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Shooting Shakespeare

The Art of Taking Plays from the Stratford Stage to a Theatre Near You

The Stratford Festival—formerly known as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival until 2012—has a long history of recording some of its productions. I have videocassettes from the ’80s of its productions of As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew. When Antoni Cimolino became artistic director of the company in 2013, the festival set a goal to record the entire canon in high-definition (HD) by filming two or three shows each season for airing in movie theatres, and distribution for home viewing.

After a trip to Stratford—and a blissful video screening binge—I was curious about both the aesthetics and logistics of the wildly ambitious project. After separately interviewing Cimolino and Barry Avrich, Executive Producer for Stratford Festival HD, I’ve combined their responses here.


You’re watching the stage and always conscious of the act of watching. That’s the same experience we’re trying to create on film—a sense of being part of the audience.


Lou Harry: What’s different between now and when the BBC set out to record all of Shakespeare’s plays in the ’70s and ’80s?

Antoni Cimolino: They used to say that filming a play doesn’t work for a television audience. They wanted to put everything in the studio and it’s damned unnatural in the studio. I think that the Met recordings helped show there’s real enjoyment in broadcasting live performance. That’s something we now totally get. Also, the festival has always been a metatheatrical experience. You’re watching the stage and always conscious of the act of watching. That’s the same experience we’re trying to create on film—a sense of being part of the audience.

Lou: What changed in 2013 about Stratford’s approach to recording?

Antoni: Until then, we had an ad hoc approach and there wasn’t a house style. I wanted to make it so we had a way to share our work internationally, to capture the performances of our excellent ensemble, and to have an entire video library of Shakespeare plays.

Barry Avrich: Antoni has been on a steady pace, generally filming two or three shows a season. Think about it: the general output of a Hollywood producer isn’t more than one film a year. It’s not unusual for us to have two or three films being edited simultaneously. This is like driving a formula one (F1) car at full speed.

Antoni: We work carefully in advance to work through every movement. What do we need to capture? What is the story at this moment? What is critical to storytelling? Where are the reaction shots we need?

Barry: For me, it feels like insanity. I get a one-camera, wide angle archival video so I’m able to determine where my cameras will be placed. Then we shoot live and it is manic. During the shoot, I’m in a truck making notes fastidiously about a look, an aside, an expression, a shrug, or a twitch. Once a scene is shot, we review the notes and then go back for three hours of pick-ups.

two actors on stage
Scott Wentworth (left) as Gloucester and Colm Feore as King Lear in King Lear. Photo by David Hou.

Lou: Do you redirect the actors?

Antoni: We don’t. If a performance is true, it will work for both mediums. This gets to the nature of the festival stage because the actor and the text are at the heart of performance. That means we don’t have to do an acting style that seems unnatural on films. When filming an opera, nobody worries about naturalism or realism. Here you know it’s a play, but you want to believe what’s happening.

Lou: It seems akin to shooting a sporting event. Is that a fair analogy?

Barry: This is crazier than following the hockey puck because you are capturing language. And unlike sports, people are watching your work on an eighty-foot screen. The visual wig line can’t be apparent. The sound has to be spectacular. And we look at the audience. Are there empty seats? People who dozed off? Four people in a row with white shoes? In productions like Pericles, there’s audience interaction. You've got to make sure the audience member is well lit.

Lou: Do you watch other filmed productions of the plays when you are planning?

Barry: I try to avoid them. My vision is to make sure they are captured in the most stunning way, and the editing has a certain pacing. Antoni’s vision—and I live by it—is for the audience to be immersed in a cinematic experience, but still know they are watching a live theatrical experience.

Lou: The Met and others go live into movie theatres. Was that a consideration?

Antoni: It was a difficult decision. There’s a certain event feeling to seeing it live. The problem is that there’s no ability to ensure that the performance is the one you want to keep for the ages. In the editing process, you can lovingly take the time to tell the story exactly how you want. It enables you to react to the magic you captured with those ten cameras. People were saying it’s all about the event, but this is about the quality of the art that is preserved.

a confrontation on stage
Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Photography by David Hou.

Lou: What’s the cost of filming, beyond the production budget, the show itself?

Antoni: It’s more affordable now because of the changes in equipment. In Canadian dollars, it’s about $600,000. And there are different ways to make that budget hold through sales, screenings, and tax credits.

Lou: How and when do you select which productions you are going to record in a given season?

Antoni: I will look at how well the productions do. And certain plays will come up more frequently than others. Romeo and Juliet is staged every four to five years so there may be a possibility to film a different production down the line, if this one isn’t one we want to preserve for the ages. In the case of Timon of Athens, Stephen Ouimette directed it so well that we knew it would be filmed this season.

Lou: And what’s the benefit for Stratford?

Antoni: Every year this company gets seen by more people. The filmed shows have been seen by over 340,000 people around the world. For most of these people, they’ve decided they want to work as stage actors and that makes their contribution ephemeral. It disappears. There are great stage actors who are only known for their TV work. There’s something wrong about that. I want to capture great stage actors’ work for what it is and have it there for future generations. These films conquer time and geography.

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Update: Three of the StratfordHD productions are now available on the streaming service BroadwayHD. Enjoy.

Ten cameras plus post-show pick-ups? Sounds great, but also like a very different experience than watching it live in the audience with one (stereo) "camera" (one's eyes) and no post-show pick-ups.

Also, with that many cameras and pick-ups I can't help wondering if a recorrding could be designed that would work on a home TV screen. Presumably such a version would feature far more close-ups than production designed to be watched on a huge screen in a theater.

Of course as good as the video recordings are, nothing will ever take the place of being their live, since (amongst other things) that is the only way that you can always focus on (both literally and figuratively) the actor or actors that YOU choose - not those the videographers chose for you.