Theatre critics don’t always get it right. Take George Jean Nathan. Writing about cinema in 1931, the American critic wrote: “The talking pictures, even imagining them in a future state of perfection, will obviously at their very best be mere theatre plays at second hand.”
What Nathan wasn’t to know was that, far from remaining a poor derivative of the stage, the cinema would flourish as an artform in its own right. What he certainly could not have foreseen is that after several decades of independent development, the moving image would return to the theatre and reinvigorate it, creating fascinating hybrids in the process.
Multimedia theatre is not new, of course, but in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe, theatre-makers are melding the artforms more than ever. The advent of digital editing and sophisticated projection techniques means theatre directors are no longer satisfied with film being a mere decorative addition. Instead, they are making it an integral part of the stage picture.
Reel to Real: The Movies Musical, one of this year’s major shows at the Pleasance, is so technologically advanced that it would have seemed almost impossible to stage before the show’s opening night in Beijing last year. “It’s very new and very different and yet it’s grounded in what makes Broadway and Hollywood as fantastic as they are,” says Simone Genatt, executive producer of the Broadway Asia Company. “Our front projector uses a very powerful system that has the ability to cover multiple screens and multi-task. It came out a week or two before we opened and, without it, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the front projection the way it appears.”
The feelgood production, which has its sights on an international tour, gathers together clips from the golden age of MGM, Warner Brothers, Fox and Paramount musicals and teams them with an ensemble of modern-day Broadway dancers. Thanks to digital trickery and clever splicing, a live performer gets to hot-foot it with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain; the leading lady enjoys a romantic affair with Humphrey Bogart as Rick from Casablanca; and a chorus line goes through its paces with the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim.
“The setting for the show is all cinematic, and there are probably 20 film surfaces,” says Genatt. “It’s a very careful blending of front projections, rear projections, steep projections that come from the top, all mixed with the dancing and the live performers. It’s a fine balancing act, but when it takes off, it’s quite fantastic.”
Elsewhere on the Fringe, in Teenage Riot, the brilliant Belgian company Ontroerend Goed is using live video cameras to make its cast of teenagers, hidden in a box, feel more comfortable about sharing their darkest thoughts with an audience. “It’s quite a technical show, but it doesn’t feel that way when you see it,” says director Alexander Devriendt.
In the International Festival, meanwhile, it’s becoming de rigueur to blend live and recorded action. In Porgy and Bess, directors José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu add film to the mix of opera and dance, a way of working that has become what they call their “choreographic signature”. The Wooster Group has a long history of juxtaposing old movies with the stage action and is doing the same in Vieux Carré, forcing a collision between a Tennessee Williams play and experimental films produced by Andy Warhol in the early 1970s. And the multidisciplinary Meredith Monk is working with video artist Ann Hamilton in Songs of Ascension.
None of these companies, however, blurs the line between theatre and film as much as Teatro Cinema. As its name suggests, this Chilean company offers a 50/50 split between live and recorded action. Director Juan Carlos Zagal places his actors between a normal screen and a transparent gauze, sandwiching them in the middle of front and back projections. Their scenery is the filmed landscape; their props appear and disappear with the speed of an editor’s cut. For Calderón, it’s a chance to break free of theatre’s physical limitations and go where his imagination takes him.
“For me, the first cinema scripts are Shakespeare plays,” says the director. “He changes the settings just like this,” he clicks his fingers. “We’re taking the same liberties with our little story.”
In fact, he is bringing two little stories to Edinburgh: Sin Sangre, about post-civil war reconciliation, and The Man Who Fed Butterflies, a fantasy about an old man’s imagined deathbed journey. In both cases, the shows were story-boarded before rehearsals began, a technique more usual in Hollywood animation than the theatre. “We’ve travelled a lot,” says Zagal. “And in every country, every place and every language people have told us they have never seen anything like this.”
Reel to Real: The Movies Musical, Pleasance Grand, 4-30 August (not Tue), 6pm, From £13.50, Tel: 0131 556 6550
Teenage Riot, Traverse, 17-29 August (not Mon), times vary, From £17, Tel: 0131 228 1404
Porgy and Bess, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 14-17 August (not 15), 7.15pm, From £14, Tel: 0131 473 2000
Vieux Carre, Royal Lyceum, 21-24 August, 7.30pm, From £10, Tel: 0131 473 2000
Sin Sangre, King’s Theatre, 28 & 30 August, 1 & 3 Sept, 8pm, From £12, Tel: 0131 473 2000
The Man Who Fed Butterflies, King’s Theatre, 29 August, 2 & 4 Sept, 8pm and Sep 4, 2pm, From £12, Tel: 0131 473 2000
Songs of Ascension, Royal Lyceum, 28-30 August, 8pm From £10, Tel: 0131 473 2000