When we think of theatre-making, we often think of elaborate costumes, dazzling lighting, and intricate stage set-ups.
However, when the pandemic struck, many performing artists found themselves figuring out ways to create low-budget theatre. Many realised a different strategy was required when performing digitally.
We recently spoke to Watford-based actor, Stephen Smith, who is also the founder and Artistic Director of UK-based Threedumb Theatre, on the process of creating theatre using limited resources. Stephen has experience creating low-budget productions physically and digitally.
In this feature, he talks about some techniques he used to retain the attention of digital theatre audiences.
I have been fascinated with actors and films ever since I can remember, but I was way too shy as a kid to believe that I could get up on stage in front of a whole crowd of strangers.
I used to make short films with a video camera as a child, and pretend to be characters and create stories. But it was when I was sixteen that I got involved in stage productions at school – the first one being Les Miserables – that I fell in love with theatre and acting on stage.
I try to create top-quality work that is built-to-tour and doesn’t rely on extravagant sets, costumes, or props – this makes it easier to take to various venues and reach different audiences.
When I go to the theatre, I like to see great acting and amazing performance skills from the performer – so this is what I try to include in my shows, and I don’t like to distract audiences with crazy lighting or special effects.
The solo shows that I’ve created recently were really just a way to keep creative during the pandemic, and not rely on a wider team of other actors to get work ready to perform. I like the challenge of solo shows, but I do miss working in an ensemble of other actors.
In 2018, I was given an hour-long slot to fill at my local fringe festival back in the UK and remembered Berkoff’s particular style from studying him when I was at college.
Berkoff’s style of writing is heightened text – sort of like modern-day Shakespeare – and his performance style is non-naturalistic, very physical, and with lots of use of mime. I like Berkoff’s style because it’s bold, ugly, shocking, but beautiful and imaginative at the same time.
Dog follows a racist football hooligan and his beloved pitbull terrier – I thought this character would be a tremendous challenge to transform into, as I am not racist, I don’t like football and I’m more of a cat person!
Actor is a spoken word poem about the trying life of a jobbing actor, constantly getting rejected, but he also constantly looks over his shoulder and curses anyone and everyone doing better than him. I like to think the message of Actor is for everyone to appreciate how unique we all are, to not compare ourselves unfavourably to others, and to celebrate other people’s successes.
Over the years of working as an actor, this message becomes all the more relevant as the years roll on.
Despite admiring everyone who gave the digital theatre a go during the pandemic, I think there was a lack of imagination and courage with a lot of the online work I saw while in lockdown.
I saw plenty of Zoom shows where the actors were clearly reading their lines from the screen in front of them or hadn’t thought about costume, set, lighting, sound effects, or special effects. But even if they had, the camera was a static, unmoving, fixed shot.
With our online shows, we not only included all the lights, sound, and special effects, but we had the camera constantly moving throughout the venue – constantly offering the audience a new shot type that tells a different story.
And, to top this all off, we streamed our shows 100% live, so there was one shot in getting the whole thing right. All of this together provided our audiences a unique online experience, where we put the audience experience first, and delivered a brave and engaging online show each and every time.
I was awarded a bursary from the Edinburgh Fringe Society to develop this workshop in 2020, where I visited various schools and colleges in Edinburgh and taught mime skills to children.
I have since conducted workshops for undergraduates, primary schools, and even classes for students with special needs. The learning outcomes of the workshop vary, but one incredibly important thing that everyone learns is how to effectively communicate ideas and stories that you have in your head to a group of people, without the use of dialogue or words – only using mime and body language.
Cover image supplied by Stephen Smith.