Digital Dreams, Analogue Realities

The minds behind Close Up and Francesca, Francesca... tell Sean Bell about building a multimedia world

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
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Francesca Francesca
Published 03 Aug 2015

The more things change, the more they stay the same. It's one of the many truisms that find unexpected justification at the Fringe, where the techniques of performance are always in flux, but the motivations behind them remain eternal. Technology, forever on the march, is an expression of the former, while the theatrical experience it helps create embodies the latter.

With characteristic eclecticism, this year's Fringe offers an impressive variety of shows that exploit advances in digital technology to summon innovative multimedia experiences. There is Francesca, Francesca..., an experimental exploration of photography that straddles the second and third dimensions. In Close Up, an intimate circus troupe expresses its vivid physicality both onstage and on video, as its performers confront their own image. Visual maestro Robert Lepage offers a meditation on memory in the age of digital capture in 887, and in Annabelle’s Skirting Board Adventures, children's theatre meets live digital animation, enchanting all ages in the process.

It would be easy—and wrong—to dismiss any or all of these as productions hypnotised by the superficial thrill of hi-tech bells and whistles. What's immediately apparent when talking to the shows' creators is how aware they are of the balance between technical and human elements, and the importance of both.

"I wanted a dance between the acrobats, the audience and the artform of circus," says Yaron Lifschitz, creative director of Close Up. "The show seeks to bring the audience close to our circus – a world where you can see, touch and connect with these wonderful artists and the amazing things they do. It combines extreme slow motion close-up footage of acrobatics and acrobats with strong physical sequences. We started with every technical trick we have and in rehearsals we stripped them back. The video element is now quite simple and refined – it is based around using 1,500 frames-per-second specialist cameras filming acrobatics close up – and then putting this on in contact with live performance."

Lifschitz is clearly excited by what digital technology has allowed Close Up to achieve, but his emphasis is on the performers and the audience. "I have the privilege of watching acrobats work every day, and I’m left with a great sense of beauty and power and connection. I want to share these with an audience. So I started by asking: how close could an audience be?

"I have seen so many great uses of multimedia that I’m happy to say there are plenty of great options and no ideal ones," admits Lifschitz. "In Close Up the really special and warming thing is how the characters relate to the images of themselves. They encounter it with wonder and discovery. They use this amazement to create the show. This makes me think the ideal multimedia experience is one where the media serves the inner life of the show and they work together to create more than the sum of their parts."

Megan Lewicki, director of Francesca, Francesca... and one of the brains behind 2014 Fest favourite Pomegranate Jam, aims for a different but by no means less intimate experience. "Pomegranate Jam was very analogue, using techniques like shadow puppetry that have been employed for thousands of years. This time, I wanted to push the envelope of visual theatre and what we could do with more technology.

"Video-live performance is an aspect of visual theatre I've always been interested in – using projection and different lighting techniques to create a story on stage. With this show, we use a mix of old and new technologies – modern, digital video projectors and antique slide projectors. What I'd like to pursue is having performers interacting with imagery in a way that goes beyond a physical set. The old adage is a picture tells a thousand words; I really want to see just how much an image can resonate with an audience."

In order to understand the effect Lewicki and her team are trying to achieve, one must first know about Francesca Woodman, the late American photographer who serves as the play's inspiration, acclaim for whose indefinable work has been largely posthumous.

"She's not very accessible," Lewicki admits. "Only those close to her actually knew her, and those who did haven't really spoken about her. So when it comes to writing a play, what we have is this: an artist, a prodigy, who achieved artistic maturity when she was 16, and yet struggled to find her voice, to find a way to be relevant in a time that wasn't ready for her... And then committed suicide, for reasons that still aren't clear. I like telling women's stories, and I particularly like crafting narratives about women whose stories have not been told. We know so little about her, yet I feel everyone should know about her.

"The character we've created is representative of the person we see in the photographs," Lewicki explains. "A person who's stuck in time, catalogued and archived, who we've come to know as Francesca Woodman."

Francesca, Francesca... makes use of entirely original photography inspired by the most iconic pieces of Woodman's work, presented via illumination to create a haunting world within the camera's lens. Technologically, Lewicki is keen to emphasise that the show is as much analagoue as it is digital.

"Using a digital projector is easy – everything goes on your Macbook – but we decided to make it as complicated as possible. We had 35mm slides specially made for our antique projectors, yet they were based on digital imagery. They give it a very film-like quality, as opposed to the overly crisp effect of digital projection. Now, we project through cheese cloth, onto wax paper. Stuff you can find in your kitchen.

"It's a humble presentation of a visceral medium," she concludes. "I think the greatest innovation you can achieve is doing a lot with very little. How do you make a beautiful piece of theatre with cheese cloth and wax paper?"

And where exactly does one find antique slide projectors? "Ebay," Lewicki says with a laugh. 

It's hard to think of a better metaphor than that for the meeting of old and new technology.