Cindy Marie Jenkins

Cindy Marie Jenkins

Negotiating Newness: SDC & the Art of Capturing Stage Work for Broadcast

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SDC Members

Most emerging directors and choreographers are aware of their union even if they are not yet eligible to be members. Founded in 1959, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) has existed since they emerged from their mothers’ wombs — and certainly since they decided to pursue their craft. Not so certain is whether these new talents understand the struggles their predecessors faced for what today are considered basic artistic rights: recognition of the union, inclusion of LORT theaters, intellectual property rights, to name a few.

The SDC’s 50th anniversary journal outlines the history of the union, which began in Shepard Traube’s apartment in 1955, and elaborates on its self-termed “major battles.” Most of these battles come down to the tricky business of somehow packaging a product while protecting a creative process.

The next major battle has already begun. At’s SDC’s West Coast membership meeting last Monday in Los Angeles, board member and moderator Michael John Garces urged current members to “be a part of the curve rather than just reactive” in the important upcoming debates. “The LA membership is in a unique position to really be at the forefront of this discussion.”

Which discussion? “The Art of Capturing Stage Work for Broadcast” was the topic, personified by the panelists, SDC board members Lonny Price and Oz Scott. The biographies of these men offer tales of theater history while each has made a living in TV and film.

Scott jumped right into the conversation by bringing up an extreme example of the topic: National Theatre Live, which broadcasts live British theatre productions to movie theatres around the world. He insisted such broadcasts must be a collaboration between the stage and film director because, “When we [stage directors] begin, we create together and become part of the process. It’s hard then to step back and say you’re no longer part of that process.”

Price followed up by relating his experiences, most recently combining directing for the stage and directing for broadcast in Sondheim: The Birthday Concert for PBS’s Great Performances. He sees shooting stage performances as “a sporting event, like when you’re doing anything live.” He welcomes and requests the stage director’s presence in the preparation. “The director should have the right to consult, have up to three meetings but,” he cautioned, “never be in the booth.”

Specific proposals are still theoretical at the moment. Price and Scott, along with SDC Executive Director Laura Penn, made it clear they need the membership’s help, not just in the inevitable negotiations but also by educating themselves. “We can determine where the director should be involved,” Price insisted.

Oz Scott

Penn sees this potential point of contention as an opportunity for directors to embrace and think even more creatively about their work. “Right now,” she said, “what we do at the union, and I’m sure this happens at the DGA [Directors Guild of America, which negotiates directors’ screen contracts], is the phone rings, we answer it, and go ‘Oh, you want to do what? Well…’ then we try to figure out how to respond to it. I think it would be a lot more interesting if the phone rings, we answer it, and go ‘Oh yeah, we’ve already thought about that. And here’s how we feel about it.’

“As directors, whether for film, camera or stage, you all should be imagining how your work is going to be captured and transmitted in all of these new media forms so that we can then figure out how to protect it. We don’t need to wait for producers or other people to figure out what they want to do with our work.”

Taking The Lead

Many beneficial possibilities could result from taking the lead in the conversation, Price said.  He explained the process: a broadcast director typically has three days in rehearsal, creates 2000 shots and has 11 or 12 cameras. There’s very little time for camera-blocking, because these broadcasts make very little money. Price is usually in the booth calling the shots for just a handful of performances. Editing lasts a month and then the stage director sees the result.

This point should not be one of the first meetings in the dual director’s collaboration, Price believes. “No one’s going to come in for three days and know this piece. There are ways to limit how a TV director can mess you up.” Directors in the audience asked the question: who has the final cut–the stage or broadcast director? Scott brought the audience back to reality with the reminder: “The money has the final cut.”

The panelists likened the relationship between stage and broadcast directors to the director and choreographer collaboration; until you start working together, you rarely know if the partnership will work. Because the DGA will want a film or TV director to capture it, Price surmises, it’s just logical to hire someone with stage experience as well. “You can learn it,” he encouraged the audience. “It isn’t rocket science. And as a stage director, don’t put roadblocks in the way.”

Will the broadcast ever be perfect? Probably not, both Price and Scott admit. The experiences are ultimately just different. Scott, however, believes the process is “a balance because it is theater. It’s an impression. We both do impressionistic work–it’s just different.”

Start now, they both insist. “We need to educate ourselves. Look at films as a director,” Price said as he explained how simple lighting or a camera move can trick an audience, making a performance better. “Watch for the tricks.”

Questions were raised as to whether broadcasting even more stage plays would replace the tradition of actually going to the theater. Scott replied: “If you put crap out there, yes. So how do we control what goes out?” Yet he expressed confidence that ultimately “The live experience will never go away, even with this technology.”

Lonny Price

In New York City, Price explained: “We’re in the tourist business, not the theater business anymore. We tend to like to see things we know. It’s a creepy thing about our culture. We want to be able to say ‘I know I’m going to like it.'”

That’s where the broadcasts can help theater artists and theater advocacy as a whole. “Vying for our attention is so difficult,” said Scott. “People are looking for bonuses, for clips or special features.”

SDC member Greg North related how the Geffen Playhouse posted some video of a recent production’s initial rehearsals, which did not paint a favorable portrait of the actors or the material. Yes, that can happen, both panelists admitted. As Scott warned: “Cameras are going to start coming into your rehearsal hall.” Be not just ready but prepared — the mantra of the evening.

Positive experiences using segmented broadcasts were also offered. Garces said he knows artists who were given a code to the streamed material and who are now using it as a video resume. Roger Q. Mason commented that social media give a glimpse of event that might lure viewers to the live production. Scott confirmed, “We still like the communal experience. We like to laugh, to cry together.”

SDC’s Future

At the end of SDC’s 50th Anniversary Issue, executive director Penn looks to the future and asks the membership: “In this new world, this flat world, this cyber world, how can SDC support the artist’s journey? We must project the possibilities of technology and ways of watching and how this is impacting our industry. Only by imagining how cine-casts and streaming video and mobisodes are shaping our culture will we be able to get out ahead of this work and protect directors’ and choreographers’ contributions.

“New language is emerging every day. New definitions and the need for baseline compensation are as important as ever. Many of our members travel between the theatre, opera, film, television and cyberspace. We must understand these intersections and we must respect the ways in which the next generations of theatre directors and choreographers are influenced by media and its continued evolution.”

Currently there are standards for capture and initial broadcast, but beyond those points, everything is negotiated separately. “For the time being,” Penn said, “you’re on your own.”

“This is the future,” said Scott. “Things are going to start happening.”

The clear message from SDC to its members: Prepare for it now. Self-educate, embrace, and engage in order to prosper.

Photos by Cindy Marie Jenkins