It's common knowledge that theatre making comes with many challenges. It's less common that one of those challenges is a global pandemic.
With Romeo & Juliet, we set out to produce a piece of work that broke through the ceiling of creativity one finds at present with technologically limited readings of plays via Zoom and similar mediums. Whilst fantastic at providing a platform throughout periods of lockdown, it's not possible to truly replicate a theatrical experience in this way. The performances can be slightly out of sync, there's no set, no lighting, no projection and, perhaps most crucial of all, it's very evident that all the actors aren't together in the same place - factors that won't change as long as restrictions rightly remain in place.
So how did we pull off filming a company of 16 actors in a theatre? Well, apart from the actors, their costumes and props (and even sometimes those are digital), nothing is real.
The venue is a 2mm-accurate laser-scanned version of the Manchester Palace Theatre, albeit slightly adjusted to meet the requirements of the production by our set designer, Jamie Osborne. The entire set is completely virtual, as are the lighting and video projection. The choice of venue was crucial: We wanted a classic style building with character, and this Frank Matcham theatre evoked just the right quality for what, in our version, is almost a character in the show. In our world, the Montague and Capulet families have moved into a theatre space that has in effect been repurposed as their homes.
We filmed all of the actors individually on a green screen soundstage and the visualisation consultancy firm Preevue has cut each one out, synced them back up and placed them within our CGI theatre environment.
It's impossible to understate the planning needed to pull this off; each individual shot and every eyeline needed to be planned in advance. Our director, Nick Evans, steered the ship with his creative vision and worked with Preevue and our designer Jamie to create the CGI world in which Romeo & Juliet takes place. All credit to them and to the actors for pulling off such convincing performances when acting to a dot on the wall or a ball on a stick.
There are 492 camera shots in Romeo & Juliet, each one with up to 16 people, which visual effects artists individually built. There are shots on screen that last under a second that took anything up to 20 hours to produce. Cutting-edge technology allowed us to view the previously captured footage of the other actors in that scene, overlaid over a live feed of the actor presently shooting that scene. This enabled us to check eyelines and timing for each shot.
The vast majority of the cast still haven't met their fellow company members. In fact, the first time they'll "see" each other is on opening night when they'll watch themselves share scenes on a completely virtual stage. That said, we were so lucky to receive such a high calibre of audition tapes. We could see immediately from his tape that Sam Tutty was perfect for Romeo, only for him then to win an Olivier Award for Dear Evan Hansen a few weeks later! Derek Jacobi's Narrator speaks the play's famous prologue as our lone audience member, and there's something very sombre and chilling in having a single audience member in such a grand auditorium, particularly in current times.
The rehearsal process was rapid, leaving limited time for Nick to work with the company. This was mostly for practical reasons: amidst the pandemic, you want to minimise the time people spend together lest the statistics catch up with you and you're suddenly dealing with an outbreak and a genuine risk to health and life. Our production manager Gary Beestone and his team ensured that both the rehearsal room and the film studio were as safe as possible.
There were a few fundamental goals we set out to achieve. One was to support the industry throughout a time when so many people are out of work. We've done this directly through the project itself and indirectly through donating a portion of ticket proceeds to the charity Acting For Others. Another was to specifically hire new talent, particularly those who had just left drama school and had graduated into an industry that had been shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. We also set out to ensure the production was diversely and appropriately cast.
I'm glad to say to say we have fulfilled these goals whilst telling this incredible classic story in a modern way using technology nobody has ever seen before in theatre. All that's left now is to bring it to an audience.
Photo credit: Ben Purkiss