After the dubious honour of being the last play at Downstage Theatre, Live at Six continues on its national tour.
Growing out of the experiences of writers Leon Wadham and Dean Hewison, who are also filmmakers and editors, the show questions the truth of what we are shown by media.
First premiered in 2009 as a STAB theatre commission for innovative works, Live at Six has evolved with the times. Instead of being asked to turn off their phones, audience members are encouraged to shoot and upload footage during the show.
As the story of journos, presenters and executives plays out on stage, the audience can also watch each network’s editors scrambling to cut the footage to fit their agenda. Interviews conducted with willing audience members in the interval add to both the story and the challenge for the editors. It’s a heady mix of cutting-edge technology and traditional theatrical craft.
In this interview Leon and Dean tell Renee Liang about the technological wizardry, audience participation and traditional craft that goes into their show.
Why do you like theatre?
Leon Wadham (actor, writer): I like that the work continues to evolve right until the very last performance. I like that there’s time and space and opportunity for the company to discover and develop new things. I like that it requires an audience.
Dean Hewison (writer and director): The immediacy of the audience feedback - it's a cliche but that's only because it's true.
What gave you the idea for Live At Six?
LW: Dean had an idea for a reality TV play, told from an edit suite where banal footage was manipulated to make for more entertaining viewing. Then we started talking about how news stories were packaged and presented and the editorialising possible in that context. Then Tony Veitch happened.
DH: I had an idea for a show using on-stage editing. My initial plan was for it to be based around a reality TV show, but when Leon and I started talking about it together, we came to the conclusion that manipulation was expected in that genre - but not in news. We decided that if we told a story that showed how news could be just as manipulative, we could have a much stronger theatre piece.
How did you develop the piece?
LW: This is the third incarnation of the show, the first being the STAB premiere in 2009 and the second the 2012 return season at Downstage. In each instance we revised the script to match the technological landscape of the present day – back in the first season most people didn’t have iPhones, for starters – and brought new collaborators onboard who have reinvigorated the work in their own unique way.
DH: This is the third season of Live at Six. We did our first season way back in 2009. The next season was in 2012 and in that time, social media and technology had both advanced hugely. Suddenly what needed to be recorded by a 'spy' in the first season was something that everybody could record on their phones in the second. Getting rid of the villain and giving that part to the audience was the biggest development that happened over the years.
How has the play changed since its original STAB season?
LW: The technology is better integrated and the characters are more clearly defined. It’s a better show, basically.
Why the medium of theatre?
LW: The show unfolds in real-time, allowing the audience to experience the difficulty and demands of the editors’ job in a way you couldn’t onscreen. Onstage, we can create the video at the heart of the story fresh each night and then repurpose it as we go along.
DH: It was an opportunity to showcase some innovative new techniques (putting together a story live onstage in real time) while presenting some biting satire. We've both worked in theatre for a while and wanted to bring something new and original to the medium.
Live action combined with a very technical set...would you do it again?
LW: I honestly don’t know. I have no idea how the show works. I’m grateful it does, but personally I could never pull off the tasks our actors and technicians are required to each night. It’s a very difficult piece to stage.
DH: I'd definitely want to write something like it again! It is a massive challenge for producers though, putting together a show that has such a huge cast with all these technological requirements. So maybe there'll be a great script floating around someday, but getting someone to take it on could be a challenge!! Show Pony have done a brilliant job bringing the show back to life and taking it to the country.
How do you get audience to participate - anything you've learnt?
LW: Audience members are included in the leaked footage each night and may find themselves “cast” in the story (as the actors reference the video), but they never have to get out of their seat to participate in the stage action. There’s also the option to upload material throughout the performance, which our editors can use throughout the show. I’ve learnt that the audience love to be included, but is terrified of having to “do” anything. Our setup neatly solves that problem.
DH: It's different for every show. For ours, they're keen to see their footage incorporated into the news story, so we make that as easy as we can for them. There are also the news staples such as vox pops, which people seem to be ok with providing so long as it's a nice short effort. If you can get the audience involved without them knowing that it's happening, that makes it easy! That's how we have a lot of our audience showing up in the show - they've been caught in the background of some footage.
Tell us about your cast.
LW: Jess Robinson has played Jane Kenyon from the very first season and is an incredibly accomplished actor and wonderful human being. Our editors are played by two old friends of mine, Eli Kent and Barnaby Fredric, the former a friend since I was 10 and the latter a pal from high school. It’d take a page to give everyone their due, but in short: it’s a cast full of straight-up winners. We’re very lucky.
Who's behind the tech wizardry? Did you have to develop any hardware or software specially for the show?
LW: I haven’t been involved in the staging of this production, but from my understanding the tech has been developed by Johann Nortje in consultation with Barnaby and Eli. They’re cutting on Adobe Premiere.
DH: Johann is the tech director for the show and he's making sure that the onstage editing from Barnaby and Eli makes it onto the big screens. No new hardware required - just a hell of a lot of work and a/v cues. A million things can (and do) go wrong, and it's their jobs to find emergency solutions when that happens! There have been some incredible saves over the last few seasons.
What are you working on next?
LW: I’m making a film with Eli. It’s called School Night and it’s about feeling old. Not being old, feeling old. We’re pretty excited.
DH: I'm developing a TV show called Sidelined for Gibson Group, as well as working on the next series of a children's action show called Operation Hero. I'm also working on a show for the Comedy Festival called Conversations With My Penis, and in the early stages of a new feature film - a comedy noir tentatively called Manseed.
Live At Six
Nelson Festival 25-26 Oct
Tauranga Festival 30-31 Oct
Auckland 12-16 Nov
Live at Six - Trailer from SHOW PONY on Vimeo.