Everyman (2015)

The Challenges of Filming Everyman

THOM NIEMANN

Our Central Park performance of Everyman doesn’t so much teach as it reminds its audience of what is truly important in our lives, as we move day to day in our own worlds, worlds that are becoming increasingly smaller as technology diminishes the need to ever look up from a screen. In a media environment where it is increasingly easy to be anonymous and to indulge in cruelty from inside that anonymity, Everyman asks us to remember that our actions are all that define us. Though told through the lens of Christian beliefs and values, the play’s idea that we are to be judged by how we act, not by what we have, is a lesson that shared across many religious teachings.

My job? To capture our morality play on camera. The film needed to fuse modern and medieval perspectives, carefully considering how best to use modern cinematic techniques while still staying true to the live enactment of medieval theater. Plays like Everyman don’t work on the Broadway stage, where the sacred boundary of the proscenium demands silence from any self respecting audience member. Here, the audience must interact. The stages is open; the line between those watching and those performing becomes blurry. By contrast, the audience of most modern media is used to an interposing screen. How, then, to make God’s appearance on screen as powerful as God’s presence on the medieval stage?

The camera affords the advantage of controlling the audience’s angle of perception: tilting down on a character weakens him, tilting up empowers the character and enhances the impression of her superiority. Many of the cues for how to shoot the performance came from the script. For example, our production of Everyman chose to keep God’s opening speech in the original Middle English. As a language, Middle English is meant to be spoken aloud and verbalized. The earthy tones of the original text give God and his messenger Death a gravity that no other character possesses. This being the case, we decided that close-ups angled up at God were the best choice to capture the actor’s facial expressions in detail as the words ripped out of his mouth in his rage against Mankind’s ignorance.

God’s Middle English also emphasizes the power of the unknown. Is every word going to be fully understood by a modern audience unfamiliar with the language? No—the power of God’s speech rather stems from the sounds of the language, not the meaning of his words. In the Middle Ages, presenting God onstage would have had a powerful effect simply because God was being portrayed in a deeply Catholic culture. In contemporary society, portraying God onstage does not have the same effect, but God’s Middle English and its unusual sounds have a power of their own that they didn’t possess during the Middle Ages. It was thus a priority to capture God’s speech on camera in a way that would underline the power of his language in live performance as much as possible.

* * *

Until all the footage was downloaded and plugged into Adobe Premiere, the team involved in editing the film had no clue that the environment of the performance would have such a profound impact. During the performance, we grabbed close-ups of almost every character, with the idea that the film would cut to them when they were introduced or had a strong reaction. However, when we pieced together the film with these planned cuts, the on-stage spatial relationships were completely lost. Comedic tension and its release in particular relied heavily on the distance between characters and between characters and audience. When, for example, Everyman mistakes Death’s demands for an account of his life as an interest in his bank accounts, the moment reads much funnier when Death is captured in the frame, the head of an audience member slightly visible in the foreground, and we see the reaction of both as Everyman delivers his line.

Our playing space also consisted of three layers dividing the performance into clearly defined vertical levels. Our use of close-ups had to be selective, in order not to lose the stage picture created by these natural levels. Even the ability to see pedestrians strolling by in the background behind the actors is important, as it gives us a visual reminder that medieval drama is not locked up in the box of the modern theater but is interactive and invites life to continue around it rather than asking it to stop.

In the end, we relied on a wide angle shot to cover the entire playing space and make entrances and exits visible as an audience member would have seen them live. Physical relationships in the performance space remained clear, and being able to see the movement of characters in and out of the playing space clarified the meaning of characters’ spatial locations. At the end of the play, for example, Strength, Beauty, Discretion, and Five Senses all leave Everyman before his reckoning. Seen from the wide angle, the exit of these four characters has a far more isolating effect. Everyman is left on the middle tier of the playing space with Knowledge and Good Deeds flanking him; the rest of the space is completely barren. The wide angle thus emphasizes Everyman’s desertion; any close up would take away from this effect.

* * *

Taking a medieval play and translating it to a modern medium proved to be challenging task. Having written and filmed movies in the past, I initially took a traditional approach to the cinematography that most television shows and movies use. Editing close-ups for portions of dialogue with the wide angle shots to remind the viewer of the full playing space would help bring out how the environment affected the play’s characters. During the editing process, however, it became apparent that we would need to adjust traditional methods of piecing together the film. The live aspect of performance in medieval drama was as much a part of the play as the actors. This is especially so for medieval drama, where the fourth wall limiting a true dialogue between the performers and the audience simply doesn’t exist. A film version of any dramatic performance is never the same as watching it live—the screen is another kind of fourth wall. This barrier simply didn’t exist during the performance of Everyman, and so our film had to attempt to be as immersive as the live performance was.

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