Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt
Michael Bettencourt
Digitizing Theatre - Part 2

In May 2006 I wrote a Scene4 essay called "Digitizing Theatre," in which I mused about how playwrights and theatres might move forward into using web resources to promote theatrical work.

Three years later, the urgency is even more, well, urgent.  Not only has the migration to the web on all fronts accelerated, it is where the future will be, and is, taking place.  This is not BillGatesian hype but a hard reality: just ask any remaining working journalist today about where his or her publication is headed in order to survive, and it's not in putting more hard copies in self-serve bins on street corners.

This migration (isn't that an interesting phrase, with its redolence of refugees leaving a defunct place for one hopefully more funct) is not only dictated by economics but also shifting attention-span patterns based on the axiom of "don't make me think" (the title of Steve Krug's seminal book on web design).

At work we are debating about printing hard-copy program guides mailed out to school principals (i.e., very expensive old model) versus web-versions easily downloadable and web-pages scripted to be scanned rather than read (i.e., very inexpensive new model).  No brainer, especially for a not-for-profit organization in parlous economic times.

In these discussions I have started using a phrase that describes my own experience in web-site visiting: "slurping" versus "sipping," that is, getting it all down quickly instead of doing the pondering review.

I have further argued to my boss and colleagues that "reading," in any sense that we of the "digital immigrants" strain of the population understand it, is largely absent from web-based presentations because of the poor resolutions of computer screens.  Because the eyes scan a web page to select out information (the axiom, "don't make me think" also means "make it quick") the eyes and their attached brain essentially treat a web page as a slide show, though a clunky and static one, with the eyes doing the "sliding."

Instead of (or in addition to) having that all-important downloadable document (ah, how we of the Gutenberg generation love our portable reading material!), I'm arguing we need to make Flash presentations for all of the essential components of our programs — 2- to 3-minute stand-alone intros to core principles and practices.  And not talking-head presentations, either, but clever congloms of graphics, sound/music (which can include voiceover), Ken-Burnsish pan/zoom on still photos, and so on — in short, self-contained and tasty lozenges of information that use the easy delight of the visual presentation to slip in some substantive information.

Yes, they're little more than advertisements.  Yes, they only worsen the situation of people not having enough patience to be patient with taking time to learn something.  Yes, they are indispensible these days.

Here's how I know this.

We use iContact for our email blasts/newsletters.  I had the charge of finding a company to do this service for us. I investigated 15 different companies, so I had a good exposure to the many ways companies offering a similar service market themselves in order to make their product stand out.

The thing that convinced me to go with iContact (in addition to the fact that they provide an easy-to-use system, excellent pricing for non-profits, and tech support people to whom I can talk either by phone or live chat) was their suite of video tutorials, catalogued by function and smoothly introductive in their content.

Spending 15 minutes watching five or six of these easy-to-digest presentations readied me to take on the tasks my boss wanted me to do in a way that wading through the word-based explanations on other sites never made me do. 

In fact, when I came to a site that did not offer me a visual way to learn about what they offered, I tended to give it less regard, even if it might have offered me a better service.  With the word-based sites I had to "think" in a way that distracted and bored me — I had to "winnow" on my own; with iContact, all I had to do was pay attention while the videos did the thinking — the winnowing — for me.

So what does all this mean for theatre, for my theatre?

I have embarked on my own limited effort to make my plays "web-abled."  If I had world enough and time (and money), I would hire actors, have a rehearsal period, rent a space, do a three-camera set-up (with the right filming crew), run through the play, expertly edit it, and upload three minutes of it to YouTube.

But there is never world enough and time and money for this — and I'm not sure this would even be the right format.

So I have approached this from a different angle, using a few simple principles.  First, any software I use I have to already own or obtain for free (that is, legitimately free, not by pirating something). Second, what I produce must only run two to three minutes in order to make it viewable on my website and on YouTube (and emailable).  Third, it must have a visual "feel" to it, that is, crafted primarily as a movie, aware of the medium's language, requirements, process.

What I have begun to craft are, in essence, silent movies with sound effects (my version of the foley artists for radio theatre) and musical accompaniment.

For software, I use Microsoft PowerPoint as my starting point.  (I'm using 2003, which I already have on my machine — I could also use, if I wanted to go all "free" software, Open Office's Impress.)  I'm trying to learn Flash, but it's a bit of a slog, so PowerPoint becomes my workhorse at the moment. (There is much that can be done with PowerPoint if one knows how to mine its effects and transitions.  It's clunky but workable.)

For raw material I use photos from past performances as well as the text of the scripts (with effects like fades, wipes, etc.)  But I also use whatever material I can scrounge from Creative Commons (remember, "free"), especially for musical accompaniment and photos from Flickr. (I highly recommend Creative Commons, especially for the music.)

Once I've got the production done, I use iSpring Free, which converts PowerPoint's "ppt" file to a Flash "swf" file with an HTML page that can be uploaded to one's website or emailed.  (iSpring offers a Pro version, but remember: legitimately free software, which iSpring is.) However, iSpring's SWF format cannot be converted into any other format, such as AVI or MP4, and it can't be uploaded to YouTube.

But I've got that base covered as well.  Acoolsoft Software has a free program called PPT2YouTube that will convert PPT into MP4, the format YouTube likes.

So, I can get the original PowerPoint converted for my website and for YouTube for free.  In order to edit music (mostly just do fade-in and fade-outs), I use the GNU GPL-licensed Audacity, which can work with MP3 files and also export the edited file as MP3 (with the proper add-on).  (I use MP3 files whenever I can, and the music at Creative Commons is downloaded as MP3.)

And if I need to convert the MP4 file into some other format (AVI, WMV), or to a smaller format (say, from the 640x480 format for YouTube to 320x240), I use Super © (Simplified Universal Player Encoder & Renderer), another free program.

I don't have anything completed yet — at least completed enough to show.  But I am having a whale of time doing this work because it forces me to re-think the "page to stage" tenet when the "stage" is a PowerPoint slide and I have to re-craft the material to fit the medium.  It's exciting, in no small measure because I am learning about other aspects of my plays that weren't apparent to me when the words squatted inert in ordered sentences.

In my 2006 essay, I tried to address what some might believe would be lost in a transformative process like this: the "liveness" of live theatre. Here's what I said then, and I think it still applies three years later:

    I agree that the "liveness" of theatre is its special hook, but that "liveness" does not necessarily come out of the fact that live bodies occupy the same darkened space at the same time. (Any of us can recall "live" performances that felt dead and inert.) "Liveness" inheres in the synaptic connections made between audience and performers by the machinery of the production — and as long as the machinery enables those connections to be made, then it doesn't matter what the machinery is: stage lights and memorized lines or digitized bits in a computer workstation or some combination of both (or many other things). The important thing is the "connect" — it's the connect that makes us feel the "live."

    Finding ways to get outside the usual parameters of theatre would also liberate playwrights from the tyranny of having to depend on the kindnesses of strangers to get a production. In a sense, playwrights have always had this option: save some money, rent a theatre, send out the invites, rehearse the piece, open the doors, pay off the debts, start saving money again. But finding new ways to digitize themselves as playwrights gives them more power to define for themselves how they can get their names and works out there. After all, it is about getting seen and heard, and if the usual route of petitioning the gatekeepers of artistic directors and festival managers fails to shake the fruit from the tree, then it's time to find new trees to shake.

If anyone out there is working in this way, I'd love to hear from you. Email me at, and we'll talk shop.


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©2009 Michael Bettencourt
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

Read his theatre reviews in Scene4's Qreviews
For more of his Scene4 columns and articles, check the Archives


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October 2009

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October 2009

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