'1984:' Feeding The Machine

by Bryan Reesman
in Inside Theater
'1984' photos by Julieta Cervantes
'1984' photos by Julieta Cervantes

The play 1984 has shocked audiences on Broadway with a mind-bending stage adaptation of the famous George Orwell novel that predicted our grim future. Perhaps that is why, in these tumultuous times, it has resonated with people; that, and the graphic torture scenes which have allegedly caused heart palpitations for some audience members. A big part of the show’s intensity emerges through Tom Gibbons’ jackhammer sound design and Tim Reid’s essential video design, which both creates intimacy for key off stage scenes, and a sense of disorientation and danger for some disturbing moments.

‡O'Brien (Reed Birney) recruits Julia and Winston for the resistance movement against the love squelching dictatorship of Oceania. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

‡         Video from Off Stage

Reid has worked on the show since its initial 2013 production in the Nottingham Playhouse in England that blossomed into its first U.K. tour, which, in turn, led to other British iterations and, finally, the current Broadway run. A key component of the show, which revolves around secret paramours Winston (Tom Sturridge) and Julia (Olivia Wilde) hiding their illicit (and illegal) passions from the loveless authoritarian state of Oceania, is the tiny bedroom where they conduct their trysts. What makes these scenes exceptional for a Broadway production is that they do not take place onstage. Instead, they are captured from multiple angles by video cameras in another room, with the resultant feed projected on the video wall that dominates the top half of the stage.

The decision to stage these scenes in a room behind the main stage came before the rehearsal process for the original Nottingham production. Reid was brought in originally to explore the offstage concept with co-directors Rob Icke and Duncan Macmillan. “We spent a few days trying out some practical ideas, with a couple of actors playing Winston and Julia, and a basic live camera feed,” recalls Reid. “We rigged up the camera above the actors, then hid in the next room to watch them onscreen. The key question Rob and Duncan were trying to answer was how long could a scene be played out only on camera and still hold the attention, still be theatrical and compelling? At what point would we zone out from the action?”

The video designer says that the actual setup was developed in London on a rehearsal version of the set, and they found the right camera angles and blocking for the actors to cover the scenes that take place in that room. Reid says that the camera configuration has developed throughout the evolution of the show. In the original Nottingham production they had four cameras covering the room (the dimensions of which are six by 10 feet on Broadway). They added a fifth camera for the Almeida Theatre rendition in London, then added a sixth for Broadway. “With each new cast, we’ve revisited the blocking and camera angles, and for the Broadway version of the show, we rebuilt the room scenes from scratch, with Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde finding completely new blocking and shots for the scenes,” says Reid.

Citizens let out their bottled rage during a required hate session

‡‡         The “Tiled Wall”

The video surface looming over the stage is 9.5 feet high by 30 feet long and was dubbed the “Tiled Wall.” “It’s part of Chloe Lamford’s set design, a solid wall with an array of extruded tiles,” explains Reid. “When projecting onto the scenery, I think it’s most effective when the image can fill some natural boundary within the set — whether that’s a door, window, or other object — or, in the case of 1984, this ‘Tiled Wall’ above the set. Chloe designed this with an ingenious ‘leaning over’ angle, so it really looms over the action onstage.” After the Tiled Wall flies away during the final act, video is projected onto the rear wall of the Hudson Theatre and later onto the drapes comprising the back wall of the infamous Room 101 of the story.

“The tiles and distressed finish on the Tiled Wall give it a presence and a purpose when there’s no video on it,” says Reid. “Much better than a giant empty screen, which would always just be waiting for an image. I also enjoy the way our minds edit out the imperfections in the surface and we can just see past these to the projected images — something that chimes with the theme in the show about editing our own memories and perceptions of reality.”

Some pre-recorded video is shown on the Tiled Wall — specifically images of a citizen being tortured by police and forced to recant his beliefs, as well as a Big Brother montage used to get citizens riled up over the nonconformist dissention they have been trained to hate — but the most prominent video is those live shots of the lovers in their hideaway.

 

‡‡         The Cameras are Watching

The video cameras used for the production include a Marshall CV200, CV502 and a few CV343s. The cameras “are all nicely compact and HD,” and each is “adapted to the needs of the show by the wonderful Chris Kurtz, who was the production video tech,” says Reid. “So, for example, Chris came up with a mounting system for one camera, which is unclipped and carried onstage live, and a handheld system for our ‘roaming’ camera used in the interrogation scene.” Reid says that six cameras are used in the secret Antique Room plus three in other locations: in Winston’s desk lamp (“Lamp cam”), behind the door to the Antique Room (“Door cam”) and a handheld one used by a torturer in Room 101 (“Roaming cam”).

The six Antique Room cameras were named for their vantage points, including the Wall cam, Window cam, Toolbox cam, and Top cam (for a bird’s-eye view of the lovers). Reid called the fifth camera, which offers a side view of the pillow area, “Milla” (“It was the fifth element”), so when a sixth was added covering the far corner of the room, the video designer called it “Bruce.” (Milla Jovovich and Bruce Willis co-starred in the Luc Besson Sci-Fi film, The Fifth Element.)

When asked if there is a backup plan in case of technical difficulties with the cameras, Reid replies, “We’ve got a backup for the interrogation camera, a general computer backup for the video server, and a fantastic crew who are looking out for any issues.”

Julia (Olivia Wilde) and Winston (Tom Sturridge) are dominated by the omniscient presence of Big Brother. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

‡‡         Tight Quarters

The biggest challenge for the tight Antique Room setup was the blocking of the actors, who had to be positioned in just the right place, which Reid says has always been a painstaking process. “As Tom and Olivia are both film actors, they’ve been fantastic at finding just the right place to be,” he says. “Adding an extra camera for Broadway helped as it gives more coverage of the room. Also helping is a trick whereby we exploit the fact that the tiled wall doesn’t show the full height of a 16:9 feed. By electronically moving the camera signal higher or lower, we can show more than one ‘slice’ of the overall 16:9 image and have more flexibility in the shots. It does make for a challenge as the shots are finalized, as adjusting something to fit into one shot or slice may compromise another.”

Reid praises the work of his associate designer and programmer Matt Houstle in adapting the show, which previously used 4:3 SD cameras, onto the new 16:9 HD units, “and finding the new set of shots and slices for the new blocking which emerged in rehearsals,” he says. Reid adds that another tricky element was handled by Houstle, Kurtz, and the lighting team — getting the cameras and the lighting balanced between shots. “This was something that had always been extremely difficult on the older SD cameras used for previous versions of the show, and I think the Broadway version looks the best the show has ever done. I’m very grateful for all the hard work of the people behind that.”

Revealed for the callous government agent he is, O’Brien breaks Winston down physically and emotionally during the squirm-inducing torture sequence. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

 

‡‡         1984 Through the Ages

As Reid has noted, the show has gone through many incarnations: the first U.K. tour originating from the Nottingham Playhouse production, the subsequent Almeida Theatre presentation in London, three runs in the West End, further U.K. and international touring, and now the Great White Way and Australia. Rather than rest on their laurels, each production team has kept upgrading the show.

“Each time we’ve had the chance to hone and improve things, to add and adapt the earlier versions and make it even better,” says the video designer, again invoking the addition of more video cameras in later versions. The climactic moment when the lovers are caught and their bedroom dismantled by ominously attired soldiers is a striking scene change that “has always been a major technical element to realize, and it’s also been reworked and refined and improved with every iteration of the show,” explains Reid. “For Broadway, everything has been scaled up to HD resolutions. I’ve remade all the original graphical material, and we’ve re-shot all the pre-recorded material. It’s all been a great chance to keep the show fresh and relevant.”