Wisdom Onscreen: Capturing the Dynamism of Medieval Drama on Film
Kevin Christopher Robles
For most of its history, theatre has required an audience to be in attendance at a performance in order to experience it. Whether they lived in Ancient Greece or Elizabethan England, anyone who wanted to see a production of a play had to go to a designated area where they would gather to experience these stories live. Even in the Middle Ages, where drama was primarily a festive group activity connected to larger social rituals, plays were limited engagement only—if you didn’t see the play now, you likely weren’t going to see that production ever again. True, the troupe that performed the play might perform it again in a year or a few years’ time, but if you came to see favorite performers or ad-libbed material or on-stage blunders, then you were out of luck. For thousands of years, this was the plainly accepted condition in all spheres of theater-making: come and see it now! Miss the window? Then you’ll just have to wait a very, very long time, or never see it at all.
Our modern world has changed this condition. Since the invention of motion pictures, recorded theater has evolved into its own unique art form, packaging an experience meant for a live audience and delivering it to those who might never have the opportunity to see it otherwise. It’s a wonderful advance, facilitating more open expression of ideas and wider cultural exchange. These exchanges have reached new heights in the age of the Internet, which brings both popular theater and more obscure works to the masses. However, playtexts that do not have a history of filmed productions present specific challenges. You can watch Shakespeare any time you want; there are even streaming services for it. But for a play like Wisdom, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything at all. Thus, our production stands to provide an important service, ensuring that an accessible version of this play, as revisionist and modernized as it is, can be found online.
“Dynamism is crucial for a production to become more than just rote storytelling… To capture this dynamism on film allows those who could not be in attendance to catch a glimpse of what it was like to watch the performance live.”
But how to go about it? Cinematographically, there is an argument to be made that the cameraman should have as little a role in the delivery of a play as possible. To reproduce the audience’s freedom in choosing which parts of the stage and which actors to focus on, the cameraman must arguably keep the footage as static as possible. Set the camera on a tripod, leave it running, and the steady, albeit somewhat boring footage translates this approach. However, this method carries a large flaw: it lacks dynamism. Dynamism is crucial for a production to become more than just rote storytelling, as it is through individual moments—mistakes, fortunate accidents, or other day-of factors—that an experience unique to each singular performance arises and lodges in our memory. To capture this dynamism on film allows those who could not be in attendance to catch a glimpse of what it was like to watch the performance live.
Placing a camera and simply pointing it at the broadest swath of the stage doesn’t make a recorded performance particularly compelling to watch. It lacks any sense of interpretation and fails to deliver the feeling of being in the audience. In the audience, you whip your head back and forth between the actors; you turn to look at one area of spectacle and then miss what happens elsewhere on the stage. How we choose what to focus on—even when the play nudges us to pay attention to a specific character or action—differs from audience member to audience member. It thus must be the goal of the cameraman to make a recorded experience that tricks the viewer into feeling as if they were making the editorial choices themselves, as a member of the audience, even while it is the camera doing all the work.
This difficult task requires a number of decisions, chief among them the determination of a camera setup during pre-production. Wisdom was staged at the street-level entrance to Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, a performance space that fit our needs spectacularly well. We mounted our static camera on a tripod at an upper-level overlook, along a grassy pathway for groundskeepers. This camera looked down at the production and provided a wide-angle shot through which to view the play. The other handheld, non-stationary camera was located at street level, able to move around and capture footage from a perspective that would more accurately mirror the audience experience from as many different angles as possible. Cinematographically, we had to make choices between the overlook camera, which provided a fairly simple visual perspective, and the handheld camera. Taking inspiration from recordings at the Globe Theatre, which alternate between wide shots and close-ups, I knew I wanted to foreground the play while ensuring that any prospective viewer remained grounded in its personal and spatial environment. The audience members, after all, were sitting quite close to the “stage” and were even sometimes involved in moments that required active audience participation. Thus, it made sense to film primarily in medium shots and close-ups. Giving the viewer this experience of intimacy with the performers was, we determined, the closest approximation we could produce to being immediately present at the performance itself.
I also drew inspiration from other filmic media, in particular Tom Hooper’s 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables, a film whose distinct visual identity sets it apart from original stage productions of the musical. Hooper builds his film from numerous closeups, spending quite a bit of time focused on actors’ faces, often with a handheld camera, creating a feeling of almost intruding upon these characters’ personal space. The intimacy of this shooting style creates an emotional atmosphere far different from a live Broadway performance, where the audience would ordinarily be seated far from the action. Closeness to the performers, in this figurative sense, allows for the performance’s dynamism to show through, allowing viewers to feel as if they are there watching the production live. The camera stops operating as a felt presence and instead becomes an apparatus that allows viewers to experience the dramatic action in a direct and personal way.
Fitness for filmmakers
When the day of the performance arrived, we encountered some inevitable technical hurdles. Thankfully, capturing audio outdoors turned out to be not as much of an issue as we had feared. We were concerned that noise from passing traffic or gusts of wind might have an adverse effect on the recording, but a dual-mic setup careful positioned to capture audio only from the performers and the use of sound mufflers mitigated these problems so that music and dialogue were clearly audible. Cinematographically, the biggest hurdle—which I discovered during the editing process—was the lack of a stabilizer on the handheld camera. The footage was shaky and required additional digital stabilization during post-production. The effect also became worse the longer the recording went on, as my arm got more and more tired during the hour-and-a-half period of holding the camera. A word of advice to any future cameramen: work out.
That said, the post-production process essentially boiled down to an exercise in editing. Our choices were largely determined by an effort to avoid visual disruption of the performance. Inevitably, the handheld camera yielded some imperfect shots and footage that went awry. In these instances, footage from the second camera becomes very helpful. As the filmed Globe productions illustrate well, beyond this technical necessity, switching between the two cameras creates a much more dynamic viewing experience, allowing us to change perspective depending on the needs of the scene. Sometimes the shift from camera to camera makes up for lack of footage; other times it heightens the emotion of a performance. Although it makes for a more involved editing process with double the amount of footage, having two cameras ends up creating a higher quality recording overall.
Creating this intimate and personal recording of the production was a difficult task that required clear understanding of the most important aspects of Wisdom. The feeling of being in the audience, in particular, needed to be transferred onto film in an experiential way, using only the creative means afforded by the use of the camera. Our final film simulates the choices of an individual spectator by directing the viewer’s attention to the most salient and gripping aspects of the performance. While one might object that an online viewing experience is too modern for experiencing medieval drama, our version of Wisdom was at its core a modernization, and our recording follows suit. Though it’s far from perfect, the attempt to simulate audience experience through film helps make sure that these recordings are as enthralling and emotional as the show itself was. These plays were meant to be community events when they were originally conceived, so what better way to modernize them than to ensure that those who watch online feel as though they are there themselves, along with the audience?