Hamlet and selfies
Written for Everything Theatre
Here at Everything Theatre, as our name suggests, we really like our theatre. We like it so much, it’s pretty much all we talk about. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, we do sometimes risk forgetting theatre can be even more awesome when combined with other forms of art. Fortunately, there are plenty of people who specialise in these kinds of crossovers. We caught up with Theatre and Photography author Joel Anderson, who serves as the MA Theatre Criticism and Dramaturgy course leader at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, to talk about what makes these two disciplines such an interesting combo.
Why the combination of theatre and photography?
My book is part of a series called Theatre and… , a range on theatre in combination with other topics, and I was asked to write it. I was already working on theatre and photography, and I have a background in both areas. So partly it was about bringing two personal interests together, but I also thought the premise of the book was interesting because, in some way, photography and theatre seem very much opposed. Theatre seems to be a very different representational form from photography. And yet, at the same time, they do historically coincide.
There are interesting connections between early experimental photography and the theatre. The people that were involved in theatre seemed to be theatre practitioners interested in experimenting in the possibilities offered by photography, by both forms. But there are contemporary parallels between photography and theatre as well. For example, around the time I was writing the book was when ‘selfie’ was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. And I realised that that’s got a lot to do with both theatre and, obviously, photography. I don’t actually talk much about selfies in the book, but that was one of the things in the background for me: the way we represent ourselves, perform ourselves, with photography, how we stage and frame ourselves…
So, apart from differences, there are similarities between the two disciplines as well?
Yes, there are connections. In some ways they seem to be very different. In terms of time and space, for example: theatre often seems to be about duration whereas photography is about the instant. But, at the same time, they both seem to involve some idea of representation — they both refer to something external, and then frame that thing in some way. There’s the frame of the stage, but also the frame of the photograph. Perspective and sight lines are relevant to both, too, as is posing. So yes, they seem to be very close but also very opposed at the same time.
Obviously theatre is a live experience, whereas, as you said, photography is about capturing an instant. So is it possible to really get good photographs of theatre?
Yes, I think you can photograph anything, because surely everything can be photographed. But theatre definitely poses some problems, beyond the technical challenges of photographing in the specific environment of a theatre. The theoretical understanding of photography is often that there’s a relationship with the thing that’s being photographed, there’s some kind of reality that is carried through. But if you photograph theatre, what is it that comes through? Is it reality? But if it’s reality, it’s already something that isn’t real, so it’s a representation of a representation.
Is photography a useful tool, then, in archiving theatre for the future?
Yes, definitely. Because even if the idea that photography is capturing the real seems a bit problematic and has been challenged, it’s true that it does give you a sense of what things look like. And I don’t think anybody would really deny that. The fact that it’s not 100% reliable, that you can be misled, doesn’t mean that it can’t give you some sense of what things look like. You do have to be careful when you look at theatre photographs. You have to remember that they’re taken from a particular perspective, and that they’re taken with a particular reason, so they’re not just to be seen as archive material. Indeed, the earliest ‘theatre photography’ didn’t take place in theatres. Instead, those photos were portraits of actors, taken in a photographic studio, even if stage elements were sometimes incorporated.
Can photography be a usual tool for theatre makers, either during or after the production process?
I think it can be, because it can be a means of recording to assist with construction. For example, Theatre du Soleil in Paris uses photography to record all their experimentation, because they rehearse for a long time. And they try out these things in very open ways, with changes of cast and very radical changes of costume. So, to record all of that, they have a system where they take pictures of the process in the rehearsal room. And then they’ll use those pictures to remind themselves of what they’ve done, to help the actors recover certain combinations of costume, or a particular gesture, so that’s an interesting way of incorporating photography as part of the process. I do wonder whether now a lot of directors and actors do that, with photography being so easy because of camera phones.
But there’s always a risk involved, I think, as well as a reward. It might mean that you are performing to the camera; it might mean that the camera becomes more important than the audience. How could actors not be conscious of themselves being photographed?
Are there best practices when it comes to theatre photography?
No, because it depends what you’re doing. I don’t think you can ‘fully’ capture the performance, you’re always capturing, or even constructing, something partial. And you’re always doing it in a particular way. But, sometimes the best documentation of performance is very deliberately partial. I think the difference, for me, between a video of a performance and photography of a performance, is that although the video gives probably gives me more sense of what it looks like, and of the rhythm of the production, I don’t get much out of it. I feel like video flattens performance out in some way, it turns it into something without a spatial dimension, whereas photography allows me to continue to think my way around the space. It’s not a bad thing, video certainly has its value, but with photography I feel like the space and the performance remain something the spectator can navigate and negotiate.
So, if you were trying to decide whether or not to see a show, you’d find it more helpful to see pictures rather than a video?
Yes, although I don’t always choose what to see based on publicity materials in any case. There are some quite nice videos being done, by the National Theatre for example, and promotional photographs can be intriguing. The question that comes up there is where the line is between documentation and marketing. Sometimes, that’s quite hard to see. Publicity photographs for shows are almost always created before the show exists, and even before rehearsals have begun, so they construct an image of something yet to be. Those kinds of images can be very compelling, but you also resist them slightly because they’re clearly are not the production ‘itself’.
If you consider photography a useful tool in theatre, what’s your opinion on audience members taking pictures during a show?
I have very mixed feelings about this, actually. The theatre is one of the remaining places where you can’t usually use your phone. Even in bed, current software is designed so that it’s left on and it knows you’re asleep. So there’s a sense that the theatre could potentially become the one place where you switch your phone off, in the whole of your life, and I wonder if that’s worth preserving. But no, I know that a lot of actors would think that people taking pictures during a show is the worst thing ever.
There was that whole thing with Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican, making announcements about phones and cameras being used during the performance. I understand him and I’m sure it’s kind of distracting, but at the same time I find myself thinking:It’s not like anybody thought they were really in Elsinore before that — it’s not like he thought he was really in Elsinore until people got their phones out. I don’t entirely understand the idea of ‘Oh no, now you’ve broken the illusion!’, because it wasn’t really an illusion that way, anyway. It was something we were choosing to believe, we weren’t actually believing it. I’m always a bit reluctant to say that people should sit and be quiet in the theatre, as if that was even possible.
The other argument against it would be that people are distracting themselves and that they won’t be focusing on that moment, but I don’t really believe people are focusing on that moment all the time anyway. When you’re in the audience of a play you can easily just be thinking about something and look like you’re watching the play. I’ve done it myself, I’ve found myself thinking through long, long chains of thought while the play just goes on.
There’s something about intellectual property as well: If you photograph a stage you are potentially ‘stealing’ the intellectual property of the production. The fact that that can then go onto social media and be spread around within seconds adds a few complications. Another problem is that photography as a professional activity has been declining. Because everybody is a photographer, or everybody can be. And so theatre companies have fewer and fewer photographers, even though there’s still plenty of photography going on. And I think that has consequences, that there’s a difference between anybody taking a picture and a photographer taking a picture and being designated to do so.
So, I don’t know, it raises really interesting questions. I suppose there’s also the bigger question about theatre: is it an artwork that you’re seeing and then recording with the camera and transferring somewhere else, or is it an event that you’re attending? If it’s event then taking pictures is probably fine. That’s almost what defines an event, that it’s something you take pictures of.
I was at a show recently at the Peacock Theatre, and there was a lot of photographing going on, though the ushers kept asking people to stop. Obviously there’s something quite funny about looking out over the heads of other audience members and seeing loads of little screens showing the thing that you’re also looking at. It seems very telling of our times.
So, coming back to the start of our conversation: how do you feel about people taking selfies in performances? Is that something you’ve seen people do?
Oh, yes. That was one of the things at the Barbican as well, with Cumberbatch: people trying to take selfies with him while he was busy playing Hamlet! I actually think it’s ideal for Hamlet. It makes it all the more interesting, because Hamlet is all about surveillance anyway so I think they should’ve embraced it. Maybe. And also, I think the fact that they were so indignant about it is a bit much, given that the production cast a celebrity as Hamlet and charged a lot of money for people to go and see him. They created that event and it was reasonable to expect that people would take pictures, so I think they could’ve embraced it. They could have posited that as Hamlet’s oppression, that he’s constantly being ‘photographed’ and constantly being watched; that’s how he feels. And he’s right. Denmark’s a prison, a place of surveillance. It’s not a physical prison, necessarily, but he can’t go back to university, he feels that his every move is being watched. So yeah, in some way, the camera is very appropriate, and the selfie seems quite appropriate to the consideration of how people appear, how they are seen, and how they present themselves.