‘Coming soon to a theatre near you’: Online Theatre Trailers

Coming soon to a theatre near you’,  ‘Online theatre trailers lost the plot?’

At the end of the first decade of the new millennium, theatre critics like those in the above articles started quite loudly acknowledging (well… mostly lamenting) the presence of a new form of promotional material for stage theatre: the theatre trailer. Despite theatre trailers ranging back as far as the start of the film industry, as far as some critics were concerned: this was a new phenomenon, shaking the foundations of theatre*.

*presumably this negative hype was also to generate traffic to blogs and sites, so let’s take it with a pinch of salt – for now.

This somewhat frosty reception says a lot about how elements of the industry wanted to define theatre in relation to film (if you’re interested in this debate check out this). Tied up with the rise of live-streaming to cinemas and emerging from a similar context (check out Martin Barker’s fantastic book on the topic), theatre trailers now form a key part of audience engagement for amateur and professional, big and small companies alike. It’s now common to see theatre companies running their own YouTube channels, and if you go to a cinema you’re quite likely to see something for a live theatre event.

But it’s the internet that has become a major site for contemporary promotional videos, in part thanks to a shift in consumer culture and connectivity, resulting in ‘YouTube culture’. Indeed, the introduction of theatre ‘trailers’ led critic Lyn Gardner to suggest that theatre itself was going ‘down the YouTube’.  For all the criticism, theatre trailers function within the same industrial and social framework as film trailers, and came be used to consider how the industry is maintaining an identity online. Sometimes made in-house, sometimes by professional (movie) trailer companies; theatre trailers at once echo and reject the conventional aesthetic trends for film trailers, and what we see is an industry that is in the process of using different promotional aesthetics. This flux draws attention to the identity of theatre on screen.

Looking at theatre trailers overall (and you can read my methods and underlying research here), there is a strong indication that overall theatre trailers replicate the film trailer: we see a recorded performance edited together within a discontinuous narrative, audio narrative bridges, spatial and temporal ellipsis that typifies a film trailer aesthetic (like the final minute of the Casino Royal Trailer but often much slower in pace – like this warhorse trailer).

Yet for all its similarities with the film trailer, many theatre trailers seemingly avoid the presentation of a holistic fictional world. Film trailers promote in the same medium of the product, but theatre trailers and theatre products are in two different media – with the exception of Livecast theatre that complicates matters no end!). Instead of being nice, neat and organised, theatre promotion- like life, is messy, disorganised, and changing more rapidly than we can document.

The aesthetics of theatre trailers is in flux with several overlapping modes of presentation. So much so that (as Honour Bayes notes) it is not always possible to discern the narrative of the product being promoted. Yet through looking at theatre trailers overall (and I assure you, I have obsessed about this) three broad aesthetic features emerge – which I’ve dubbed; The Stage world, The Cathartic Event, and the Short Film. By no means a rigid framework, trailers can belong to multiple categories, and by no means designed to judge quality, these aesthetic trends serve as a way identifying the kinds of ways theatre may exist on screen and forms a starting point for future work.

So let’s take a look at what I mean with these sweeping categories (and they are sweeping, let’s not have any illusions). The first off; The Stage World. In this, the presentation of theatre performance is often from the point of an audience, the camera is largely fixed, the set is clearly visible as a theatre set and there is a distinctly static feel to the event: it’s obviously theatre – you can see the mechanics of it all. Typified by the South Bank’s Chouf Ouchouf trailer.

The second kind of aesthetic, and it seems to be less popular within the industry, could be called the cathartic event: this largely consists of audience interviews with little to no footage of the performance itself, audiences and creator address the camera and emphasise through dialogue the ‘live experience’, it’s the trailer equivalent of a friend telling you about a movie they’ve seen. In short this is a trailer that unlike the stage world that sticks to emphasising ‘theatre-ness’ and ‘theatricality’, avoids the ‘free sample’ aesthetic in favour of mystery and an unknown experience being conveyed to the audience through celebrity and audience endorsement.

And finally, by far the most popular, thanks to big players like the RSC, the ENO and the NT, we have the short film aesthetic. Within such a format the performance space takes on a diegetic world in which there is less emphasis on the onscreen audience, the action is set on a stage, or a real world environment but attention is not drawn to it as with the stage aesthetic – you’d have to really focus on the background to see audience members for example. Within this there is little to no discernible performance space, and often indications of it being theatre are confined to the end of the trailer.

Here we see it integrates direct character address to construct a narrative, with the close ups of the body rather than the performance space: it avoids overtly suggesting ‘theatre’. Editing features strongly in creating a sense of a narrative in contrast to the Stage World aesthetic that presents large sections, while it lacks establishing shots and the conventions of Hollywood, you could be forgiven for initially thinking this is a film.

These are broad aesthetics and the ‘ideal type’ that I’ve listed here, but they serve a purpose; to orientate discussion of theatre on screen in an age of media convergence. Despite early criticism from those in the media there are some (in my opinion) fantastic trailers out there, and the ways of presenting theatre as an industry, and individual products within it, offer the opportunity to explore theatre’s identity on screen.

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Dr Ed Vollans (Arts Marketing Association) received his PhD from the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies. He co-runs the watching the trailer project at www.watchingthetrailer.com and regularly bores people talks about all things trailer related.

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