Not sure if I have anything substantial to say but for once emergency and ordinary align and I can post an *ooof* in timely fashion on my regular day, a Tuesday. Well, that’s if I manage to get this *ooof* out in time after dithering all day over which picture from the Old Vic’s peek behind the scenes to pick for this analysis. [And no, I didn’t…]
I think I’ll settle for this:
Production stills are a strange kettle of fish. Stills – whether for film or for theatre – are photographic still images whose intention is the production of marketing material for the promotion of the production, as well as documenting of the historical process of making and staging a production. As such, production stills photography is documentary in nature. It records the evidence of what occurred in the rehearsal room, documents the progressive creation of a stage play, and provides snapshots into the creative process that the director or designers can consult for costume, lighting, stage or make-up design.
Stills photography is a genre of its own, produced by specialist photographers who have learnt over time to adapt their own photographic needs to the requirements of working on a film set or within a theatre. Their tools are normal high-end digital cameras with suitably wide range of ISO – shooting flash would be a big no-no as it would break the actors’ concentration and interfere with the lighting of the set as well as filming. The only specialist accessory that a stills photographer needs is a so-called “sound blimp”, a camera housing that eliminates the sound of the shutter click, and which makes stills photographers’ camera look like massive soft toys. – Apart from instinctively understanding when to release the shutter to get an attractive image that can lure the public into the theatre, stills photographers know how to move on the set without getting into the way of the camera (film), crew, ensemble or the director, and when to approach the actors to recreate a moment that would translate into a compelling image. They understand how to portray the creative process in such a way that it attracts audience and receives attention from the media.
The use of stills imagery for marketing is never far from the photographer’s mind. However noble the historical documenting of a production may be, stills are first and foremost shot for the theatre’s marketing purposes. Particularly in countries and markets where theatre is not subsidised by the state, advertising for shows has become a crucial part of a play’s success. With the rise of Social Media, theatres nowadays throw everything they have into the marketing of their new production. Stills photography shot in the run up to opening night most often than not focusses on attracting the potential audiences’ attention and then keeping viewers interested in the developing production: Previously, theatre production stills used to consist of on-stage scenes, mostly in costume, showing pivotal moments in the plot in order to capture the essence of a play. In the day and age of celebrity cult, the focus on famous ensemble members has replaced that practice. You only need to count the number of shots of A___ alone within the Crucible set to see what I mean. The name and mien of the lead actor are exploited to the max. No one else gets as many shots as him. Granted, he is the protagonist of the play, but the plot thickens in his engagement with the other characters – which could be reflected in stills that show the interaction of Proctor with others. A possible reason for this kind of re-focus might be the theatre’s requirement of stills for their own Social Media communication, as well as the use of stills imagery for sending out to conventional media for inclusion in their reporting and previewing of new plays. Often times, papers, magazines and online publications pick the mug shot of the famous face from the selection of stills that they are offered, over wider shot of the play in action. Big names sell. Well, as firm fans of RA we can corroborate the power of the portrait. And we confess: Yes, we want the close-up of the lead, rather than the ensemble tableau – it’s all about the A___.
However, I prefer an image that is more than a mere portrait of the famous actor. I like to see him at work, behind the scenes, in the rehearsal room where he is working on the character. As evocative as the close-ups of Armitage are – without context they are placeholders for anything and everything. An intense stare fits Proctor as much as it fits a concentrating Lucas North or an about-to-smirk Gisborne. I like to see background in the image – a reference to the space the photo was taken in, something to tell me this is not a posed still but a scene documented as it happened in the rehearsal room. I enjoy locating the pictured moment – in a plain rehearsal space, bare to the minimum to allow for the actors’ imagination to flourish, a blank canvas in which the collaborative vision of the director and the ensemble can take shape. With my usual concentration on an image that focusses only on Armitage, the chosen picture embodies these requirements perfectly. There are the bare walls of the rehearsal room in the background. Some props have been pushed unused into the corner of a room. A___, at an angle, holds the script in his hands, focussing on an unseen cast member (or the director), playing his role. I find it interesting to draw my conclusions from what is disclosed about the rehearsal space: A large room, like a small gym. A lot of space for physical acting or scenes of movement. Illuminated from above. Maybe there is a large skylight in the ceiling – the consistently hot (bright) daylight that illuminates everyone suggests that. The lack of shadow on the actors’ faces allowing for clear observation of their facial expressions. (More questions than conclusions from the whole series of images: (most of) the actors rehearse in plain casual clothes, gym-style – enabling unrestricted movement. Is it a coincidence that the colours are all subdued greys, blacks and whites, or is this a reflection on the costumes for the play? *Are* these the costumes of the play? Do the headscarves of the female actors indicate that? Are they worn in rehearsal to assist getting into character?)
Strictly speaking, this is an image that is a hybrid between a RL RA and a chaRActer. We observe RA practicing Proctor. And we are left wondering whether he is himself or Proctor. Not sure why that is such an interesting question to ponder – maybe because the observer is always quick to identify the actor with the role. We search for the qualities of the character in the actor – and vice versa, drawing our conclusions, wrongly, mostly. But maybe it is fair to conclude one thing from the production stills: That A___ and his colleagues are putting their heart blood into the production of The Crucible and that all those lucky enough to see this play on stage are in for a treat.
I’d love to know what scene was being rehearsed in this picture, wouldn’t you ? And all the preparations that RA has made for his turn as Proctor… When he wasn’t looking, a spy managed to get a look over his shoulder at his script. We can exclusively reveal the notes that RA works from…