Videotaping Live Theater

By Stucker, Richard | American Cinematographer, March 1985 | Go to article overview

Videotaping Live Theater


Stucker, Richard, American Cinematographer


A major dilemma that has always plagued live theatrical stage performances is that once the curtain comes down, the production will never be seen again with that particular interpretation or staging or direction, except in the memory of the playgoer. Now imagine the best, the most representative, the most controversial, or simply the most incredible stage performances on Broadway, off-Broadway and in regional theaters across the country being recorded on film and video tape multi-camera style, thus capturing these treasures forever!

For the past six years I have been fortunate enough to be the video director during the taping of some priceless events. Most have been recorded at packed-house performances, usually under existing theatrical lighting, cut and mixed live without any post production, and - with few exceptions - all are broadcast quality. Yes, Virginia, live stage productions for television do exist, and they can be viewed - with limitations - at the New York Public Library's Billy Rose Theatre Collection at Lincoln Center.

The more than 330 productions currently in the Theatre on Film and Tape Collection (TOFT) have been recorded for as little as $200 (the first production shot in black and white in 1970) to well into five figures for last year's recording of A Chorus Line the night it became the longest running Broadway musical. But more about that production later. It must be emphasized here that the vast majority of these recordings are paid for by a few grants, endowments and corporate donations and, occasionally, by the producers, writers, etc. of the productions. For instance, TOFT has just been given a sizeable grant from the Ford Foundation to record four regional theater productions a year for the next four years. But these contributions are very scarce and thus, video taping budgets are tight.

However, some of the world's best theatrical productions are being recorded. Once a selected production has closed, theatre professionals, students and researchers from around the world can, if qualified, come to Lincoln Center to see how that production was staged, directed, interpreted, etc., thanks to the efforts of TOFT's project director, Betty Corwm, and her small but dedicated staff. In addition, almost a dozen unions involved in commercial theater have sanctioned the Library as the only institution in the United States permitted to tape live performances without payment to those involved with a production.

Obviously, recording live theatrical performances under existing lighting conditions, with multiple cameras positioned in a very limited number of locations in the audience, with no rehearsals or camera blocking sessions, no rough audio mixes and usually no post production whatsoever could make some people feel that the challenges would be insurmountable at best. But somehow we manage to record the seemingly impossible. As an extreme example, one production was even shot with a night-scope camera - very interesting. Suffice it to say that it was prelkegami 'D', ?' and 1EC' technology.

The first video recording that I directed for TOFT was She Stoops to Conquer at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis back in 1978, and since that time I've directed the majority of the recordings for TOFT.

Once a play has been selected (by an impressive group of theater dignitaries, based on a list of criteria as long as my arm, which I won't expound upon here), I generally view the production at least three or four times. I'm usually fairly easy to spot in an audience - the bearded weirdo scratching and sketching furiously on his spiral note pad in the midst of the big-buck seats, usually to the annoyance of those theater veterans glaring at me on either side. The crews we use view the plays at least once to familiarize themselves with the characters, general blocking, musical and choreographed sequences.

In general, our primary purpose is to document the production as performed, staged, directed, produced, designed, choreographed, etc. …

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