear is at the Festival Theatre; the other two are at the Tom Patterson Theatre, where an audience of 480 flanks three sides of a long runway stage. “The Tom Patterson Theatre presented an interesting challenge,” Avrich said, “in that it has very steep seating, rather like a stadium, and from the audience’s perspective the stage is very much on the floor. It was like filming inside the most confined space possible. King John is filmed in day-to-night realistic lighting throughout the hall, so the audience is very lit and visible. In a way, the audience plays a role that is nearly as significant as the actors’. One of the challenges was for our cameras to not film other cameras, because we had so many positioned at different viewpoints in the audience. In this especially, the cutting is so fast-paced it’s like shooting House of Cards .”
A significant joy of the Stratford Festival is that it takes place in an attractive but unassuming town, not unlike so many others — except that Lady Macbeth may pedal past you on a tree-lined street or Christopher Plummer may be sitting at the next table in a restaurant. That will be difficult to convey through the films, but it does not need to be an either-or situation. “Stratford HD is addressing an essentially different audience,” Gaffney said, “and an important one for us, reaching people further afield than we have before. We are keeping the focus on the fact that we are a repertory company, and we haven’t gone overboard with the preshow and intermission features. These films are unique products in themselves, and we hope they will inspire some viewers to come to Stratford.”
King Lear Colm Feore as King Lear; opposite page from left, Tom McCamus as King John and Wayne Best as Hubert; Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra and Geraint Wyn Davies as Mark Antony; photos by David Hou, images courtesy the Stratford Festival
Antony and Cleopatra