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Bygone Theatre’s Conor Fitzgerald Discusses Live Streaming Using Blackmagic Design

Toronto’s Bygone Theatre recently staged a complex live theatrical production of the classic short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The production was set in the historic Campbell House Museum, and audience members were invited to wander the house to interact with unique elements in each room. Bygone Theatre also live-streamed the show using Blackmagic Design Studio equipment, including two Blackmagic Studio Camera 4K Pros, two Blackmagic Studio Camera 4K Plus, and an ATEM SDI Extreme ISO live production switcher.

Conor Fitzgerald, Producer, Bygone Theatre, talked with Tyler Nesler, Associate Editor, Streaming Media Magazine, about why they chose to use Blackmagic equipment to live stream this unique theatrical experience and about the specific features of the technology which allowed an exciting, immersive experience for virtual audiences.

Fitzgerald said that this production was Bygone Theatre’s first attempt at live-streaming a staged show. When asked why Bygone had not attempted a live stream before, Fitzgerald said, “We've found that a lot of times what you see in live theater is people adding on a live stream where they just essentially pop a camera on and have a stream via Zoom, [and] it’s a worse version of the show, which kind of strips away everything that live theater is.”

How Blackmagic Design made this ambitious production possible

Bygone Theatre decided to use Blackmagic Design equipment because of its ease of use and versatility. “It's really uniquely set up to give an experience that's above just either talking heads on Zoom or just like looking like an awards show or something like that,” Fitzgerald said. “It allowed us to really integrate the ideation process of what digital live theater is. [Their] technology was instrumental in the creation process.”

The setting was one of the biggest challenges of staging this production for both in-person and remote audiences. Campbell House is a historic 1822 heritage house and is now a museum located in downtown Toronto. Audience members were invited to wander around the house and interact with unique elements found in each room. The house is a “living museum” and was not renovated to accommodate theater productions or complex technology setups.

“So just from the get-go, we had to create the infrastructure from scratch in a small space that wasn't set up to faciliate that,” Fitzgerald said. “So there's problem one, and then problem two is that the live streaming aspect was important to us because we got a grant from the Canada Council of the Arts to explore live streaming in the theater. So we wanted to ensure the live streaming component was unique and interesting.”

Bygone Theatre’s team wanted one-to-one outputs from the camera to projectors throughout the house and the switched live stream that cut between the four cameras they had set up. They have a three-person creative team and a two-person technical team, and it was not initially obvious how to produce the type of dynamic live stream that they wanted.

Fortunately, the adaptability of Blackmagic Design’s equipment made the production process workable. “With the ATEM SDI Extreme ISO,” Fitzgerald said, “The great thing is that it has eight SDI inputs and four SDI outputs, as well as a separate livestream output through USB C. So that just gave us the malleability to play with the different inputs and outputs. We ended up using a dual link Pro 2, which is an SDI in and out that can attach to a computer. So we were able to process an image and have it projection-mapped as well and then still input it back into the ATEM. Just this mix of technology allowed us to both have a traditional use of the technology, which is having four inputs. We had a monitor set up, and we had a live stream that was a switched live stream, which is a unique theatrical experience to start with. But then we also utilized the other outputs from this technology to feed an image one-to-one to projectors throughout the museum, and it allowed people to explore that and have a different experience, both live and watching from their computer.”

Regarding the specific ways that Blackmagic facilitated remote audience interactivity, Fitzgerald said, “We decided to use Zoom as a live streaming technology, which of course is very easy because when you use the USB C output from the ATEM Extreme – it just acts like a webcam. It's just plug-and-play for Zoom, and we hosted it as a webinar, which allowed us to have polls. So at four points throughout the production, the live-stream viewers could select a poll about how they wanted the story to progress. And the people in the Campbell House had no idea that these choices were being made. They were just watching a story. So we really liked how this mix of technology [made] every single experience unique.” Audiences at home could choose which of the four streams to view. “We had 11 shows, and each was slightly different because of the selections,” he said. “That wouldn't have been possible without this particular mix of technology.”

Why the story elements of The Yellow Wallpaper itself posed unique challenges

The specific features of The Yellow Wallpaper also posed a staging and live-streaming challenge. The 1892 story features ‘A Woman’ placed in isolation by her physician husband. She becomes increasingly consumed by the sickly yellow wallpaper that adorns her bedroom walls, and her sense of self and reality declines. So the yellow wallpaper itself is a type of character, and it needed to be depicted with as much vividness as possible.

“It's a one-woman show primarily,” Fitzgerald said. “The only thing that she's interacting with is this wallpaper. And in the story, it's described very vividly, these horrible yellow hues, and as well as very descriptive pieces where the wallpaper is, she's seeing the wallpaper move…she's seeing images in the wallpaper of a person moving and shaking bars. So we needed to have that wallpaper throughout both the live stream and in-person. We had an animator create a wallpaper with various hues throughout for the story points. And then, we back-projected it behind the actress."

The Blackmagic Design tech further helped to make the yellow wallpaper effects as impactful for remote viewers as it was for the live audience. Fitzgerald said, “Because of the picture quality and color depth and all of these various features of having these 4K studio cameras, we were able to play with the color balance and make the whole room just build with this sickly yellow color and really let that shine through and give the audience that feeling what she's feeling, being surrounded by this color. The other fun thing is when you're back projecting, of course, you also need to front light the person to make sure that the camera picks it up. Without cameras like this, we wouldn't have been able to do that well, because we needed to basically have a wash. We needed to be able to light it fairly low without taking away the back projection. So this allowed us to play with the gain of the camera and still have a really crisp image that showed all the action for everybody involved.”

The result was a very consistent image for both the live stream and the in-person audience. “We were able to pump in the direct feed of the wallpaper into one of the live outputs,” Fitzgerald said. “So one of the projectors just had that image of the wallpaper along with some of the action. It really gave the audiences the ability to explore that wallpaper and the intricacies of the design – we had a design team that hand-drew a wallpaper design to animate. So again, with a tiny company and a tiny team, it's really incredible what they were able to do. I just can't stress enough that testament to what the technology allowed us to do.”

Why high-quality live streams of theatrical productions are increasingly essential

Fitzgerald noted that a significant portion of theater audiences are hesitant to attend live in-person performances but would still love to have an immersive theater experience. The Blackmagic tech, he said, “Just gave us that really broad toolkit to work with, and I think we came up with a really cool way to use it…I don't think traditional theater is going anywhere. I love the proscenium, where you have the stage and actors on stage and the audience and seats. There will always be a place for that. But I think what we need to realize as artists in any medium is that technology is here to stay, and audiences want it. They want new experiences, and they want to see new ideas. So I would say that not only is this opportunity that technology like Blackmagic Design creates an opportunity for audience engagement, but it also breeds opportunity for creation and conceptual thinking of ‘What does it mean to be a theater?’”

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