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“Network” on Broadway: Life Inside the Big Screen

by Bryan Reesman • in
  • Inside Theater
  • March 2019
• Created: March 7, 2019

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Bryan Cranston faces the cameras. The big screen faces the audience. Photos by Jan Versweyveld

Broadway has increasingly gone more Hollywood over the past decade, implementing a greater and greater use of technology at all levels to imbue a more muscular definition to the term, “razzle dazzle.” Between moving lights, irising set pieces and LED walls and video screens, the Great White Way at times feels like it is home to living cinema, but not always at the service of the show. Which is why the stage adaptation of the iconic 1976 film Network written by Paddy Chayefsky — about a newscaster named Howard Beale whose live nervous breakdown and rallying cry for rebellion becomes something that his bosses can package and sell for ratings and advertising — has come along at the perfect time.

As in the film, the medium is the message of the stage play, but it is also something that we and the characters find ourselves trapped within, a giant screen where they live their lives out and in which we as spectators become part of the milieu.

Howard Beale’s meltdown proves to be ratings gold. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

‡‡         Arriving from London

Deftly directed by Ivo van Hove, Network began life in London at the National Theatre in 2017, and the nearly 50 video screens are an essential element of the production in New York. Most are onstage, a number are offstage, and a large 20-by-12-foot (WxH) LED screen looms upstage center. Together, they bring us into the world of the UBS Network. They often feature retro montages of 1970s newsfeeds and commercials, and screens around the proscenium arch even help audience members with tricky sightlines catch all of the action. Video designer Tal Yarden had a lot on his plate — curating material for all of the screens, training actors to use live cameras for key sequences, and even making sure a remote video feed for an outdoor to indoor scene worked well. (All of the audio and video gear was rented from Sound Associates.)

When theatergoers first enter the Belasco Theatre, the cast is already onstage inside the very busy screen the audience will be watching. The center section onstage is open to allow for fluid and changing action. At stage right is a tightly packed TV studio with working gear, seats, numerous screens and glass walls. At stage left is a restaurant and bar where actual theatergoers have paid extra to drink and eat dinner and be onstage witnesses, and beyond that, a bar, where one key and obstructed scene is captured on a remote video camera for everyone to see.

Tatiana Maslany, Julian Elijah Martinez and cast in the on-stage studio. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

“From the very beginning when we were talking about creating the set design, one of the central locations and concepts for the show is that it takes place in a TV studio,” Yarden tells PLSN. “In order to really establish that, we needed to show a lot of the gear and the monitors and the switchers and all the different aspects of what’s involved in working on a live TV show. So we thought, ‘Why don’t we ask our operators to be on site as well’, because we needed bodies and needed the gear. Keep it all localized, there’s no reason to hide them. They’ve just become part of the show.”

The television crew onstage operates all the video activity, including lead video engineer Christopher Kurtz, plus there are stage hands who move around various props including the news anchor desk that is slid on and off for key sequences. “There is hair and makeup being done on stage in addition to the actors that are playing the part of hair and make-up,” adds Yarden. “There are a few different crews that are on stage. They’re all dressed in costume, but they’re really there for the bigger step changes. Our camera people, though, are trained in using our cameras. They come in as performers and receive a lot of training from us, so they’re technically part of the Actors’ Equity cast.”

The effect of having the stage feel like a giant TV studio makes it a meta show — these people not only work in television but live their lives as if in a soap opera. “Absolutely,” concurs Yarden. “It’s like a workplace drama, and the location is a TV studio. If you think of [the film] Broadcast News, which was based on the original Paddy Chayefsky Network, or even Murphy Brown, you have all these people live and work together basically because their jobs are so demanding.” (Which sounds very much like the world of theater as well.)

Along with a studio, a restaurant/bar appears on stage. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

‡‡         Front and Center

The large video screen that is center stage allows for the broadcast scenes and other moments to be played out in large scale. There is also an LED wall surrounding it that sometimes includes different collections of old newsreels and commercials also shown on the main screen. During the famous “I’m mad as hell” sequence that everyone anticipates, a montage of viral video responses takes over the wall, with the layered audio of each separate person becoming increasingly cacophonous. It is a moment that feels modern and updated in contrast to the 1970s vibe of the story, but it also mirrors how many of the worries of the world back then are being echoed today.

“So much of the news that’s portrayed in the original movie and in the play are actual events taking place in the 1970s,” explains Yarden. “They refer to Saudi Arabia, OPEC, the oil economy and the rise of terrorism. Forty years later, we’re really in essence stuck in a time where so much of what’s we’re experiencing now was foretold by Paddy Chayefsky in terms of news becoming entertainment. But so many of the stories are really the same stories. It’s this feeling of being stuck in a time loop. I wanted to connect it a little more immediately to our audience today.”

When Yarden and his team were trying to figure out how to orchestrate the “mad as hell” sequence, they did a social media outreach. “We asked people to record themselves and submit their videos so that we could populate the screens with all these contemporary, real life people yelling, ‘I’m mad as hell,’” he recalls. “It has power in terms of bringing everyday onto the stage.”

The monitors diagram for Network on Broadway

‡‡         450 Video Cues

Yarden says there are approximately 450 video cues, some of which are on their Blackmagic ATEM 2/ME video switcher “and some of which are in our disguise software, which is triggered by the light board.”

For this video-intensive show, they have two official camera operators (for cameras on gimbals and tripods) and another that plays a camera operator for the studio and becomes involved in triggering the “I’m mad as hell” video avalanche. There are also six robotic PTZ cameras in different locations; one at the bar, four of them on the mezzanine rail and one on the balcony rail, all angled to catch different things. These cameras are used mainly for the audience in the restaurant, plus some for the audience in the house that are to the extreme left and right. Further, there are four projection screens up top with imagery projected from Panasonic RZ21K projectors.

“We window in a lot of the live material on the projection screen so that people in the audience on stage can see everything,” says Yarden. “And they see more than the audience in the house in terms of what’s shown on the big LED wall.”

There are just over 50 Samsung video screens being used for Network. “Back stage right and upstage, there are a lot of screens as well, some of which are really being used to run the show and for stage management,” says Yarden. “There are also monitors that you can’t see that are at the bar in the proscenium so people sitting at the bar can see things.”

Those who are onstage get to see star Bryan Cranston work his magic up close. The live broadcast breakdown of newscaster Howard Beale, which leads to his famous “mad as hell” moment, requires him to create a large theatrical presence, but also be nuanced enough to be captured on camera and projected around the theater.

“It’s really extraordinary,” says Yarden. “I’ve worked with a few different actors on different productions, and it’s always a similar challenge. But with actors who are used to being both in front of a camera and are live on stage, we have discussion of, ‘What’s the best angle?’ Bryan was part of that discussion — “Where’s the camera? How am I going to react to it?’”

Another striking sequence is the scene where two estranged lovers, former UBS exec Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn) and programming director Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), reconnect on the sidewalk outside of the venue and duck through the adjacent alleyway into the studio. They are rekindling their past romance, which gets steamier as they stroll along and culminates with them arriving in front of the audience and having a simulated sex scene while discussing great ratings. It is another meta moment that displays the inability of some people in that world to separate their job and real life.

For that sequence, the camera and audio are not on cables, but transmitting via wireless. “We have that camera sending out to multiple receivers, and the person who’s doing the live switching is cutting between those different live signals from the camera,” explains Yarden. “There’s a crew outside with a receiver to get both sound and video. The intention of doing that all in one take was to really prove that it’s live.” The outside crew includes three people and two stage managers.

“It’s always a bit of a technical challenge, but it’s not as difficult as you think,” notes Yarden. “Television does this all the time. Knowing how to do it isn’t that difficult. On a theater budget, sometimes it’s more difficult.”

Yarden states that the challenging aspect of the show was organizational, being able to connect all the different departments. “We built this at the National Theatre in London, and I had started sending regular emails and communications and meetings with the technical staff there, maybe seven or eight months before we went into production proper,” he says. “It took a lot of work to map out everything, throw it all out to all the different sources, all the different monitors and screens, and how everything was to play and what kind of flexibility we needed. It was really like building a TV studio.”

The intense experience of Network presented Yarden with the main challenge of combining many things he had done before, but on a much larger scale. As a video designer, videographer and director, Yarden has integrated live video and camera work within theater before.

Tony Goldwyn and Tatiana Maslany get in each others face. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

‡‡         Live Cinema

“One of the most interesting things is that this cemented the idea for me of live cinema,” says Yarden. “Really making a movie live in front of an audience, which is not necessarily the audience’s perspective. I’m focused on what’s in the frame on all the screens, cutting back and forth between the different cameras, and creating these very fluid, long camera takes, and coordinating with the director and the cast how the camera’s going to move and what it’s going to catch. Making sure everyone’s aware and participating and engaged. In that way, it’s become like a little bit of a ballet. For me, that’s a definitely a new aspect — to get that involved.”

As Yarden observes, Network is a very complex show, “but one of the beautiful things is, here is this character crying out against all of us being constant consumers and falling prey to this vapid and commercial environment,” he says. “Then he falls prey to it, too, because everything becomes part of the story. I remember back in college learning about this central tenet of capitalism being commodification — basically, you can take anything and turn it into a commodity. Turning resistance into a commodity is something we see all the time. I don’t remember which Kardashian it was doing a Pepsi commercial [Kendall Jenner, Kim’s younger sister —ed.], but the idea of being part of the resistance or being part of the revolution suddenly becomes a tool for selling Pepsi.”

We have reached a fever pitch in modern times with regards to the media. We are constantly being bombarded and over-stimulated, and it is undoubtedly reshaping our increasingly A.D.D. world. Network manages to balance all of those elements and find an emotional core that has touched audiences. The talented Yarden was definitely aware of walking that line when working on the show.

“As a designer, the actor is always the focus, the character is always the focus,” he stresses. “We can do a lot of spectacle, and we certainly have a couple of moments of that, but it’s really all in service of the story and the characters on stage. I never want to pull focus away from them. I just want to embrace them in that world.”

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