We are working towards crafting a style of filming that is more filmic than a lot of theatre shows that are currently available online and by doing this, making the online experience interesting and engaging for the audience.” Cape Town based arts administrator and producer, Blythe Linger talking about the challenges in making film recordings of live performance,

South Africa went into lockdown at midnight on March 26, 2020. However, from March 15, the theatre world in SA had already been on shut down, when president, Cyril Ramaphosa announced the closure of venues seating more than 100 people. Spurred by what one may perhaps call the ‘soft lockdown’ and social distancing, Cape Town based arts administrator and producer, Blythe Linger and colleagues assembled a team and filmed a theatre production on March 20 at The Drama Factory [Somerset West, Strand and surrounds]. They filmed a solo piece of theatre, Medusa Incarnate, which had been previously staged in Cape Town. The show was performed, in front of cameras and crew and recorded by film as the first title for a new platform, South African Theatre on Demand.

South African Theatre on Demand has been conceptualized along the lines of platforms like National Theatre (UK) Live in which live theatre is captured on film and then those recordings [they are not film adaptions] are screened in venues around the world and also made available for streaming on a pay per view. With the pandemic and most of the world in lockdown, we have seen a proliferation of streaming of film broadcasts– drama, musicals, comedy. During the pandemic, many titles have been free to download.

The arts in South Africa is underfunded and finding money to then make a film of a live show, is another challenge. After a run, independent artists and companies are hustling to cobble together resources for the next gig. Archiving and documenting shows falls way down on the list of priorities – because it is expensive to make a high quality film. The success of NT Live and other platforms is that the titles are made with high production values. Considerable money goes into making a film recording. It is not just a matter of putting a smart phone on a tripod. Professional rigging, cinematography, sound and post production is required.

The bottom line: Independent companies and solo artists are unable to monetise their artistic capital as they do not have the resources to make quality films which people will pay to see.

In the lockdown, we have seen many download options. One must applaud the can-do approach and ability to make do with what is at hand. That may suffice for lockdown but to compete in the global market place, funding and expertise is needed in order to create quality films of live theatre.

Blythe Linger talks to TheCapeRobyn about the pilot phase of the very exciting start-up, South African Theatre on Demand

TheCapeRobyn: Before lockdown, you managed to film, Medusa Incarnate, directed by Dara Beth and starring Kate Pinchuck (she also wrote it). You filmed at Sue Diepveen’s The Drama Factory?

Blythe Linger: We filmed on the 20th of March 2020. Everything was planned and set up in less than a week. We simply didn’t have time to play around and plan too much. It was also important that we practised the upmost health precautions on set. Everything was sanitised throughout the process and we all wore masks where we could. I had approached bigger venues as our first prize was to film on a large stage as it is easier from a technical point of view. We had locked down the use of one of the stages at Artscape Theatre Centre but unfortunately, they had to cancel because of public health safety issues in a large complex.

As you can imagine, we were asking people to do things in very stressful and uncertain times. Unfortunately, and at no surprise, some theatres did not bother to reply at all. The only venues that replied were Artscape (Marlene Le Roux) and The Fugard Theatre (Greg Karvellas), and then just like that Sue Diepeveen [owner of The Drama Factory] messaged and said that we can have full use of the space. We were thrilled – even though it is a little smaller than what we had hoped for. Sue is an incredible individual. She operates a self-sustaining business – no funding -and keeps the arts going in her community. She has little resources and even in the stress of that time before lockdown, she offered all the help we needed with no questions asked.

We had five productions lined up for filming. In the countdown to lockdown, unfortunately, creatives fell sick (not COVID-19) and some feared of becoming sick at a time where everything was so uncertain. This is completely understandable. We focussed on what we could do and completed filming Medusa Incarnate.

TheCapeRobyn: You didn’t film in front of an audience. Please tell us about how you are approaching your platform –capturing the essence of live experience – through the medium of film?

Blythe Linger. We didn’t film in front of an audience due to a variety of reasons. It is a conscious choice – not to do so.  We don’t believe that we will film in front of the audience unless the audience is an integral part of the story. We believe that this will isolate that online viewer. I have seen some theatre productions done by various theatres where the filming is just amazing and the inclusion of the audience is well shot, but then I have also seen some very flat productions that take away from the beauty of the live theatrical experience. With that said we are very aware that we can never replicate the true magic that takes place in a live performance with a full house and can only offer a new experience in which one can watch the production.

We are working with and observing the model of various online theatre streaming platforms as well as video-on-demand and platforms such as Netflix, Showmax, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV. We are working towards crafting a style of filming that is more filmic than a lot of theatre shows that are currently available online and by doing this, making the online experience interesting and engaging for the audience.

The film, we believe, needs to become about the actor/actors on stage and conveying that through film. By panning across the stage and depicting the audience, one can interrupt the flow of the film.

There are also obvious hurdles that an audience can pose. One would need many days to choreograph the cameras around the actor, sound playback, lighting etc. and then we would not have the luxury of calling cut. We were able to play around on set and find beautiful images within the play that we simply couldn’t do with an audience in the room.

Kate Pinchuck was a dream to work with, she is, after all, a diverse performer. She worked extremely well with the camera, giving us a lot of room for ‘audience’ immersive opportunities.

TheCapeRobyn: This project was in place before the lockdown but it was fast tracked by the pandemic?

Blythe Linger. I’ve been looking into this idea for a while now, but it has been on the back burner due to the tremendous amount of time, energy and investment that it would require. When South Africa moved into the first reaction phase to this pandemic (social distancing), I decided that I just had to get this off the ground, and if ever I was going to test this concept it would be now, when we will, in reality, need to create some passive income for artists. It was then that Stefan Erasmus, reached out to me in a similar frame of mind and just like that I had the support that I needed. We assembled a small team and started looking for the productions that would be recorded. We raised R13 000 in two days from some amazing individuals, who did not think twice and threw money at this pilot project. With this budget, we had to realistically restrict ourselves to a maximum of two-handers, 60 min, minimal set. etc. The short of it is that the longer the production and bigger the casts, the higher the costs. But we will definitely be looking to scale to larger productions.

TheCapeRobyn: This project is about providing creatives with passive income and also about archiving South African Theatre and making it accessible for audiences in SA and globally?

Blythe Linger: Although we are looking to make South African theatre available to a larger audience through this video-on-demand platform, we will not be limiting the platform to just theatre productions. We will be looking to include performance poetry, music theatre, concerts that pivot around a story, 360 theatre experiences, as well as being able to watch a show from the stage manager’s point of view, fly crew point of view etc. We hope to expand and include behind the scenes videos, pod casts, master classes by seasoned artists- perhaps. We hope to generate theatrical recordings of South African theatre award shows.

This initiative is built and aimed at empowering artists to be owners of their work and to build passive income. The secondary aim if you will, is to build a high-quality archive of South African theatre, so that these works can be studied and referenced worldwide. We look to build a theatre-going audience of tomorrow by taking theatre to the audience in a different form.

TheCapeRobyn: This is the pilot start-up phase of this project. You have five titles on the list and building on that, you hope to generate interest and funding?

Blythe Linger: Definitely, business is naturally a game I love to play. The pilot titles will serve as proof of concept, allowing us to build analysis on our audience; allow us to build a business case and then adjust the model. Once we have done that, we will be approaching both private and public funding institutions for funding.

But the key is that we will not engage in any form of funding where the rights and ownership are taken away from the artist. Artists have to be able to earn passive income from their work and hold the artistic rights to their work. We have not applied for the Department of Arts, Culture and Sport funding which has been made available during the shutdown as there is a clause in their terms and conditions that makes mention that all work produced under the funding will become the property of the department, and that is just a none negotiable for us at this point. But yes, we hope that long term, this venture will be profitable for all involved but most of all, for the artists themselves!

TheCapeRobyn: For the pilot project, what is the budget to film each production – the cameras, sound mix, colour grading, subtitles?

Blythe Linger: At this point, the entire team of crew have agreed to work on this pilot project for the passion of marrying the two art forms, film and theatre and out of the passion for their craft. Currently, as it stands, for a two-hander show to film in one day (12 hours) with a team of six crew and equipment, we are looking at around R25 000 [Twenty five thousand rand – about – 1342,94 USD – at current exchange rate, April 14, 2020].

TheCapeRobyn: How will it work in terms of royalties for artists?

Blythe Linger: In the pilot project, we will allocate percentages of royalties to the cast and crew. Crew will be capped in earning potential whereas owners of the work will continue to earn royalties from click per views (for now) as long as the piece stays in and available, from the library. Naturally, there will be a percentage charged for the operation of the platform but the Artist will receive the majority of the royalties. It must be noted that this is a pilot and the model of how royalties are split is subject to change.

TheCapeRobyn: The success of NT Live and similar broadcast platforms is the global distribution. Is this part of your vision – to make the platform available globally?

Blythe Linger: Of course. We have a tremendous amount of talent in South Africa- including actors, writers, directors, cinematographers and sound designers – across film and theatre. More often than not, these creatives are appreciated more outside of the South African borders. This platform will focus first and foremost – but not be limited to original South African works. Why not share that with the world!

TheCapeRobyn: This is the pilot phase of the project. What are the other four productions that are in the pipeline for the pilot phase? 

Blythe Linger: As much as I would love to tell you, I can, unfortunately, not make mention of the productions, as we are waiting on some confirmations from the creative teams. Due to all of the sudden changes happening around us we simply cannot plan too far ahead. I can say that the productions will predominantly be by young womxn creatives and teams, and we will be including a previously shot production by an award-winning production that has a team of amazingly talented creatives.

TheCapeRobyn: How many people involved in the pilot phase of the project?

Blythe Linger: Currently, six people, who are all involved on different levels.

Blythe Stuart Linger (executive producer) 

Stefan Erasmus (operations and editor)

Chris Lotz (cinematographer and director of photography)

Helmut Scherz (sound)

Khalied Manuel (focus puller)

Kiroshan Naidoo (lighting operator and interview editor)

TheCapeRobyn: Please explain how it will operate in terms of downloading and ticket price?

Blythe Linger: At this point, the audience will be able to purchase virtual tickets on a pay per view basis. The ticket holder will have a certain amount of time in which to watch the production. Some productions will be broken down into a series of episodes – if the production allows for this. At a later stage and with a more robust library of work we will look at a subscription option with some added benefits such as discounted live theatre tickets to shows per month and other giveaways, this will be aimed at theatre lovers and will be a monthly subscription. The ticket price is still to be confirmed. 

TheCapeRobyn: How can people contribute?

Blythe Linger: I have limited the amount of money that I would like to spend on this project. All too often do we see the miss management and use of funds. I believe that if we cannot prove this concept on a limited small budget how will we ever become self-sustainable long term. We as artists have to start learning how to monetize our works in a fashion that becomes sustainable long term. That been said people are more than welcome to contact me via cell or email if they wish to be involved.

Our dream budget for the pilot is R25 000 which we have raised R13 000. For the pilot, we have an open book policy where people are more than welcome to request auditing of all financial records. This is something that our state-run venues need to do.

TheCapeRobyn: When do you hope that you will be ready with Medusa Incarnate? Who is editing and doing sound mix in lockdown? 

Blythe Linger:  Medusa Incarnate is currently in the editing room and is looking breath-taking. Stefan Erasmus is currently editing and sound mixing in consultation with Kate Pinchuck. Thereafter the edit will receive another once over from a seasoned film editor who will comment on grading etc. In the next few weeks, we hope to have the product available along with a music theatre piece and one other piece which is aimed at a high school audience but will appeal to all theatre lovers. 

Image credit: Filming of Medusa Incarnate at The Drama Factory, March 20, 2020. Pic supplied.

South African Theatre on Demand- information

✔ To contribute. If you can assist with funding, venue, cameras and technical, crew, post-production costs, contact Blythe Linger on +27 (0) 83 289 7741 or e-mail blythe@bslmanagement.com