Host Luisa Lyons chats with British director and producer Adam Lenson.
Topics include Merrily We Roll Along, what should we call filmed theatre, Signal Online, Alt+Right+Shift, making new work without a theatre, filming theatre without an audience, and more!
Based in London, Adam is a director, producer, dramaturg, and musical theatre specialist. He was recently included in The Stage 100, a list recognizing theatremakers for their extraordinary achievements in 2020. He is the founder Signal and Signal Online, programs for incubating new musical theatre, Make Your Own Musicals which provides activity packs for children, and Theatrical Solutions which offers affordable solutions for theatrical livestreaming.
As a director, original works include WASTED (World Premiere, Southwark Playhouse), SUPERHERO (World Premiere, Southwark Playhouse), THE SORROWS OF SATAN (World Premiere, Tristan Bates Theatre), LOCK AND KEY (World Premiere, Vault Festival), THE LEFTOVERS (World Premiere, National Tour). Other works include THE RINK (Southwark Playhouse), THE STORM (Helios Collective/ENO), 35MM (The Other Palace), WHISPER HOUSE (The Other Palace), SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD (St James Theatre, 20th Anniversary Production), DISGRACED (English Theatre Frankfurt), DARK TOURISM (Park Theatre), GHOST (GSA), SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE (Jermyn Street Theatre), REEL LIFE (Ustinov Theatre Bath and St James Studio), THE GOODBYE GIRL (Upstairs at the Gatehouse), WEST END RECAST (Duke of York’s Theatre, Phoenix Theatre), ORDINARY DAYS (Trafalgar Studios), LITTLE FISH and SATURN RETURNS (Finborough Theatre), COME FLY WITH ME (Salisbury Playhouse), THE DEAD GUY (English Theatre Frankfurt) and THE FAMILY (Old Vic US/UK Exchange, Public Theater, NY).
You can learn more about Adam at www.adamlenson.com and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.
Tickets to Public Domain, streaming live on Jan 15 and 16 2021, are available at Southwark Playhouse.
Filmed Live Musicals is the most comprehensive online searchable database for musicals that have been filmed live on stage. Visit www.filmedlivemusicals.com to learn more. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
You can also support the site at Patreon. Patrons get early access to content, no matter how much you pledge.
Filmed Live Musicals is created by Luisa Lyons. Luisa is an Australian actor, writer, and musician. She holds a Masters in Music Theatre from London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and now lives, works, and plays in New York. Learn more at www.luisalyons.com or follow on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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Luisa Lyons: LL
Adam Lenson: AL
LL: [00:00:04] Welcome to the Filmed Live Musicals podcast, a podcast about stage musicals that have been legally filmed and publicly distributed. The Filmed Live Musicals website contains information on nearly 200 musicals that have been captured live. Check it out at www.filmedlivemusicals.com. And now, on with the show!
[00:00:26] Welcome to episode 13 of the Filmed Live Musicals podcast. I’m your host Luisa Lyons and joining me today is Adam Lenson. Based in London, Adam is a director, producer, dramaturg, and musical theatre specialist. He was recently included in The Stage 100, a list recognizing theatremakers for their extraordinary achievements in 2020. He is the founder of Signal and Signal Online, programs for incubating new musical theatre, Make Your Own Musicals, which provides activity packs for children, and Theatrical Solutions, which offers affordable services for theatrical livestreaming. Welcome, Adam.
AL: [00:00:59] Hi, there! Thanks for having me.
LL: [00:01:02] My pleasure. When did you first fall in love with musical theatre?
AL: [00:01:06] I think the moment I could probably track it to is when I was about 15. I’m from London, so I’m very fortunate in that way. I had been to see musicals in the West End when I was a kid, with my parents, but sort of once a year to go and see the big West End musical. So I had seen Les Mis and Miss Saigon and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but I think the moment it first clicked was I went to see a student production of Company, by Stephen Sondheim, that my brother was musical directing, and I was like, “This is so much more conceptual,” I suppose, and mature, and reminded me of film in the source of its maturity and its structural audaciousness and, I suppose, ambiguity. And I’ve been a big film fan, a big video game fan, as a kind of child through to teenager, so yeah, Company.
[00:02:11] And then I went to the Edinburgh Festival and I saw that there was a production of another Stephen Sondheim show called Merrily We Roll Along, which was just a student production by Royal Holloway, and I went to go see that because I recognized the name Stephen Sondheim, and I read in the flyer that it went backwards. And at the time, I had just sort of fallen in love with the movie Memento, the Christopher Nolan movie, also goes backwards. So again, I was just thinking, “This form is so flexible and mature.” So yeah, I was about 15 or 16 then. Then I bought all of the Sondheim CDs I could. I remember listening to Sunday in the Park with George in the car as I was learning to drive, which is kind of an unusual choice for a 17-year-old, but...
LL: [00:02:55] [inaudible 00:02:55-00:02:57], turn here.
AL: [00:02:58] Exactly. “Red red red red red red orange.” And then I used to go to the sadly-missed record shop in London called Dress Circle, and I used to pick up CDs from their new shelves, most of which were kind of like Ghostlight or PS Classics kind of musical theatre imprints, and that’s where I discovered Jason Robert Brown and [inaudible 00:03:29] and Adam Guettel and the sort of Sondheim’s descendants, Jeanine Tesori. And I think at that point I was pretty hooked, basically.
LL: [00:03:38] I love that Sondheim was your gateway drug.
AL: [00:03:40] Yeah, as, I think, it’s a lot of people’s, just because I think he did something that I still aspire to do now, which is kind of disrupt received notions of what a musical should sound like or be about. His musicals, they always sounded like him, but they all sounded so different from one another and they were just about such wildly different things and they were so formally audacious and smart and emotive. Cause that’s the other thing, is I really like smart things because I’m a big nerd, and I’m a really overly emotional person too, so I like where the two things sort of intersect. I think in England I’m always seen as a little bit of an oddity for how overly emotional I am, which I’ve noticed that Americans tend to be sort of more forthright with their emotions than British people are sometimes allowed to be, which I think is a reason why musicals are potentially undervalued in this country, or have been, but that’s a longer thing.
LL: [00:04:44] When you were listening to cast recordings and CDs, were you also watching the productions? Sondheim particularly, a lot of his productions are available on film or VHS back in the day, and now DVD. Was that something that you watched as well or you consumed?
AL: [00:05:02] If I’m totally honest, not really. I don’t know why. I don’t know why. I think probably at the time because actually… I remember they were American DVDs. I remember being able to get these kinds of Sondheim DVDs, they were Region 1 only, and at that point Europe and UK’s Region 2, and it was hard to get American things, I remember. And I remember the imports were expensive and I didn’t have a full-region DVD player. Boring things like that. But no, I remember I read them and I got loads of cast recordings. And I also think, to an extent, there was this kind of… I don’t know about other people, but once I’ve seen something, I was less interested in directing it, which isn’t to say that that’s the only reason to engage with theatre. Most of that time I was just a fan. But as I became a student and started directing and thinking about putting shows on at university, I found that once I’d seen a good production of something, it kind of almost relieved me of ever wanting to do that myself, especially if it was really good. I saw a lot of the musicals I had loved at the Menier Chocolate Factory in its kind of first era, so I saw Sunday in the Park with George, I saw Tick, Tick… Boom!, so that was probably when I was about 19, 20.
LL: [00:06:29] And Merrily We Roll Along?
AL: [00:06:30] Well, I worked on Merrily We Roll Along, actually. I was associate director on that. But yeah, so that was kind of a weird coming home to that show. But once I saw that amazing Daniel Evans/Jenna Russell production of Sunday in the Park with George, I was like, “I don’t need to see it again or do it again. That was just so extraordinary.” I actually also always find that. I find either seeing a good production of a musical either makes me think, “Great, that’s done now. I don’t need to think about that,” or it makes me go, “Ooh, I want to do that.” For example, it doesn’t matter how many productions of Candide I see, I still want to do that show, cause it’s so mad. I think there’s a thousand different ways of directing it.
LL: [00:07:12] There are a thousand different script versions, too, so!
AL: [00:07:15] Well, exactly. Or Chess, or any of those kinds of musicals, Pippin, those musicals that are so open to director’s interpretations. But yeah, no, mostly listening, reading, just kind of… I remember going to see The Drowsy Chaperone when I was in New York when that was first on, and I remember thinking, there’s that thing about the man in the chair in that show where he says, “I’ve obsessed over this show my whole life, and I’ve never even seen it.” And I remember thinking that that was like me and Follies, because I had all of the cast recordings, maybe nine, I ordered literally a cassette tape from Ebay which had a bootleg of the 1970 production, an audio bootleg. I obsessed over a lot of shows many, many years before I ever got to see them, which I think is one of the great things about musicals, is that because they’re these three-dimensional things which you can appreciate differently in a bunch of different ways, whether that’s on-screen, in person, on recording. And they all give you some piece of that puzzle. I love that about musicals, because it feels like probably 90% of the musicals I have a great affection for, I’ve never seen. As strange as that is, I do think the form can kind of live there as well as on stage.
LL: [00:08:41] Very interesting. So the impact of musicals being available through cast recordings, still they have very much a life and they’re alive and are made accessible just by having the cast recording available.
AL: [00:08:56] I think so. I mean, I think the act of listening to them is slightly different to listening to other music, because you kind of have to… I wasn’t just listening to songs. I was sort of finding a show and obsessing over it from beginning to end and listening to it on loop, and then reading the libretto or reading reviews or fragments of synopses and building up a sort of collage of how it worked. But I guess this is why I’m, in my recent life, a proponent of other forms of theatre other than just being in a theatre, because those pieces, there are pieces I’ve never seen, as I said, that are just as vivid to me as ones I have. And in some ways, if you spend years obsessing over a piece, seeing one production of it, especially cause I’m a director, not that I don’t love seeing productions of other people’s work, cause I nearly always do, but sometimes if you’ve obsessed over a piece for ten years, seeing it can sometimes feel different to all the possibilities living in your head.
LL: [00:10:12] Yes. I’ve definitely experienced that feeling before, and it’s not that it’s disappointing, but it just doesn’t live up to what has been constructed in your head.
[00:10:22] So I’m curious when you first became aware of the potential of filming a show and streaming it.
AL: [00:10:29] Really interesting, because I look back on my… I’ve been doing this 12 years now, my first show was 2008, which was Ordinary Days by Adam Gwon, which was the first show I directed professionally, and then I did Little Fish by Michael John LaChiusa, both UK premieres, both of which I’m extremely proud of, and nothing of them exists. Nothing. I think we might have single-camera archive shots. But no trailers, no multicam films, nothing that you could endure watching. Terrible sound. You couldn’t sit and watch them and do anything except get the basic idea of what they were. And me of today, that just seems so weird, that I kind of let them evaporate.
[00:11:21] But I guess I do also have this very, as we all probably do in theatre, do have this sense that the actual physical production of a show is meant to be of its time, it is meant to be ephemeral, and is meant to be kind of enjoyed in the instance that it’s created, and looking back on it is slightly strange. And I guess me of then, I probably thought, “There’s a million to one chance that these shows might get cast recordings, and that’s the way they live on.” But filming just seemed impossible. It seemed expensive, it seemed like it would take an incredibly high budget. Cameras were really expensive, by factors of 10, I think, compared to what they cost now. It just seemed impossible.
LL: [00:12:08] Well, it’s really extraordinary. In those 12 years, smartphones have come about and YouTube has come about and streaming has become a thing. And it didn’t really exist, it was only the big companies like NT, National Theatre, or the Met that could afford the technology to be filming.
AL: [00:12:29] Or thought they could. I wonder now if maybe that idea of a barrier was somewhat unreal. But I also think that you’re putting so much energy into the making of the show and selling the tickets and getting audience in the room and making people care, and often I do slightly strange shows, or not even strange, just shows that you haven’t heard of yet because I’m sort of addicted to making things that people don’t know about yet. And those are hard work in every department to make happen, whether it’s because the show is still finding itself or selling tickets is harder. And I don’t know, you don’t think a lot about archiving them or capturing them for whatever aftereffect. And there weren’t platforms to sell, and there weren’t… My first production of anything that was filmed with multicam was 2018. And those were literally filmed so that they could be sent to people to maybe think about a future life. They weren’t intended...
LL: [00:13:30] That was like Wasted?
AL: [00:13:32] Wasted and The Rink, which obviously, for rights reasons, no one will ever see, but a multicam of that was done with the idea of it being able to be sent to venues and people so that maybe it could have a future life. But the idea of it being preserved for audiences, even in 2018, Wasted was not captured for that purpose. It just happened that we’d looked at it and thought, “That’s potentially good enough at this time to kind of release.”
[00:14:01] To me, my first introduction to filming stuff was when I started Signal, the concert series that I curate, which started in 2017. And for me, I wasn’t referencing NT Live or Met Live or the idea of audiences watching or selling shows. I was referencing YouTube capture of 54 Below and Joe’s Pub and people like newmusicaltheatre.com in America and artists like Kerrigan and Lowdermilk and Pasek and Paul and Joe Iconis from the kind of early, mid to late 2000s. I was on YouTube a lot during that time, and I was mostly watching single-camera videos of single songs from cabarets and thinking, “What a great song, what a great artist,” and then I was looking at their MySpace pages and listening to their early attempts, someone like Adam Gwon, podcasting. Adam Gwon had a podcast in 2007 of his songs, which, before podcasts were in any way mainstream.
[00:15:10] And so for me, when I started Signal, it was like I wanted there to be an archive or a capture of all of these songs so that people in other places could sort of dig through them like I had dug through them, whether or not they ever would. I remember thinking… We put them up. Every single song that’s ever been performed at Signal is on YouTube. And I remember 50 views, 100 views, nothing much. But I just remember thinking we had to keep doing it, because in five years, in ten years, in fifteen years, when these writers’ paths are more fully formed, you’d be able to sort of look back in the way that I was able to look back. I remember when Smash was on and there were all of these writers in Season 2 of Smash like Pasek and Paul and Joe Iconis, who I’d… Yeah, I’d seen their songs on YouTube ten years earlier and I just remember thinking that was cool and would mean something at some point. Which, to be honest, is a lot of my thinking is always like, “I don’t know what this means today, but it might mean something someday.”
[00:16:21] So even with Signal, I still, honestly, never thought really about livestreaming shows. It was only when this year, this terrible 2020 started and the pandemic started in March that we decided to do Signal online. And because Signal had always been filmed and captured, it was like, “Oh, we’ll figure out how to do that.” And when figuring out how to do that, we suddenly realized the best way of doing it was using livestreaming software, and did weeks and weeks, ten or more of these digital concerts, in a way just more to experiment and give writers something to do. And as that was happening, I suddenly realized, “You know what, this would be a lot easier if a small group of us were in a room than if we’re all in separate rooms. And it would be even better if, instead of having to use webcams, we could use actual cameras. And it would be even better if, rather than each person having to do their own individual sound setup in their own bedroom, we could go back to having one sound desk and that stuff.” And it suddenly came from having nothing in March, April, May, June, it suddenly was like, “Okay, once it gets slightly safer or slightly less lockdown and a few of us can gather in a room, how can we scale up or level up this online thing?” And that’s what led to the idea of doing digital shows. It didn’t ever really come from a history of having filmed my shows, I suppose.
LL: [00:18:13] As associate director on Merrily We Roll Along, were you involved in the filming of that at all?
AL: [00:18:19] Yeah, actually, I was. I helped… Not call the cameras, as it were. They’d filmed three performances of Merrily We Roll Along for Digital Theatre. They had eight cameras for each performance. And I was in the sort of control room, basically on cams, telling people who were filming where the next essential moments were going to come. So I knew that the man on the left side of the stage is going to sing the next solo line, and then the man next to the piano is going to sing the next solo line, and the woman by that door is going to sing the next solo line. And because of the speed of a show like Merrily, I was there telling people so that they could capture the things that needed to be captured. So yeah, that was eight pan/tilt/zoom cameras that were hung in the lighting rig and people in a separate room with joysticks and screens capturing that show. But it was just mad. So much equipment and so much technology, and I just remember thinking, “This is a thing that happens for movies that get broadcast to cinemas, or this is a thing that happens for huge companies. This isn’t something like a freelancer producing Fringe shows for 50- and 100-seat theatres could ever aspire to.”
[00:19:47] So, as I said, it didn’t come because I thought about filming and releasing work. It came because we started streaming, then we did livestreaming of concerts, then we thought it would be good to be in a room, then suddenly it was like, “Well, now we’ve done this. Maybe we could do a production.” So we came from a different pathway, I suppose, which then looped back round and suddenly, in some ways, now resembles the process you would do to film a musical. But I think one of the ways I’m really evangelical about liveness is because of the path that got me here. I love film, and I’m really wary of theatre being bad films or theatremakers making low-budget things that are poor quality, so I guess I’d never really... I love watching films, but I’ve never really been interested in making films, I suppose, so it’s kind of a surprise that I’m here. But as I said, it feels like we are finding, and we’re struggling, and I know not everyone on either side agrees, but I think we’re finding a new form that exists somewhere between theatre and film. I don’t think it’s one or the other, and I think has cinematic elements and theatrical elements and loads of other durational or longform elements, but yeah.
LL: [00:21:08] So this is my favorite question of all time: What should we call it? What is this thing that is in between? It’s not quite live theatre and it’s not a film, so what is it?
AL: [00:21:19] I mean, not to cop out, I think I’m still on my way to figuring that out. Maybe I’ll figure it out in my waffle now. I really care about labels, because I think they help clarify things, so at the end of last year I remember I was saying how I think we should try and find a boundary between the word “livestream” and the word “stream,” just because I think even if a stream is at a certain time, if you’re streaming a premade film, that’s different from livestreaming. I think that’s important, that people understand the difference between streaming something that’s being made and livestreaming, where you’re making something live and broadcasting it at that very moment. Yeah, I definitely want to know if something is a streamed film or livestreamed. A streamed film, I want to know if it’s made under show conditions, or I want to know if it’s made with separate shots and edits, and I also want to know if something is made live. If I were to call it something, I would probably just call it “livestreamed theatre.” But at the moment… Yeah.
LL: [00:22:39] I know, it’s a torturous question, because like you say, we don’t really have… We have individual labels for it, but I feel that the general public, and even people within the industry, don’t yet know the difference between, for example, Hamilton, being a capture of the show that was filmed like Merrily We Roll Along over several performances and then it’s edited together, or something like The Last Five Years, the movie musical. There’s a difference between them. One is filmed onstage with an audience and then one is filmed on set conditions and it’s filmed out of order and edited together.
AL: [00:23:19] For me, again I know there will be debate here, I think one of the key things that makes theatre theatre is that you construct a show, and as a director you kind of construct a show so that it is repeatable. And the way that you construct it so it’s repeatable is so that it can be hopefully, in an ideal world, done for an audience eight times a week and that each one will be unique, but it will also sort of be the same kind of rule set for every single performance and will run continuously. And I think as soon as you chop a piece of theatre up, I think that’s when it starts becoming film. And I think film used to be, when a camera was first invented, a camera was put in the back of a theatre, essentially, and was used to film unbroken theatre. And it was when editing was invented that film became its own medium, editing and juxtaposition and things being constructed non-linearly and different unity of time. So I think the fact that editing and retaking is what turned theatre into film, I think preserving unity of time and single takes and kind of a constructed theatrical reality is what turns film back into theatre, I think.
[00:24:51] Which is why I really want to know if something is filmed in a single… Trouble is, none of it’s very easy to say, but it’d be very easy for people to just say, “Filmed in one take” or “Captured in multiple takes” or “Livestreamed in the presence”… The term that I’ve been using for the stuff that I’ve been doing this past year is “performed and streamed live,” because I think by saying those two things together, you get that the performance and the streaming are both concurrent. But people just want to sell tickets, so people aren’t particularly interested in doing what’s most accurate. They’re interested in what will engage an audience to buy the ticket the most.
[00:25:38] But I think in the long run, I worry that that’s a damaging tactic, because I think we’re sort of confusing audiences as to what they’re paying for. And I don’t think people should pay as much for a single performance that can be shown infinite amount of times as they are paying to actually literally receive the broadcast from a room where people are all doing their job that moment. That is more special and it takes more work and more effort, and I don’t think we should be conflating them. But I also think until you’ve experienced a proper livestream, the risk of it, the ephemeral nature of it, I don’t know if people understand why it’s different than a film. But I hope that the more of it people see, the more people might grow to understand it would be different getting to tune into tonight’s performance of Hamilton than it would to just watch that one from two years ago or three years ago. Well, it’s ages ago, isn’t it.
LL: [00:26:45] Four years ago now. Five, almost!
AL: [00:26:47] Yeah, there’s something amazing about watching what is a cultural artifact. But I think the whole idea of film is that it exists as a cultural artifact from the moment it is released. And we can go back and watch a film from the 90s or the 80s or the 70s and it exists in tension with our current temporality, whereas I think the idea of theatre is it always exists in both the moment of its creation and in the moment of its performance. So there’s this kind of stacked temporality, which I think is what we find so engaging. Chorus Line was made 30 years ago, but we’re also watching it tonight, and the people onstage are experiencing the resonances of it tonight. And I also love that idea of watching different casts on film in the same way that I did always find myself quite frustrated that once one cast recording had been made, it was often very hard for a second or a third or a fifth cast recording to be made. So the show almost got froze at the moment of its first production, which I don’t think theatre does. Different casts, different days, different things. So I think trying to preserve…
LL: [00:28:04] And as the saying goes, a musical is never finished, it’s only rewritten.
AL: [00:28:09] Absolutely. And of my however many cast recordings of Follies, I had the original, and then I had the London cast recording, and I had the Paper Mill Playhouse recording, and I had the 1985 concert recording, and I had… And each of them are different. And when we did The Rink, there are two cast recordings, there’s a London cast recording, there’s the original Broadway cast recording. There are loads of other recordings of those songs from over the years, and each new production of something, we were lucky to be given permission by the late Terrence McNally, very sad, to actually create something out of past versions. And yeah, there is something amazing about that, that theatre isn’t just an artifact, it’s of this moment, of this very moment that we’re living right now. And there’s something about the interaction between those two things that is endlessly fascinating.
LL: [00:29:11] Couldn’t agree more. So the cast recording of Shift+Alt+Right was just released, and it’s now available on Spotify, Apple Music, and TikTok, with music and lyrics by Hilmi Jaiden. And it’s an original digital musical performed and streamed remotely. For folks who missed it, can you tell us more about that production?
AL: [00:29:33] Yeah. If I go too deep into the weeds, you can just cut this, but it was very… We had been doing Signal Online, which was a live concert where we would go to different people’s living rooms and offices and writing rooms all over the country and the world and they would sing songs. And the way that the show worked is we would use a piece of livestreaming software to collate sort of, I guess it was 15-20 different streams so that we could switch from room to room back and forth from me to the artist. And it was all live, and we used sound routing. I spent an hour on Zoom with each person who was taking part in it to set up their sound at their end to make sure that the sound was good quality, which took ages, but it was lockdown, so we all had a bit of time.
[00:30:40] And so we did these concerts, and Hilmi did a few of them and wrote songs for them from this idea he had for a musical called Shift+Alt+Right, which largely took place online. And after he’d written the first song, he basically said that he was constructing it so that it could be done with the same technology that he was witnessing that we were using to do a Signal Online concert. So it was four performers, but they could all be in their own rooms and the entire sort of mechanism of the show was Skype or message chats or telephone calls, the way that we’re communicating when we’re separate from one another. So he literally saw the form of a digital live concert and wrote a show of content that was for that form, of content that necessitated that form, I suppose. The idea being it’s four performers, they’re all in separate rooms or locations, and it can be performed live. And he sent it to me, and I just loved the idea of taking what had been a concert, and wasn’t without its complexity, but song by song by song, and thinking, could we sustain it for 45 minutes to an hour and do a full show?
[00:32:03] I also became really attached to the idea of making a new musical, cause I’m constantly trying to make new musicals, and getting theatres and producers and gatekeepers to engage with new, disruptive, strange work by writers they’ve never heard of is difficult. And getting through the door of theatres is difficult. And I’ve been really obsessed with the idea of could we create new theatre without theatres, without a building, without a gatekeeper, without a producer saying yes? So when Hilmi was like, “Well, we could just stream it. It can just exist on the Internet. It doesn’t need a theatre, and it’s designed for that.” So that’s what we did.
[00:32:41] In the end, Max, who played the protagonist, Jay, he came to my flat. There were four of us in total in my flat, obeying COVID safety, me, Chris Czornyj, who’s a technical wizard who’d been helping me this whole time… He was on sound, I was operating the cameras, and we had our assistant producer Tanya. And so that became kind of mission control. It was a bit like Max being with me at a Signal Online concert, and then the other three performers all came in remotely. Only Max sings, which made it easier, because duets are tough in terms of latency. In fact, they’re impossible to do them. We’ve managed to do some live online duets, but currently the only way of doing them is with neither participant being able to hear the other live. They hear a click track and we hear them together, but it’s not the same as hearing another singer and being able to modify as you go.
[00:33:46] So yeah, we did it at the end of October. We did four live performances of it. Unbelievably, we didn’t have any technical issues. And it was lovely cause all four shows are different. So yeah, the hope is we’ll be able to do some encore performances of that this year, which will be us streaming a show that has already been livestreamed, so they won’t be live, but for people that missed it, will be an opportunity to see what we made. But it’s exciting to have a cast recording out, because as I said, my entry gateway drug to all of this was cast recordings, so to have made even a small one, even a four-track one, feels like a bit of a significant milestone, which is lovely.
LL: [00:34:32] And given the current world events, the subject matter is very timely, this idea of people being radicalized by being online.
AL: [00:34:42] Yeah, thanks for mentioning that. It’s definitely… Hilmi brilliantly subverts the idea that a musical has to be about a hero and makes it about an antihero who we maybe start out sympathizing with, then maybe empathize with, and then probably despise by the end. And in the same way that television gave us people like Walter White or Tony Soprano, I think the idea that everyone has to be lovable in a musical is always worth challenging. But yeah, it’s set in 2015 or 2014. I can’t specifically remember. But essentially, it’s just about the alt-right and 4chan and Reddit and Pepe the Frog and the kind of awful, awful beginnings of that movement. But in a weird way, of course, by speaking about then feels unfortunately like it’s only got more resonant.
[00:35:47] And it just looks, I suppose, how, if we’re not careful about people who are lonely or disaffected or experiencing trauma, if we’re not careful with them they can go down a wrong path. Yeah, there are numerous moments in Shift+Alt+Right where we hope that Jay might not go down that path, but I think the piece… The piece has certain ambiguities to it, but yeah, it asks us what it takes to radicalize. And I love the fact that the show takes place within an hour. It’s a single unity of time, and we streamed it live, so we had a clock in the back of the show that was set for the exact time that the show started within the show, and the clock actually ticked just so if anyone wants to go back and check that there was no editing, they can.
LL: [00:36:50] Oh, that’s cool. I love that. That’s very difficult.
AL: [00:36:54] Yeah, it’s… We just thought actually… We’re streaming a show this coming week, Public Domain, hopefully, all being well if everything stays okay with everyone. And yeah, we’re thinking about how we can just show the audience today’s newspaper, as it were. Show them that this is happening today. Cause I think there’s something really exciting about… You walk into a theatre and you know it’s happening now, whereas when something’s on a screen, you don’t know the layers of artifice that are between you and what you’re actually getting, so I’m also just interested in trying to show people, “Here’s my watch. Here’s today’s newspaper,” metaphorically speaking.
LL: [00:37:40] Yeah. It’s very interesting, the National Theatre did some studies a little while ago now that showed that audiences felt, even watching on a screen, they felt that they were part of the show, experiencing it. Because they were watching a live broadcast, they felt that they were experiencing it as they would in person and watching it on the screen.
AL: [00:38:05] I remember I think when National Theatre Live first started, I may be mixing some memories, but I want to say that one of the first shows was Adrian Lester’s Henry V, but I might be mixing my shows up, but that was certainly around that time. Whatever show it was, there was a review of it in the newspaper which commented on the fact that the audience were like a cinema audience. They had popcorn and they were munching their popcorn and they were slurping their drinks and watching trailers, and it very much felt like a film. And as soon as the countdown started and they saw the in-house audience and they realized that it was live, the reviewer noticed that everyone just put down their popcorn, they sort of put down their drinks, they felt that to consume or to… There was something going on that they shouldn’t be interrupting, even though they were in a cinema in a completely different location.
[00:39:04] And again, I subscribe to that belief that there is something different about it if audiences buy into it, and I think the way that they are more likely to buy into it is if it’s kind of given to them accurately and sort of… I’m very passionate about things. I’m rarely actually stuck attempting to start an argument, I’m more likely to be wanting to start a debate, but I just find it disingenuous when people say, “We’re livestreaming this show” and they filmed it a year ago, or they filmed it even a month ago. It’s different. It is different, and I think we should just be labelling it differently, and I think the more people that spend time with each, I think they might be surprised by how different it feels.
LL: [00:40:03] So you mentioned Public Domain, which will be airing next week. I’m very excited. Fabulist Fox Sister, Catch Me, and The Limit are also all stage musicals that were filmed and streamed live without an audience. What do you think having an audience present in the room would have changed about those performances or those streams? If you think it would’ve changed it at all?
AL: [00:40:03] It obviously would’ve. It obviously would, to… Yeah, Catch Me and The Limit were two new musicals that we did at Central School of Speech and Drama. They were filmed and then edited.
LL: [00:40:46] My old course, just a fun coincidence!
AL: [00:40:49] Yeah! Great course, and I had such a lovely time despite it being such a weird year. Actually, we were meant to be doing Merrily We Roll Along.
LL: [00:40:59] Oh, wow.
AL: [00:41:00] That whole year. But when we realized we had to do it in bubbles of six, I suggested new musicals, and they went for it. So again, it was a weird thing that probably would never have happened in an ordinary year, silver lining. But it’s weird. It’s nice to have an audience. It’s nice for the action on stage to have that feedback, even if that feedback isn’t laughter or applause, but just that atmosphere in a room, being able to see people’s faces, being able to see people’s postures, being able to hear the difference between when people stop breathing. That sort of silence. Being able to hear gasps or see expressions on people’s faces. It does create like a feedback loop, I think, between the performance and the audience in person, and it does create a sort of alchemy which I know that performers miss.
[00:42:08] On the other hand, I love the idea of hybridization, where there is an in-person audience and it’s livestreamed, which I really hope will be a part of my practice going forward anyway. I can’t see there’ll be anything I do going forward that isn’t livestreamed, even if it’s not livestreamed every day. If we get back to an eight-show schedule for something I’m directing, I can’t imagine we wouldn’t livestream it at least twice a week. But I suppose the only thing I would be wary of, and I’m thoughtful about, is trying not to create a hierarchical experience where it feels like you’re watching an audience in person have a better time or a more intimate time and you’re removed in some way. So the only thing I sometimes think when I watch films of things where there’s a live audience, an in-person audience, I should say, is I can sometimes see them laughing or feeling it in certain shots and I feel somewhat excluded from that being at home. And when there’s a livestream and there is no in-person audience, I do feel like there is a democracy to that, which is everyone is having the exact same experience.
[00:43:22] But in the end, I think maybe it’s just about trying to find a balance which isn’t better or worse, it’s just two different things. The metaphor I keep going back to, which I inevitably read about somewhere, is the difference between being in a football stadium to watch a match versus watching it at home on live TV and thinking, “I’ve got quite poor eyesight, so I love watching football games in a stadium, but you’ve got a fixed view, you sometimes can’t see everything, you haven’t got a commentary, so you don’t exactly always know everything that’s happening at every moment.” And there’s atmosphere and there’s an in-person buzz to it, but one of the great things watching from home is you get to see close-up cameras, you get to hear commentary, you get to have editing, so you get to see different views of different things that suit different moments, and you get a different type of authorship to that. So I think it gives as much as it takes. I absolutely...
[00:44:34] Fabulist Fox Sister, two of our cameras were based on the view that you would get from a seat in the Southwark Playhouse auditorium. And there was a wide shot, which you wouldn’t get in any seat, because no one’s got a widescreen lens, you wouldn’t be able to capture all of that. But there were two camera views, the left and right camera view, which basically felt like you were sitting in the auditorium and looking at the stage. But we spent probably 40% of the show on a close-up that no audience member would ever have that felt more cinematic. And a similar thing will be happening with Public Domain. We’ll be wanting to have cameras that make you feel like you are in the theatre and ones that make you feel like you are getting an extra privilege from being at home. And I think just trying to balance that so that everyone gets something of an advantage by being there. In the past, livestreams were just bad sound and a single camera at the back, which was a definite disadvantage from not being in the room. But I think elevating that form and balancing it off against being there…
[00:45:46] Because I’ve got to watch so many things in other countries during the past year. Got to watch live performances from the Public Theatre, I’ve got to watch live performances from the Met. I couldn’t go to them on a normal day. I watched live performances from Australia. And people in those places have got to watch my shows. Shift+Alt+Right streamed from my flat and afterwards, I got texts from friends in countries all around the world chatting to me about it cause they’d just left the virtual theatre. There’s something amazing about that. I spent the first three months of COVID shielding because I was on treatment, and let’s never forget that there are people who, this form of accessibility is going to be life-changing and give them access to things that they just couldn’t have access to. My 94-year-old grandmother got to see The Fabulist Fox Sister, and she hasn’t seen a piece of mine in five years because just getting to the theatre’s too difficult. So it means a lot.
LL: [00:46:57] Yeah. The potential for opening up access to theatre with streaming and captures is so exciting, and I think the pandemic has shifted in the industry, certainly in the US, the possibilities of it and the, like you said, the democratization of it. And the fact that it exists, I talk to so many people who are like, “Oh, filming theatre is a thing? How and why?” And that has definitely shifted in the past year.
AL: [00:47:31] Yeah. I think it’s just important to just keep on interrogating it as an industry, as practitioners, and also show by show, because I would say, especially with Shift+Alt+Right, Fabulist Fox Sister, Public Domain, we knew going in that we were making them without an in-person audience. And each of them, in its own way, the process of making them and writing them and presenting them has been interrogated as we’ve gone along. We’ve thought about cameras from moment one, and editing, and lenses and views and framing, from almost the moment that we decided to do them.
[00:48:22] And I think in the past, looking back to the beginning, you’d put on the show and you would only think about the theatre and the room and the audience in the room. And if it were ever filmed, that would just be someone turning up for a day, capturing what they captured, and leaving. And it’s very different, being able to kind of aim the experiences so that they meet in the middle, going, “Okay, this is what the in-person experience is like and this is what the digital experience is like” and trying to make them meet in the middle rather than just go, “It’s an in-person experience with a bit of filming on the side,” or “It’s a film with a bit of in-person on the side.” I think more and more we’re, I think, going to be able to balance them.
[00:49:12] And let’s be honest, NT Live and Met Live are amazing, as are other things, but those are the two I’ve experienced the most of in the last decade. And I think the thing is just it felt unaffordable and impossible to learn. I daren’t even say how little we’ve spent on kit and technology and skilling up. But I imagine it’s, conservatively speaking, probably a thousandth of what it takes to film one NT Live, maybe even ten thousandth. So I think the idea that you need all of that, that it isn’t open to being democratized, is a foolish misconception, of which I have been subject to. I really just thought, “Oh, I’ll never do that, it’s too expensive. I’ll never manage it.”
[00:50:15] As terrible as this year’s been, I’m grateful for being forced into realizing how essential this can be and how manageable it can be. I didn’t know that any of this was affordable, and I wouldn’t have done any of this if it hadn’t been for this strange year, this impossible year. And I have to take this as a silver lining, that it’s shown that technology… When I was 15, I was also playing online video games and spending time taking components out of my family computer and breaking it and putting new graphics cards into things and playing with all sorts of software to try and optimize online gaming, and it’s so weird that the skills I had when I was 15 I’m now reusing 20 years later for the first time in this pandemic to go, “Okay, that’s how we’ll…” Not that we use it anymore, but in April of 2020 we were using Soundflower to route sound, and the last time I remember hearing Soundflower was probably in 2002. So the idea of just coming back to past obsessions and kind of integrating them has been satisfying, I suppose.
LL: [00:51:43] Yeah, all the skills. Nothing learned is ever wasted.
[00:51:50] I know we’re running short on time, but I would love to ask can you speak to the union rules in the UK for streaming, how that has helped or hindered in being able to put content online?
AL: [00:52:04] Yeah. I do know I was in a conversation with some American producers at one point and I, despite wanting to live and make work in America and New York my whole adult life, I said to them, “This conversation is the first time I’m really glad I live in the UK,” just because there are more options with regards to streaming and filming and recording work in the UK, it seems to me. I’m not an expert on it by any means, but it does seem that there’s more flexibility within actor contracts and there’s more flexibility within theatre contracts to be able to record and stream work in a way that makes it sort of affordable and possible, actually. And I’ve heard people in America say that their hands are tied with regards to being able to get work recorded or streamed or get people together and charge money for it and start sort of making it financially possible or do it while there are still in-person productions planned.
[00:53:32] And that does seem a shame, but at the same time any new medium is liable to be used to rip people off and write people out, and I think sometimes rushing too quickly can mean that yeah, contracts are badly-written or, as I say, people are forgotten. I’ve heard stories now of big productions going online in the UK and people who helped make them being sort of forgotten in the royalties or not even spoken to, and that stuff’s really tough to hear, but I think all forms change and evolve and I think looking at filmed theatre with the same contracts as we look at for film, or the same rights bundles as we look at for film, seems problematic to me, because they are different forms. I remember hearing that someone wanted to film a stage production and distribute it, and they couldn’t because the film rights were already acquired, and thinking, “I don’t think a theatre filming their stage production of something is in any way competing with something that’s got film rights sold,” and just trying to find a way of doing that.
[00:54:44] I just hope that, as I said, people reevaluate and rethink constantly and try and be pragmatic and leave room and flexibility for new approaches, because, as I said, where I am now from a year ago is unimaginable in terms of the approaches that I’m involved in and goodness knows where we’ll be in a year. New software and new ways of capturing and new ways of working with artists in different locations, and… All I would say is I’ve been doing new work that’s very small in the grand scheme of things and I always try and be as transparent and as upfront and as honest as I can with everybody. I don’t doubt, not trying to slander myself, I don’t doubt that I’ve made mistakes or there’ve been bumps in the road in terms of that transparency, but all you can do is just keep the dialogue open and keep evolving. And if someone gets in touch with me and says, “Actually, I think we should be prioritizing this or trying to do this better,” then I’ll always try. I think in the long run for me, I don’t think that digital theatre cannibalizes real theatre. Well, I should say in-person theatre. Who am I?
LL: [00:56:08] What have we just been talking about for the last hour?
AL: [00:56:10] Yeah, I know. Old habits die hard. I don’t think digital theatre will cannibalize in-person live theatre. In fact, I think it will enhance it. The amount of people queueing up to see Hamilton will be enhanced by the Disney+ release, not cannibalized.
[00:56:25] I think I’m very interested in making live digital theatre not around forever. Even if it’s archived forever, I like the idea that it is around for a certain period of time and it then speaks of an artifact of the moment, that it is being sent out and then re-sent out, but I was thinking we need to work hard to make sure that we can monetize it correctly, because it has a value and it has a cost to make it, and I think one of the risks is that we don’t… Early months of the pandemic, everyone on earth was dumping content for free, and one of the things I’ve been outspoken about is that music, journalism, we don’t expect to pay for them anymore. And those things are having to claw back that sense of prestige and money, and I think we have to make sure that we don’t let the genie entirely out of the bottle with regards to monetizing content. So even though early on, I did a lot of things for donations rather than for tickets, I doubt I will do that again, because I think what we’re making has intrinsic value, and we’ve got to celebrate that value. Charge fairly and accessibly, try and create options for those who can’t afford it, but at the same time, do that so that there’s revenue coming in so that everyone could be paid fairly.
LL: [00:57:58] Yeah, absolutely. Could not agree more.
[00:58:01] So to wrap up today, I have… I could keep talking to you for hours. I have like ten more questions that I wrote before we were chatting, and now I have 20 more, so would love to keep chatting, but can’t talk all day. So I have some quick questions, you don’t need to think about them too deeply, whatever comes to mind, and there are no wrong answers.
AL: [00:58:21] Okay.
LL: [00:58:22] So what is your favorite musical?
AL: [00:58:25] Probably Sunday in the Park with George or The Band’s Visit if I had to pick.
LL: [00:58:33] Where do you stand on bootlegs?
AL: [00:58:37] Broadly, I’m pro-bootleg. I had a bootleg of Hamilton, and I won’t watch it again because it’s now been superseded by a much higher-quality way of watching the show, and I tend to believe when I have bootlegs of shows, I only listen to them because there was no access to other things. So I think they’re a great way of people building affiliation and enjoyment for a show. I understand at the same time that they are a type of theft, but I think hopefully it should just build fandom and hopefully encourages people to create legitimate pathways to watch and to share that material further down the line.
LL: [00:59:20] Absolutely. What do you wish had been filmed?
AL: [00:59:27] Of my work, I wish my production of Songs for a New World had been filmed, with Cynthia Erivo, Jenna Russell, Dean John-Wilson, and Damian Humbley. I was pretty proud of that, and it was, I think, a shame that that doesn’t exist on film. And they were extraordinary.
LL: [00:59:52] Maybe there is a bootleg floating around!
AL: [00:59:55] I hope so, but I wish I could go back and film it with seven cameras.
LL: [01:00:00] Oh, absolutely. What would you like to see filmed in the future?
AL: [01:00:08] This is maybe a bit of a broad answer, but I want at least one streamed performance per week of every show on the West End and on Broadway. I don’t think it has to be all eight shows, but I think wouldn’t it be cool if every Tuesday night every show on Broadway and the West End were streamed and there were hybrid rigs in every one of them? So yeah, more or less everything. But I’ll go back and just say if I could watch The Band’s Visit musical every day, I’d be a lot happier. So The Band’s Visit.
LL: [01:00:41] So Public Domain will be livestreamed from Southwark Playhouse on January 15th and 16th, and tickets are available at Southwark Playhouse. The link for that will be in the show notes. And where can we find you online, Adam?
AL: [01:00:58] My personal account is @adamlenson on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, and my producing accounts are @ALPmusicals. They’re both just me, but broadly speaking one of them is company stuff and the other is me stuff. Yeah, my personal account tends to have lots of opinions about things, which I try to make sure that people understand are not meant to be mean but are just me trying to put forward my opinions. But yeah, you’ll definitely get some opinions if you follow me on Twitter, about musicals and livestreaming digital theatre and all sorts of things. Oh, and it’s also just worth saying, I have a book coming out at the end of this year, which I think we’ve agreed is going to be called Breaking into Song: Why You Shouldn’t Hate Musicals. Working title, but there’ll be some stuff about digital theatre in there. Lots about musicals.
LL: [01:02:02] Wonderful. Very much looking forward to that.
AL: [01:02:05] It’s been really fun. As you said, we could probably talk for three hours.
LL: [01:02:08] Yes. No, thank you so much for your time! It’s been really great to chat.
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