Theatrical & Cinematic Space

The following extract, from an essay written for the programme that accompanied Macbeth’s UK cinematic release, was written by Professor Judith Buchanan and discusses our approach to theatrical space within the film.

Early sketches of the 'Macbeth world'

Early sketches of the 'Macbeth world'

Cinematic space and theatrical space typically operate under different conventions.

Theatrical space is often licensed to configure and dissolve itself in fluid ways, becoming in that instant whatever the dramatic moment needs it to be and the actors declare it to be. In effect, theatrical space responds readily to the challenge that the Chorus figure issues to an audience at the opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V. He invites an audience to ‘make imaginary puissance’ and to let the theatrical event ‘on your imaginary forces work’ to make it possible to summon before their eyes, for example, the ‘vasty fields of France’. When an audience takes up this challenge to engage imaginatively in the meaning of the performance space before them, the same bare boards can be made and remade moment by moment, summoned into a specific identity by the imperatives of the drama and the audience’s own collusive engagement in making the dramatic event happen.

Cinematic space, by comparison, is usually expected to conform more closely to the logical spatial relations that shape our understanding of space in the extra-cinematic world. Part of the rules of continuity editing by which most mainstream films are made require clear and consistent spatial continuities: it is these that then govern how on-screen narrative space is navigated. The edit (how one shot proceeds to the next) ensures that the geographical relationship of playing areas is configured in mappable ways: we know what each onscreen narrative space is and how it is spatially placed in relation to other such spaces.

There is, however, nothing predetermined about how onscreen space works: its desire to be realistically organised is simply a convention. In Kit Monkman’s Macbeth, space, like so much else in this dramatic world, becomes mutable according to a more flexible set of assumptions and influences. The fictive world is partly responsive to the psychological realm, allowing Macbeth’s conviction that ‘nothing is but what is not’ to affect not only how the story progresses but also how the space in which it plays out is experienced.

The film’s drama is contained within a floating world. The world features multiple layers of playing space presented as empty rooms or wider arenas awaiting occupation. The camera roams around these, exploring the multiple architectural compartments and coming, as if by happenstance, upon dramatic moments in the playing spaces it enters. Each time it chooses the next zone for its focused investigation and moment of sustained observation, that space becomes what it needs to be as the site of the action it is hosting. Even as the detail and substance of the compartment forms, therefore, the edges of the playing space may remain suggestively unformed – a series of geometric white lines awaiting colour and design. This unformed-ness is a product of the post-production business of replacing green screen with a digitally built world. The decision to leave visible the traces of its own construction and to resist communicating a definitive sense of sealed completion, however, signals the quasi-theatrical laws by which these spaces operate. Summoned into being through the imperatives of the local dramatic moment, each scene claims only as much fully defined space as is required for that piece of action to play out. The rest is merely bare boards, or indicative construction lines, awaiting the next narrative claim on it to become what it then needs to be. As with theatrical space, therefore, no specific architectural section of the floating world has a consistent identity as a single specific venue. The same inset compartment might be Dunsinane, or Inverness, or Scone, or part of the recesses of Macbeth’s fevered imaginary world, or each of these in succession as we find our way back to it on successive visits.

Macbeth's Release


Our 100% green-screen feature-length adaptation of Macbeth is released in UK cinemas on 13th March 2018. There's a detailed description of why and how we made it here. What follows represents my more personal intention behind it and future films.

I want to make films that reignite the imaginative participation of the audience, films that celebrate theatricality, make-believe, and thrive on the viewers' co-creation of what unfolds.
There has, I feel, been a gradual shift away from our ancestral heritage – the telling of stories around the camp fire, a shared enchantment in the dark that brings to life a diversity of inner visions. We seem to be in danger of confining the role of the audience to that of spectator – or consumer.
It's as if the 21st century world mistrusts the power of the interior, human imagination. Perhaps that’s because market forces can’t monetise individual creative thought; perhaps globalisation  engenders homogeneity; and perhaps the ubiquity of the camera tends to privilege material reality ‘out there’ over the more significant – though far less marketable – imaginative life ‘in here’. 
I believe there’s an opportunity to present a new type of experience on film, one that reconnects with the origins of our storytelling arts and treats the audience as active participants in the creative endeavour.

Flock (2017)

Setting up Flock in the NDC, Singapore.

Setting up Flock in the NDC, Singapore.

Ten years ago Tom Wexler and I conceived of Flock, an interactive installation in collaboration with Tom Sapsford (an ex-dancer with the Royal Ballet and choreographers, Wayne McGregor, Will Tuckett and Michael Clark).

Flock combined sound and projections with live motion tracking technology to place pedestrians within an ethereal corps de ballet. It was based on music from the opening of Act IV, when - in a staged version - all the principal protagonists are off-stage - an absence which, in our digital representation, helped bring the impromptu pedestrian performers to the fore.

The piece was originally commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in association with the Royal Opera House and premiered in February 2007 in Trafalgar Square. Flock received extensive media coverage including a live broadcast of the launch on BBC R4’s PM programme and, in the words of the then artistic director of the ICA Ekow Eshun, ‘offered a whole new realm for ‘live’ artistic experience’.

When asked to revive the piece for this year’s Singapore Night Festival, itself celebrating its Tenth Anniversary, we were faced with a choice; do we present an archived ‘original’ of the 2007 version of Flock, or do we revisit it and, if so, how radically?

The question is perhaps a temporally compressed analogue of the debates about ‘authenticity’ in early modern theatre and music, amplified by the audience’s role in Flock, where they act as both audience and performers.

It’s clear that the people who engage with a 2017 version of Flock have a distinctly different set of expectations about a digital experience than their 2007 selves did and, as their responses and engagement drive the work, the only option we felt was open to us was to make a new work in the ‘spirit of version one’, retaining the original’s length (dictated by the choice of score) and sharing a similar thematic intention - of putting the audience centre stage.

The 2017 version of Flock is at the confluence of three principal sources of change from its ancestral source; 1. the development of Tom and my creative thought, 2. A decade of technological advancements, and 3. the piece’s staging.

Flock was one of our first interactive works. In it we first explored the possibility of a theatrical engagement with impromptu performers, and examined, for the first time, the fluid relationship between those who interact as performers and those who watch as audience. We have since made a decade’s worth of work that has developed these ideas. Meanwhile, our vocabulary has been enriched by borrowing ideas and techniques from our parallel work in theatre and film. The result is that Flock 2017 is a genuine hybrid of theatre, film and interactivity.

The ten years of technological change since Flock's premiere are indivisibly entwined with the development of our ideas. Most of what we do now would have been impossible in 2007. Although the basics remain unchanged, (projection, sound and thermal imaging have all seen small, iterative developments), the speed of the computers that process the generative elements and the heavy media load has advanced exponentially.

Finally, the staging. This is the first full-scale interactive work that we’ve produced indoors. The performance space is the beautiful atrium at the National Design Centre in Singapore. It will be interesting to see what effect moving the work indoors has on the demographic - there undoubtedly will be fewer neutral bystanders to be drawn into the experience - but the most immediate benefit is that Tom and I finally have a rehearsal space and some time to use it. All our previous installations have been produced in public spaces and required a crane or similar with 30m+ height. As a result, there is no ‘back-stage’ and, by the time the equipment is all installed and night-time falls, there are inquisitive recipients for whatever we output (line-up grids, etc., all included). This opportunity for discreet rehearsal time is a huge luxury for us. Not continually watching the weather forecast is an additional benefit.

We open to the public on Friday evening (the 18th August) and Flock runs every evening (from 7.30pm to 12 pm) until the 26th August.

Finding a Film Composer: a 21st Century Method.

"Film music should have the same relationship to the film drama that somebody's piano playing in my living room has on the book I am reading." 

Igor Stravinsky.

Tom Wexler and I were sitting by the fire one winter’s evening in my cottage in Coxwold, opening our second bottle of wine, when the subject of the film’s music first came up. 

I knew that I wanted a score for Macbeth that would serve as a sonic signature for the film, setting an overarching mood rather than underscoring every emotional shift and I knew that I wanted the music to feel contemporary and distinct while cognisant of the play’s C17th origin. I knew what I wanted, but I hadn’t heard anything that felt close.

Twenty minutes later - thanks to Google and iTunes - we were listening excitedly to the opening bars of US composer Gregory Spear’s Requiem. I fully expected the serendipity of the moment to be broken by the next track, or to realise that the wine, and our growing enthusiasm, was amplifying its possibilities but no, it was and continued to be, perfect. 

The next day I laid down sections of the Requiem into our rough edit and, for a few weeks, I lived with it. My affection for the music and my certainty of its place in the film grew. At the same time, I became increasingly conscious of the entirely insubstantial cyber-relationship between our film and the potential composer of its music. 

Fortunately, various emails, a Skype call, and a visit to New York to meet and talk in person all breathed life into the hyperlink. Gregory was charming and erudite and interested in the project.

So, in October last year (2016) Tom Mattinson and I listened as Greg conducted a small ensemble in the beautiful auditorium of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Harlem, NYC. This recording, along with sections from the Requiem, has created a soundtrack for Macbeth which delights me. 

Nothing is but what is not: Why make a green screen Macbeth..?

In the face of the gratifying but also troubling news that he has been made Thane of Cawdor, for Macbeth, ‘nothing is/ But what is not’. In other words, the only things that now seem to have any reality to him are the things of the imagination, the unreal things. Such a world – a world in which the imaginary specifically takes precedence over the actual - proved a particularly inviting one for me as a filmmaker.

Shakespeare's genius encompasses a deft and fluid ability to weave complex poetic threads that bind together the outer material story, and the inner psychological narrative. At one moment the audience understands Macbeth’s words as an expression of material reality, at the next, as an exploration of his inner consciousness.

Cinema makes us into spectators. However much we empathise or engage, we are always watching from the outside. By changing the language and (quite literally) the perspective of cinema our Macbeth uses the screen to explore the internal territory that Shakespearean language renders so powerfully. 


The Space in the Middle (2017)

KMA, aka Tom (Wexler) and I, are currently making our first major new piece since Congregation (2010). The seven year hiatus has been filled with the making of two films, alongside performances of existing KMA works. 

Our new piece, The Space in the Middle, will be an amalgam of everything we’ve learned making and performing Congregation (and its ancestors) presented alongside filmed elements that borrow from our cinematic aesthetic, making it very much the first confluence of these two strands of practice. 

The title the Space in the Middle point in three directions;

  • The Space in the Middle describes an idea; a new dynamic relationship between art and its audience, one in which the audience are the performers and the generated aesthetic is jointly owned. There is no artefact, only a communal experience. How then should we redefine the audience, the performer, and the artist? The Space in the Middle questions those relationships. 
  • The Space in the Middle also describes the physical space, the temporary stage that a KMA work creates (usually in the centre of an urban environment). It’s a gathering place where unusual things happen.
  • And last, but NOT least, The Space in the Middle is the theme of the piece. The brief moment of our existence. “our little life… rounded with a sleep.”

The Space in the Middle will premiere in Baltimore, USA, on 31st March 2017 and run until April 8th.


A Long Gestation


In June 2015 Tom Mattinson, Judith Buchanan, and I were filmed days before we began shooting our green-screen adaptation of Macbeth. Nine months later, though still a work-in-progress, it’s now very much a ‘thing’; having developed a character and a shape and an atmosphere that were impossible to grasp back then but which seem inevitable to me now.

There’s still a lot of work to be done - the devil being in the detail - but the final version will be recognisable from its current ancestor. Value judgements will be made by others, but I can say that it is extraordinary, in that it looks and feels like nothing else. I’m increasingly impatient to show the finished film.

Recording KMA's Installations


I was recently asked about how we document KMA's work. The short answer is badly, if at all. But the question got me thinking;

A security camera high above a library reading room documents the passage of time, the comings and goings of readers, and their most basic disposition (their engagement with reading, doodling, their phone, other people etc...). It may be a useful document in a number of ways; It says a lot about the size, shape, and layout of the room. It may be used to help prove the popularity of the library, to describe the demographic of its users, it may illustrate how long the average reader stays, and other equally dull but potentially useful statistics. With luck it might even support an alibi or expose an indiscretion. It may do all of these things, and more, but it records almost nothing of the real activity that is taking place under its lens. It would, in short, be impossible to deduce anything from the recording about the activity taking place in the readers’ minds, about the relationship between their minds and the texts in front of them, about the real reason for their presence.

As someone who makes live work in which the focus is not some external spectacle but a spontaneous empathic engagement between strangers, I’m as frustrated with lens based documentation as an author seeking a response to their work might be in the library analogy above. 

Being brutally honest we document KMA's work (in so far as we do) to trigger our own recollections of the moment, to prove we made the work, and to show that people came and were engaged. We can do little else.

That said those documents do, as in the library example, say quite a lot about the mechanics of the work and its historical development. They help fossilise otherwise ephemeral moments and make it possible to see developments that might otherwise be forgotten in the haze of memory. 

I’ve often thought about more interesting and effective ways that we might record the work. So far I’ve always rejected them. I think I rather like the momentary nature of what we do, of making things that resist being recorded accurately. 

Since our earliest ancestors so much cultural endeavour has gone into the act of not-forgetting, of finding ways of fossilising the now, memorialising the past so that it (and we) can live on.

And now, for the first time in history, we are living through a truly extraordinary shift.

We are the first human beings in history for whom forgetting is now becoming harder than remembering (Internet, social-networking, tagging, ubiquitous camera phones etc). 

KMA’s works come out of a background in performing arts where pretty much everything now gets photographed, filmed, blogged and recorded. In this field there’s always a subject to point a camera at. It’s a small contribution to the cultural debate I know, but I really like that our work (though large and occasionally spectacular) has no subject and, like the library analogy, resists being understood by a lens. It requires a sentient present mind.