Filming the Madness
For my contribution to our end-of-semester production of the Chester Antichrist, I chose to stand behind the camera and capture all the hard work of my fellow classmates. While this meant that I was not as involved with performing the play as others, it did mean I got to gain insight into both the media and the performance elements of the final play. I had the unique first-hand experience of watching the medieval nature of our play directly impact our final performance. In turn, I witnessed how the medieval nature of that performance heavily influenced the filming and editing choices we made in producing our filmed version of the play.
Throughout the second half of the semester, my classmates and I were repeatedly encouraged to consider what it would’ve been like to perform the Chester Antichrist in the early 1400s, and to contrast that experience to modern impressions, ideals, societal expectations, and present-day interests. Through these encouragements, we transformed what was originally a satirical commentary on the fifteenth century to a performance that offered commentary on modern-day religion as it currently stands. We were able to show continuities between the fifteenth century and our present day, with regard to how we see certain religious figures and how we perceive their sanctity. As we examined Jesus, Antichrist, and the Archangel Michael more closely, we also started to notice how the ideas these figures represented then and now differ. Delving into these sensitive issues of religion and its influence forced us to sit and really think about how best to represent the play. We expected our New York City audience in 2017 to be largely progressive and open-minded, but we had to be aware of how the language of our rewritten script might offend certain demographics. At the same time, we were able to experiment with content and themes that were modern in import and would not have been available at the time the play was written.
In this regard, our performance was heavily influenced by ideals and practices from both the Middle Ages and our modern day. To faithfully represent the original script and its medieval practice, we had to find a balance between modern and old through ingenious scriptwriting and performance decisions. The location in which we chose to stage the play, for example, contributed to this balance. During the Middle Ages, popular plays were often staged outside using minimal resources, in the public eye for everybody to see. Similarly, we attempted to find a performance space that would allow a high level of intimacy with our audience in a public, everyday setting. The courtyard plaza at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus offered sufficient familiarity to be intimate and public at the same time.
“[T]he media aspect of our production actually ended up echoing the dramatic ideals of the fourteenth century… we wanted to build an awareness of authenticity into the final video… ”
Maintaining authenticity in performance while adding something new seemed an obvious choice for our production of the Chester Antichrist. Where I was surprised, however, was the degree to which themes and ideals from medieval drama had a role in shaping the content of the final edited video of the performance. Acknowledging that the ability to film our performance stands in stark contrast to the recording options available during the Middle Ages, the media aspect of our production actually ended up echoing the dramatic ideals of the fourteenth century. In making the film, we wanted to build an awareness of authenticity into the final video, rather than focusing on newer modern themes.
Preparing for filming faced my partner Kathleen and I with many hindrances that often left us scratching our heads over how we could produce a quality film with so many unknowns. Because medieval performances are highly improvised, because they use minimal resources, because they’re staged outdoors, they often have to adapt in the moment. Factors like temperature, weather, current events, and audience makeup all could force the actors to change aspects of script, performance, and staging as needed. In the interest of authenticity, we chose to make this a very prominent aspect of our production, so that our actors had to improvise lines and movements during the performance. This made filming difficult because of the inherent element of uncertainty it introduced. We had to choose filming methods on the spot in order to keep up with the ever-adapting play. What we saw in rehearsal one day might not be there during the final performance.
As a result, our filming and editing had to be similarly adaptable. On the day of the performance, we kept track of impromptu lines and actions by keeping our shots wide angled and general. Later, during the editing process, we had to make up for certain gaps in footage while still managing to allow the performance’s continuity to flow unperturbed. At times, it felt like the play was gave way to a mass of uncertainty, a madness that, though not obvious in our final performance, was present throughout the preparation that led up to it. At any point someone could and would change the script, which then meant that the actors had to approach the scene differently. As a result, we had to adapt our plans on how to shoot each scene in order to get most out of each shot.
Despite these challenges, we came together and put on a flowing performance that spoke to and surprised the audience, allowing them to appreciate the medieval play on a level that went further than its face value. From this performance, we constructed a film that adhered to the medieval themes and motifs the play explored. Accomplishing this forced us to be very active. Instead of being a passive viewer and letting the cameras roll, Kathleen and I were dynamically involved through our desire to capture all the impromptu movements and lines that the actors improvised during the play. We often found ourselves running around the perimeter of the audience in order to capture something unscripted that we needed to make the film that much better.
After the performance was over, there was still work to be done: we had the difficult task of building medieval aspects into the film to maintain the project’s authenticity, while taking on the technical work of cutting and assembling our footage to make an accurate and interesting film. That task was ultimately rewarding. In the end, it was the work of tying modern perspectives and opinions together with the medieval content of our play that made this project and this class so challenging and unique.