Johnny Tam

Theatre director, art director of the Macao Experimental Theatre, has been living and working in Shanghai and Berlin. Representative works from these years are Mr. Shi and His Lover and Lungs.

Filming theatre plays in a streaming era

06 2020 | issue39

This spring, we have all isolated ourselves from the rest of the world. But the “stay home” campaign has also provided us with the opportunities to enjoy lots of art exhibitions and performances online.


Art Basel’s exhibition in Hong Kong, for example, was cancelled previously. The organising committee eventually decided to hold an online exhibition and put all of the exhibiting works on the Internet, allowing everyone who is staying at home to appreciate over 2,000 art pieces that were scheduled to be displayed in Hong Kong. The theatre industry also prompted swift responses to the pandemic. Lehniner Platz Theatre live-streamed theatre plat An Enemy of the People directed by Ostermeier online. American musical streaming platform Broadway HD also rolled out a variety of flash sale discounts, through which the audience can watch over 300 musicals at home. In the Internet era, we have grown accustomed to having access to high-quality content (like music and movie streaming) by tapping on the screen. That’s why it is interesting to see whether high-quality theatre plays can also compete with entertainment content on Netflix and other streaming platforms. But one thing is for sure. Going digital has its pros and cons. Let’s take art performance for an example. On one hand, artists and performance groups do want their content to reach a broader audience, but they also worry whether videos can reconstruct the charm of live performances for the audience.


What happens at the stage stays at the stage. Besides, the real-time responses from the audience are also something unique to live performance. We already hold the belief that videos cannot provide the audience with an immersive experience. From documenting shows through a camera on a tripod to today’s costly multiple-camera set often seen on TV shows, it seems they cannot replicate the theatre experience. Since these two ways of recording live performance are far from satisfying, the producers and directors of live performances could think about how we can adapt our works into viral content in the Internet era. We might ask questions like how we could satisfy the audience’s expectation and whether there is another set of filming aesthetics behind streaming our content.


In the film industry, we have a genre called dance film. Dance films are co-produced by the choreographers, dancers, filming crew, director and editors. (For instance, First Run Features had released a dance film named Dance for Camera in the form of DVD. Germany entertainment company Arthaus Musik had also published works on dance crew DV8.) Dance films’ story might not happen at a theatre or on a particular stage because the filming scenes might be a swimming pool, public transport, or even in nature. These special scenes can add up to a consistent production with the help of good filming, editing, music and special effect, which also ensure the scenes in the movie will not be repetitive.



In other words, a good performance video also has its artistic value besides replicating the live performance for the audience. Filming and editing directors, who are the content creators behind the scene, play indispensable roles in the making of good theatre play content for streaming. They will use different film-making techniques and methods to exercise great control over the creation of theatre play videos, capturing details that are hard to notice and guiding the audience to appreciate theatre plays through their unique perspective.


In some way, editing and filming directors have multiple roles in the production process. They are content creators because they are reinventing existing content through technologies. They are also a play critic, as they are expressing their opinions through the choice of filming angle and colouring, as well as through editing. They are the audience as well. They have real-time interaction with the performers while thinking about the aesthetics and value that the play director or creator wants to convey.


During this pandemic, I would always think about whether our art and culture are that vulnerable when a pandemic or war hits. I believe my fellow theatre people around the world have more or less thought about it. On the one hand, we want this pandemic to end as soon as possible. On the other, we also know that we have to find a way to help theatres survive if we couldn’t get rid of our face masks and reunite with each other in a theatre.