At the end of the first decade of the new millennium, theatre critics like those linked above 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, and existing during the development of the film trailer itself, as far as some critics were concerned: this was a new phenomenon, shaking the foundations of theatre*.
*presumably this 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 saw theatre defined or constructed in relation to film (if you’re interested in this debate check out Philip Auslander's discussion of liveness, here). 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. So theatre isn't clearly-divided from film (nor would I suggest it ever has been when we consider the history of the film industry).
The point, in short, is that theatre trailers like book trailers and videogame trailers are a 'thing', a cultural phenomenon. This phenomenon pushes into crisis the broad (and very problematic) popular definition of a trailer as a selection of clips or highlights from a movie. These theatre trailers are essentially short films, sometimes shot as short films, other times made up of recorded theatre (which potentially...makes it a film?). What follows then, are some initial findings of theatre trailers and a brief exploration of their aesthetics broadly adapted from my recent PhD thesis (available via all good libraries with a bit of searching).
In many respects the broad categories of theatre trailers I've identified in this blog post have now been surpassed by the development of the industry and so these categories need to be treated with caution but they demonstrate two things: firstly that theatre trailers exist within a 'trailer format' and secondly that are capable and in the process of developing their own style, and this could potentially be used to help us define and understand exactly what a film trailer could look like within the broadest sense of a definition either through including theatre trailers in the category of trailers in general, or through rejecting them, and therein highlighting boundaries.
The first kind of aesthetic identified is at it's heart 'recorded theatre', the camera remains static perhaps replicating the experience of the in-house audience seated, unable to fly through the air in fantastic close-ups or to use overhead shots editing is often ellipsis, if used at all. Here it's very easy to see the performance space highlighted as such within the frame, sometimes with audience members visible in the foreground this kind of aesthetic might remind you of home videos of school theatre productions and while technically less skilled in the creation process this kind of trailer gets right to the heart of the matter; there can be little doubt this is stage theatre. This aesthetic seems to be popular with smaller stage productions as well as being used in early theatre trailers after the turn of the millennium.
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.
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.
Ed's post this week, originally featured on the 'And now....from Norwich' Blog with minor changes therein, and we thank the 'And now...' team for permission to repost.