Real Live Theater

Using Video to Develop, Promote and Preserve Theatrical Productions

In Behind the Scenes on April 8, 2009 at 4:12 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Film Studio photo by dpmike

Film Studio photo by dpmike

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – “Theater producers and writers want a document of their work.” explains Jonathan Luskin, co-founder of Flying Moose Pictures.  “Writers don’t usually get a lot of opportunity to work [directly] with actors. If a performance is in development, a video [of the performance] can help the writer determine what needs to be said and not said.”

Aside from producers and writers simply wanting a archival record of their work, there are may other practical benefits that are borne of the marriage between theater and video.

Theaters often benefit by including videos of recent productions along with written grant applications or funding requests, and it is important to note that the quality of the video recording is as important as the quality of the written grant proposal.

Luskin explains, “A professional quality video is important, because granters are sensitive to the quality of video, not just the play or performance in the video.”

The same tape can be used in a multitude of ways that benefit the production as a whole as well as the individual artists involved.

Luskin adds, “The tape can also be sent to TV stations for promoting the play.  And individual performers can use segments as an actor’s reel to post online or send to producers, agents, casting agents and directors, to show examples of their work.”

Purists often criticize the use of video arguing that taping a live performance turns the performance into a completely different type of entertainment entirely — a movie.

“Video taping does not turn the performance into a movie,” suggests Luskin. “Video is just a different tool.  Filmmaking is much more a shot by shot performance, with multiple cameras.  During dress rehearsal, sometimes we reshoot. Most video taping of a play, however, is done live; there is no stopping or going back.  We normally use just one or two cameras, so there is no pretense that this is replacing the performance.”

Of course there are constraints on filming that always need to be worked through concerning licensing rights and the unions.

According to Luskin, “If performers belong to Actors Equity, Equity does not allow taping except under rigid rules.  The video must be just a document, for archival and education purposes only.  The tape must go to The Museum of Performance & Design, and can only be viewed at the museum library.”

There are definite challenges in taping live performances.

“Since there are no retakes, that raises the bar in your preparation.” explains Luskin, “You have to anticipate when an actor will be moving, entering or exiting the stage.  We don’t usually see the show beforehand, or have someone telling us what is coming up. Lighting for theater is much more contrasted and dark, and it is hard to get the same lighting look in the camera.  For audio, the mikes are placed by the stage, so the actors aren’t always nearby. Feature films would have the microphones much closer. The audience and their experience of the performance must also be taken into consideration. We bring in a lot of gear.  We try to be as discreet as possible with the cameras, because it is hard for producers to give up seats for camera placement.”

Many theater groups attempt to do their own amateur video taping with wildly varying results, and have not experienced the difference professional video offers.

“Quality video production is a skill,” Luskin continues, “You can’t just turn on a camera.  We are experts at lighting, and we use professional cameras, which have much better resolution.  We also use professional studio microphones, not camcorder mikes, which never do a good job.”

“Theater groups have small budgets, and we discount our regular fees to individual artists and non profits,” explaines Luskin, “We like serving the theater community. Filming gets me out to see a lot of theater, and keeps me connected.  Sometimes we hire actors and crew to do other filmmaking, adding a lot of synergy between our corporate and theater works.”

“Our point of view is that video taping of performances is complex.” Luskin concludes, “Hiring professionals with experience, knowledge and technology pays itself back with far better quality.  Every group should have some video whether they do it for themselves or not.”

Flying Moose Pictures is a San Francisco film company founded by Jonathan Luskin and Mark Leialoha serving a special niche in the Bay Area, doing professional digital video of live theater, from solo performances to opera. Additional information about Flying Moose Pictures can be found at

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:

  1. […] Using Video to Develop, Promote and Preserve Theatrical Productions […]

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