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The Essential Guide to Katie Mitchell's Live Cinema

At the start of lock down, in 2020, I was lucky enough to be one of a small group of drama teachers to take part in a webinar Q & A with Mitchell, organised by the Royal Court Education Department. This was such a treat, to have an hour with Katie, discussing her process in detail. Within the webinar, she also shared some specific ideas for exploring and creating her unique Live Cinema style with students. In this Blog, I provide a summary of her varied career and a step-by-step guide to creating live cinema, on a minimal budget. All the resources on from the Blog can be downloaded from our FREE Resource Library, in the Practitioners and Genres Folder. If you haven't registered, you can sign up here.

Katie Mitchell's Work & Methodology

Katie Mitchell has created over one hundred shows throughout a thirty-two year career and her work can be divided into two main phases: Naturalism and Live Cinema. She has worked in mainstream theatre, staged text-based plays (both classic and new plays), Opera and Live Cinema.

In the webinar, Mitchell summarised her key ideas and methodology as follows:

  • Deconstruction of text

  • Stanislavskian method of creating a character

  • Use of technology to enhance the performance

  • Re-interpretation of classic texts

  • Stage imagery is important

In the first sixteen years of Mitchell's career, from 1989, until 2005, Naturalism and the approaches of the practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski dominated her style and work. In the webinar, she spoke about how this phase started in 1989 when, in her early twenties, she went on a six month trip to Russia. This was two weeks after the Berlin wall came down and opened up so many possibilities for working with a range of European Theatre-Makers and Directors. She returned from the trip with what she refers to as her 'basic Stanislavskian toolkit'. Stanislavski's approaches can be considered as two main phases: the early emotion memory work and his later focus on physical actions. Mitchell was keen to emphasise that she is most interested in the latter phase of his work; the method of physical actions and the construction and appearance of emotion from the outside/ in.

For sixteen years she created productions which were naturalistic in all the main theatres in the UK. She staged classic texts, written by playwrights such as Strindberg and Euripides, but also modern texts and new writing. All of these texts had similar subject matter and dealt with the female experience, something which remains central to her work.

The Female Experience

The year 2006 was a turning point in Mitchell's career. Stemming from her frustration with the 'well-made narrative', which she says "so often focuses on male experience", she started to experiment with new forms and created her first Live Cinema production. The text she chose to translate onto the stage was the Virginia Woolf novel Waves. Mitchell placed the female experience at the heart of the production, using Foley sound effects and video cameras. One live cinema play text she also staged was Strindberg's Miss Julie, but from the point of view of the least important female character- the cook. By removing the original text and focusing the narrative on the most oppressed character, Mitchell uses theatrical form to politically refocus texts. She explained in the webinar about a need to look beyond plays, due to the "lack of texts with central female characters or interesting feminist story lines". Examples of other novels she has staged during this time include Yellow Wallpaper (1890) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Malady of Death (1988) by Marguerite Duras.

Live Cinema

In 2008, Mitchell was invited to work in Germany, which marked the start of her International career. Her first production, in Cologne, was a Franz Krotz' play called Request Programme, which has no dialogue but describes the actions of woman's life leading up to suicide. This was her first European Live Cinema production.The set design for the production depicted the woman's apartment and Mitchell suspended a screen above the stage. There were five cameras moving around on stage at very high speed, with eight hundred different camera positions and the editor cutting video footage live.

"Live Cinema is more about film than theatre- it's a flexible, visual language"- Katie Mitchell

Following the Krotz production in 2008, Mitchell did a further twelve Live Cinema shows in Germany, Austria and France. In these productions, she started to really explore the technical challenges of combining theatre and film, and push the boundaries of what is possible in live performance. One production was set in a stationary train carriage, for example, but she experimented with lights, cameras and sound to create the effect of a moving train. In Live Cinema, Mitchell talks about how cameras are used "to get inside the character’s head". Voice-overs (usually performed by two actors in a booth, speaking a characters' thoughts aloud) are an integral part of the form, with only twenty percent of each show made up of spoken dialogue. The effect she wants to create with this is one of subjectivity, with the audience gaining a unique insight an into the main (usually female) character's thoughts and perspective.

When rehearsing Live Cinema productions, Mitchell explains that she works 'shot by shot', cutting (on average) every seven seconds, before moving onto something called ‘threading’, when she works on scene transitions. She was keen to express that there is no improvisation on the performance night but that everything is meticulously prepared, rehearsed and choreographed, even to the point of considering where the camera operators move on stage and when they go under or over the leads and wires!

Exploring and Creating Live Cinema with Students

In the second part of the webinar, Katie Mitchell offered the following ideas for exploring and creating Live Cinema with students.

1) Ask students to find a piece of writing that interests them. (In order to stay faithful to Mitchell's style and methodology, this should be a text with a central female character or students can adapt the narrative of the text to focus on a minor female character).

2) All scripts for Live Cinema are film scripts rather than theatre scripts. Students must create a film script, with around eighty percent voice-over and 'thoughts aloud'.

3) Ask students to think about the Soundtrack. (Mitchell is hugely influenced by film sound effects and music, both literal and abstract, and how it can indicate shifts in psychology and mood).

4) Students can then start to use their phones to film at stage level. Suspend a white sheet or screen above the stage to project onto project live onto. (A projector can be purchased for around £50 and then can be connected wirelessly to the students' I-Phones).

5) Students must then consider carefully what style of theatre they are creating. e.g. naturalistic/ thriller/ expressionistic.

6) In terms of lighting, Mitchell suggests avoiding the use of theatre lights. Instead, she suggests using practicals and house lamps, as you can focus them more easily and experiment more. It is important at this stage to explore what the light does on camera and use light coming from the side and front of the stage, as opposed to from above.

7) Students must experiment with film acting or acting for camera.

8) Students must plan each shot in seven second chunks, thinking about when to 'cut'. Mitchell suggested some students being dedicated camera operators and one student operating a speaker (which could be attached to a broom handle as a boom!)

9) Students can create storyboards at this stage, planning which shots are close-ups, medium and long-shots. (We have created the perfect Story Board Template for this, which can be downloaded from our Resource Library).

10) Continue to rehearse and present the Live Cinema performance to an audience!

We have created two new resources to accompany the Blog, a two-page Student Guide to Katie Mitchell and Story boarding Live Cinema in PDF and Editable formats. If you've already registered, both resources can be downloaded from the Resource Library in the Practitioners and Genres Folder or you can register here.


If you enjoyed this Blog, you may also like to read Four Successful Strategies for Teaching Immersive Theatre, which includes some top tips from Punchdrunk producer Sarah Sansom!

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