I’m so buzzing for the team that our pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk has been nominated in three categories at the Pantomime Awards 2022. James Cook has been nominated for Sound Design, Rebekah Hughes has been nominated for Musical Direction, and the show itself has been nominated in the Best Digital Pantomime category.
It was a huge undertaking to create a show presented in digital format so I thought it was worth sharing a few reflections on how we did it and why this nomination means so much to us.
Jack and the Beanstalk was originally slated to perform over Christmas 2020 and.. we all know what happened there. Summer 2020 saw the announcement of the show’s cancellation.
Fast forward to a year later and the wonderful people at the New Wolsey took a deep breath and held their nerve, deciding to go for it in time for Christmas 2021. What a time – there was still no definitive suggestion of whether theatres would be open at capacity, what restrictions might remain in place or be brought in, and what financial support (if any) would be offered if theatres all over the country weren’t able to offer a Christmas production – in the context of how important those Christmas shows are to organisations annual financial planning, it was a lot for producers to grapple with.
Even if theatres were open, many people might not feel safe attending. Audience numbers could be capped. Or we could get another wave and the whole thing could be lost at a moment’s notice. Every New Wolsey conversation has accessibility at its heart and so in approaching the newly-revived production, we stepped back and had a rethink, deciding to proceed with a blended in-person and digital live-streamed offering with baked in access features and options for how to enjoy the piece. Pete Rowe and the team had success with a scaled-down version of The Snow Queen in this format, and the team at the New Wolsey had already made great strides in offering work in this way. We knew we wanted to make something that was genuinely live, where an audience at home and in-the-auditorium could experience the same show at the same time.
Off to school for me. I had to learn enough about how it all worked to be able to lead the process – enormous thanks to James Cook (sound designer) and Pete Hazelwood (video designer) for so patiently schooling me in timecode and click tracks, how the live editing process would work and what needed to be prepared in advance to make it all come together. Luckily Pete loves a spreadsheet as much as I do so we set to work.
The admin is wild.
Pete Rowe adjusted the script to make 5 sections entirely presented in pre-recorded film format. These were all filmed in advance, in a combination of green screen and on location, and edited/ optimised for screen. The rest of the show was captured live using a multi-camera setup – two operators, several PZT cameras (joystick controlled, like the Big Brother House!) and a team mixing the view from a suite on the floor above the stage. Being in there was like mission control – super exciting (and they had the best biscuits.)
Neil Irish redesigned the set to incorporate a huge screen on which the in-the-auditorium audience watched the filmed sections. During the rest of the show, that screen was kept alive with a mixture of illustrations blending into the surrounding portals, and graphics and images during the songs. (During tech, the video team would type their notes to me and flash them up on the screen – ‘did you cut that bit?’.. sassy.)
To prep for filming, we made shot lists of each pre-recorded section so that we knew exactly what we were trying to capture – despite having an extra week to accommodate the filming, time was tight and we had to get it right, especially on the days we were taking the actors on location several miles away from the theatre. We also had to rehearse everything in advance and plan for all weathers.
We travelled in multiple vehicles, using an app called WHAT THREE WORDS to find each location. We loved meeting Ipswich locals (some of who made it into the shots!) and chatting with everyone about the panto. There were lots of photo opportunities!
On location, we had music playback and everything had to be tightly timed to a strict track. A brief note about technicalities – in order to sync up video and sound, the sound computer had to fire the visual content which meant that although the music was all played entirely live by the company each night, they had to play to a metronome linked to timecode. They wore in-ear monitors onstage and we spent what felt like FOREVER in rehearsals working out exactly where our deputy stage manager had to start the track for a bar of count-in before the live music could start – achieving seamless transition from speaking into singing took so much thought and getting right – and one of my least favourite moments in the whole process was wanting to look at and adjust lighting for the last ten seconds of a song, but needing to go from the very beginning and get through all four minutes of it in order for all the elements to be in the right place.. But I digress.
Planning happened. We had to work out a lot in advance. You can’t put a green beanstalk on a green screen, it disappears. If you’re filming on a blue screen, the cast wearing blue will disappear. Record them separately with green against blue and blue against green. We all said ‘fix it in post’ a lot.
We laughed until we cried and cried until we laughed. We drunk a lot of coffee. Bex, our MD drove herself mad with tick-tock-tock-tock click tracks everywhere she went. We put a cow on a bus. We all made ourselves useful wherever we could. After 6 days of full on filming, we had everything we’d planned to film and Pete and Jake our video designers disappeared into the edit.
So on day 8 of rehearsals, we started to rehearse the ACTUAL panto – it was very odd to work that way round and although we had allowed for some rehearsal at the front end of the process, it felt very weird to have committed so much to film before properly discovering characters – luckily the company were hugely experienced and gamely soldiered on, and Pete Rowe’s one word of advice to me on day one had been about driving the pace in the video sections. Song structures had been fixed already as well – it was a very unusual experience not NOT have the option of cutting a verse or adding a key change etc – we had to hold our nerve and trust that the early thinking we had done around flow and pace was right. The cast had a lot of conversation around who definitely had to wear their in-ear monitors and/ or whether they could get away with following Joe, the drummer. In the end it was a bit of both but there were some scary moments when click tracks didn’t fire or things went squiffy.
During technical rehearsals, we had a separate screen which showed us what the at-home audience were seeing. We’d worked hard on deciding which lines to fire straight down the lens of camera 1 – and there was a magic about the in-person audience seeing the mechanics of what the at-home audience would be seeing. If anything it seemed to add to everyone’s enjoyment – helped by the installation of monitors up above the audience’s heads so if they wanted to, they could see what the at-home audience were getting. It was really satisfying to put all the pieces of the jigsaw together.
I watched the live stream for the first time on the M25, stuck in traffic (I wasn’t driving!) on the way home from Ipswich. Darragh O’Leary (choreographer) and I had finished tech week and had watched the matinee, then made a run for it so that we could experience the live stream that night. We were so pleased with what the team had created – it felt present and close. The sound and video quality were outstanding and it was sensitively mixed. If anything, quality of it was annoying as it all looked SO EASY – not being able to see the musicians playing live made you think that the music might have been pre-recorded!
My son watched the livestream pretty much every day between Christmas and New Year. He still asks to see it now – and being a child of the on-demand generation, he doesn’t understand why he can’t watch it any time he likes. I’m proud of the fact that every single livestream was genuinely live, and available captioned or audio described. My 89 year old Grandad watched it, and there’s no way he’d have gone into a theatre at that time.
It takes thought, it’s not easy – but I really hope that we can all continue to offer high quality digital experiences alongside live theatre. Hats off once more to Jake Barinov, Pete Hazelwood and James Cook.
For anyone who’d like to learn more, I’d also point you to Adam Lenson‘s work as a starting point – he’s trailblazing in the digital theatre arena and absolutely smashing it.