SCREEN ADAPTATION IN TURBULENT TIMES: A CONVERSATION WITH MEDIA HISTORIAN AND PRODUCER JOHN WYVER

HIGHEST RECOGNITION FOR IMPACTFUL RESEARCH IN REF21 ART AND DESIGN

PRACTICE RESEARCH VOICES: JENNY EVANS TALKS TO NEAL WHITE ABOUT THEIR AHRC AWARD

CREAM (Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media), University of Westminster, is a world-leading centre and pioneer in practice-based, critical, theoretical and historical research in the broad areas of art, creative and interdisciplinary practice. 

CREAM runs a dynamic programme of exhibitions, screenings  and talks throughout the year. CREAM researchers take part in wide ranging academic and public engagement activities, reflecting the diversity and international scope of our research culture. For upcoming programmes visit events.

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The CREAM doctoral programme hosts a thriving international community of researchers exploring issues in art and design, film, photography, moving image, ceramics, cultural studies, art and technology/science, and music.

SCREEN ADAPTATION IN TURBULENT TIMES: A CONVERSATION WITH MEDIA HISTORIAN AND PRODUCER JOHN WYVER

Richard III, 2022: Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

The production of Richard III by The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) will be broadcast across cinemas in the UK from the end of September. This tale of the unscrupulous rise to power of a tyrant is directed by Gregory Doran and produced for the screen by John Wyver, Professor of the Arts on Screen, University of Westminster. 

Ahead of the cinematic release of the production, Wyver shares with CREAM PhD researcher Lucy Rogers his own journey into the world of producing, his involvement with the RSC’s innovative screen adaptation series, and his extensive experience of combining academic research with the work of a producer. In this conversation, he reflects on how the relationship between theatre and television continues to evolve in response to new technologies, diversity considerations, and in order to welcome new audiences.

How do you combine your role as Professor of the Arts on Screen with being a producer for broadcast television and event cinema?

Ever since I was Television Editor at Time Out at the end of the 1970s, I have been interested in bringing together the media industry and academia and working at the border between them. This used to involve commissioning prominent figures in film and media studies to write for a magazine with a broad general audience. I also tried, often very badly, to draw on the emergent film theory of the time in weekly journalism. Then when Channel 4 started in 1982 it was possible, for maybe a decade, to work as an independent producer and explore how to bring critical analysis to innovating with the form and content of programmes. The series State of the Art which I produced with Sandy Nairne and Geoff Dunlop in 1987 is an example of that, looking at ideas and images of the 1980s with an awareness at least of theories of post-modernism.

That kind of radical work became increasingly hard to develop within television, and I would say almost impossible after both the BBC and Channel 4 changed in fundamental ways around the turn of the millennium. Challenges including cable and satellite channels, games and the Internet disrupted the previously comparatively stable duopoly of public service broadcasting, and the broadcasters increasingly concentrated on programmes that would, they hoped, achieve high audience numbers. There was less and less space for the kind of television that interested me, although with my independent production company Illuminations I have continued to produce documentaries, including recently Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today (BBC, 2020) and Coventry Cathedral: Building for a New Britain (BBC, 2021).

How did you transition into producing screen adaptations? 

From the late 1990s I was increasingly engaged in producing screen adaptations of stage work, both theatre and dance, and at the same time thinking and writing about that process. In different ways those parallel processes have occupied a lot of my time over the past two decades. I’ve worked as a screen producer with the National Theatre, the Almeida and the Donmar, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, and Wayne McGregor and Hofesh Shechter, and I’ve been particularly fortunate to collaborate extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The RSC wanted to broaden the audience for their work, and to try to overcome some of the obstacles, whether geographical or financial or simply to do with the associations of ‘theatre’ and ‘Shakespeare’, that have kept away people who might otherwise have wished to come. And in that sense the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon series, like the comparable NT Live productions from the National Theatre, have been a huge success.

I produced three television film versions of RSC productions directed by Gregory Doran: Macbeth (2000) with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter; Hamlet (2009) with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart; and Julius Caesar (2012) with Paterson Joseph, Cyril Nri and Adjoa Andoh. Then when Gregory became Artistic Director of the company he asked me to produce a series of ‘event cinema’ screen productions, RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon, starting with Richard II in 2012.

Much Ado About Nothing, 2022: Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC

Earlier this year you produced the RSC’s production of Much Ado About Nothing for the screen. What kind of impact did that have?

Much Ado About Nothing was the 30th production made for the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon series. Most of these have been broadcast live to cinemas, but COVID disrupted our plans, as it did so much else. Instead, both The Winter’s Tale in 2019 and Much Ado… were recorded for transmission on BBC Four.

Much Ado… was the first RSC Shakespeare production on the company’s main stage directed by a Black theatre-maker, the brilliant Roy Alexander Weise. With set designer Jemima Robinson and costume designs by Melissa Simon-Hartman, who has designed for Beyoncé and Notting Hill Carnival. Roy conjured up a kind of Afro-futurist world that looked amazing on stage – and which I think we were able to translate to the screen to good effect. He also commissioned an original score by Nigerian-born British guitarist Femi Temowo. And as Roy said, “By setting this production in an imagined future reality, we have the opportunity to see our own world through new eyes. What has the potential to be different? What capacity do we have for change? What attitudes remain the same? And are we ok with that?”

Like almost all of the other RSC Live From… screen versions, Much Ado… was mostly shot with five cameras in front of an audience in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But for this production, working closely with the screen director Indra Bhose, we experimented by shooting certain sequences with a single camera, and separate from a performance, using the more familiar screen language of drama. This allowed us to get closer to the actors in certain scenes, to suggest a stronger sense of intimacy with them, rather than observing them from a certain distance, as can be the case with some multi-camera recordings. In screen versions that we’ve recorded since then we have taken this experimentation further in ways that I think are very interesting.

Much Ado… has had more than 150,000 views on BBC Four and BBCiPlayer, where it remains until the start of April 2023. That’s perhaps not a huge audience when you compare it with, say, the millions who watch an episode of The Great British Bake-off, but it’s very significant for a contemporary production of Shakespeare. Plus, that recording will have an online life for years and we expect it to be widely used in education.

Much Ado About Nothing, 2022: Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC

What you are working on now?

Since Much Ado… across the summer we’ve recorded three further RSC productions, including the second and third parts of Henry VI, which are titled Rebellion and Wars of the Roses. And Richard III premieres in cinemas across the UK on September 28. In the screen versions of the first two we responded to the strongly cinematic staging of director Owen Horsley, integrating film elements and trying out split screen sequences. Richard III is perhaps more classical, more traditional in the way in which we have created the screen version, but it’s a great staging by Gregory Doran with a stellar performance by Arthur Hughes as the king. Arthur was born with a rare condition known as radial dysplasia. His right wrist is disfigured and he identifies as ‘limb different’. Watching a disabled actor play this role, and hearing all of the jibes and insults that the other characters direct towards him, makes you see the play in a completely different way – and I think the screen adaptation will bring that out very powerfully.

Quite separately from that, I’m also working on a book about early television in Britain. The history of television in the years between 1925 and 1939 has mostly been written either in terms of the technology or as institutional history, whereas I’m really interested in the programmes of those years – although of course we have almost no moving image records. But there is a huge amount of other archival traces, including production memos, photographs, reviews and so forth, and I’m trying to reconstruct what some of the earliest programmes were like – including of course many adaptations of stage productions of the time.

Richard III, 2022: Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

It’s been tough times for theatre. How have you seen live performance adapt to the challenges of recent years?

Lockdown focussed attention on screen versions of stage productions. Initially, companies like NT and the RSC made available recordings of earlier shows, but quite soon companies like Creation Theatre began to develop shows for digital platforms, making original work for YouTube and Zoom. There was a remarkable explosion of creativity, and I think we’ll see ideas from there begin to impact more traditional theatre forms over the coming years, as well as digital-only theatre develop unique approaches to performance.

Audiences are returning to theatres, although more slowly than perhaps companies need to balance their books. Many musicals and comedies are doing great business, perhaps unsurprisingly, but in many contexts drama is finding it hard to tempt audiences back. As to whether this is a long-term, structural change, it’s probably too early to say, but combined with the debts from lockdown and with the largely unsympathetic attitude towards the arts of the current government, these are unquestionably difficult times for those running companies looking to create challenging work.

Richard III, 2022: Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

What does the future hold, both for you and for the forms of stage to screen adaptation? 

Throughout all of this production work, I’ve been interested in documenting the processes, reflecting on questions raised by stage to screen adaptation, and relating our work to the rich history of such forms, which stretches back to early cinema. I’ve written one monograph about this tradition, Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History (Bloomsbury, 2019), and co-edited with Amanda Wrigley a collection of essays, Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television (Manchester University Press, 2022), and I intend to continue chronicling and analysing stage to screen adaptations.

In some ways, I’m a touch pessimistic about the possibilities for further productions. With All’s Well That Ends Well we will have made a screen version of 34 of the 36 Shakespeare plays that were included in the 1623 First Folio. But the market is such that I’m not sure that with the RSC we’ll be able to complete the “missing” two, which are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry VIII, or All is True.

At the same time, there is much more experimentation taking place with screen versions of stage productions. I was excited to see what the Almeida did with the online live presentation of their staging of Macbeth last year. And by the time this interview appears we will be in post-production with All’s Well That Ends Well for release in 2023. 

With this, we are less concerned with offering apparently seamless or unmediated access to the stage production, which has always been the ideal of ‘classical’ adaptations. Instead, we are exploring a range of filmic styles, such as split-screens and on-screen text, to extend and complement the Stratford staging. Stage director Blanche Macintyre has made a strongly contemporary production that integrates social media, and we are aiming to take the ideas of that onto the screen in highly distinctive ways. So, while budgets will undoubtedly be tighter for future adaptations, I am excited that all kinds of innovations will emerge. I’m confident that the history of stage-to-screen work, which as I say is already more than a century old, will continue to develop in fascinating ways across the next hundred years. 

All’s Well That Ends Well, 2022: Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC

Richard III premieres in cinemas across the UK on 28th September 2022.

HIGHEST RECOGNITION FOR IMPACTFUL RESEARCH IN REF21 ART AND DESIGN

CREAM scored the highest recognition for impactful research according to the UK’s Research Excellence Framework 2021. The results, published on May 12, confirmed its place as a world-leading centre in art and design with an outstanding research environment. 

The REF2021 panel for the unit of submission Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory judged 100% of CREAM’s impact case studies to be world-leading (4*). 86.7% of its research outputs were judged to be world-leading and internationally excellent, with a majority in the highest category: 51.8% of CREAM’s submitted outputs were classified as world-leading (4*), and 34.9% internationally excellent (3*). CREAM’s research environment was classified as 90% world-leading (4*). Overall, 70% of CREAM’s research scored 4*. The Times Higher Education GPA ranking has placed CREAM in the top five.

May Adadol Ingawanij and Neal White, CREAM Co-Directors said:

“We are delighted by this stunning result and are grateful to the very large number of CREAM researchers that have made this possible. Special congratulations to the Black Music Research Unit directed by Mykaell Riley, the Ceramics Research Centre directed by Clare Twomey, and Joshua Oppenheimer for leading projects with phenomenal social and cultural impact. 

In the year that CREAM celebrates its 20th anniversary, the REF2021 result is an unequivocal recognition of the strength, impact and diversity of our research culture. We have strong, proud roots as a Centre for practice and interdisciplinary arts research with a global contemporary focus. In our third decade we resolve to play a leading role in nurturing the next generations of researchers engaging with key global issues through artistic and creative research.”  

PRACTICE RESEARCH VOICES: JENNY EVANS TALKS TO NEAL WHITE ABOUT THEIR AHRC AWARD

Jenny Evans (Principal Investigator) talks to Neal White (Co-Investigator, an artist and Co-Director of CREAM) about their Arts and Humanities Research Council award; Practice Research Voices (PRVoices).  

Stuart Cumberland, Installation view, The Painting Show, Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2016 

Started in January 2022, the PRVoices project has built on the foundation work carried out at the University of Westminster between 2018 and 2021 – a collaboration with CREAM and its practice researchers – to develop an institutional repository platform that captures, shares and makes discoverable not only traditional text based publications and datasets but all research outputs including the non-text based outputs and collections that are created as part of practice research. PR Voices aimed to review the University of Westminster approach to art and design portfolios submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2021 and identify how they could be scaled to meet the needs of researchers, not only in art and design but also other practice research disciplines, such as architecture, music, performing arts, media and beyond.  

NW: Drawing on your expertise in Libraries and Research administration, could you talk about how you see the project scaling up from capturing, preserving and making discoverable (where possible) the audit of our own REF portfolios to informing standards to enable the capture of all practice research? 

JE: University repositories were originally developed to enable (mainly STEM) researchers to share their research publications and make them open access. More recently there has been a move to share research data (including software) via data repositories. This has resulted in platforms that are focussed on these types of ‘outputs’ and discoverability mechanisms (e.g. Google Scholar) that recognise these – often a single file, usually a PDF. Also, STEM researchers, care less about how their research looks in repositories, whereas arts researchers do. 

NW: In other words, many of our colleagues are concerned that our research does not always look great in many repository solutions, and these are incredibly varied. 

JE: Exactly. When I joined the University in late 2016 (from Middlesex) I was very aware of this landscape and when I discovered we had the opportunity to work with an external company; Haplo (who developed our online research environment for staff and graduate researchers) to build a repository that could not only handle publications and data but also practice research – I jumped at it. This was something that could only happen with buy-in from our research community. I was extremely grateful to be able to work in such close partnership with colleagues in CREAM. 

NW: I had worked very closely with Library colleagues in my previous institution to try and improve how we captured practice research in our institutional repository. So when I joined CREAM at Westminster, a pioneer in practice research, there was already recognition that we needed to address this area, and Prof Tom Corby (now at UAL) had seen the opportunity to use the software to improve how we managed/prepared our REF submission. While this didn’t all quite happen in the order we planned, we have made a huge amount of progress – which has resulted in the recent publication of some of our REF2021 portfolios 

Why does this matter? So much work goes into preparing our portfolio submissions. In the end, REF de-railed our plans a little as the REF Outputs module development took priority and there just wasn’t time in the end to use it quite as we planned. However, what Jenny and her team (Repository and Open Access Manager, Nina Watts and Research Data Management Officer, Holly Ranger) with input from colleagues in CREAM, have launched is a repository that recognises and reflects the nuances of practice-based arts, design and media research, and what can be made open access from our REF2021 portfolio submissions. 

Mykaell Riley: Bass Culture, [screenshot], doi.org/10.34737/qqvqz 

JE: What struck me was that our arts (and architecture) research, both very high performing areas within the University, were simply missing from the institutional picture of our research activities. Research funders don’t mandate open access for practice research, and anyway open research for these disciplines looks a bit different – it’s a combination of open access and data sharing – where you might not make every single file openly available, but you can capture them together, make open those elements that can be made open, and then the rest can be hidden from public view.

This is also really important in terms of preservation of this research – you cannot preserve content you haven’t captured. 

NW: When we say preservation, we are talking about actions supported by policy and strategy to ensure access to files, and therefore knowledge of process, methods and insights in the long term. So how did we get to the PRVoices project? 

JE: Over the past 3.5 years, I have spoken at many conferences about the work we have done and the lessons we have learned. What was clear was that many different communities including researchers and practitioners but also repository managers, research data managers, archivists, records managers, curators, librarians, software developers and research managers, were struggling with this. So bringing together these voices was so important, as was having that recognition from a research funder.  

We were also able to contribute our perspective about everything we had learned to our data gathering colleagues at Goldsmiths, as part of a report commissioned by the Practice-Research Advisory Group, and authored by James Bulley Ozdin Sahin (2021) ‘How can practice research be shared?’.  

Finally, in order to effect real change, this work had to engage a diverse international community. Discoverability of research links to search engines like Google, also connects up to metadata, which is what enables different systems to talk to each other. While persistent identifiers (like DOIs) make it easier to find research and researchers, all of which are internationally recognised standards. These standards don’t work very well for practice research and we had been working with colleagues at Jisc to raise awareness of this. Once you get these standards right then all the relevant software/systems can recognise this research. And the organisations that own these standards need to know that the community agrees on what this research looks like. That’s why taking it beyond Westminster and bringing on board Jisc, the British Library and Kings College London was so important. 

NW: In terms of defining the PRVoices Project, we are taking institutional based knowledge capture and moving beyond this to see how we might create an open access standard, so that other institutions, including those beyond academia, can produce knowledge based on these standards without the draining investment of resources, time and energy. 

JE: PRVoices is one of a number of projects funded by AHRC’s Scoping Future Data Services for the Arts and Humanities call which underpins their infrastructure for Digital Arts and Humanities (iDAH) programme, part of a strategic approach to arts and humanities infrastructure that aims to enable knowledge with impact. (We are also collaborating with the SPARKLE project, led by the University of Leeds). Our project focuses on using and updating existing open-source software and open standards, enabling the work we do to scale to other software and so benefiting all those engaged in and supporting practice research. It will also inform a platform bid to AHRC to develop an Open Library of Practice Research and its associated supporting and enabling environment.    

NW: Thanks Jenny. We look forward to seeing how the project progresses.