Reflections: A play for the Camera Obscura

Reflections Front

One of the artworks commissioned as part of our R&D programme.

Through the story of silent screen star Fatty Arbuckle's fall from grace, and using the tropes of silent comedy, Matthew Gabrielli's new play explores perception and perspective in a solo performance projected into the Camera Obscura to an audience of up to three people as as "live cinema".

'Reflections', performed by Matthew Tweedale, premiered at Edible Eastside on Friday 6th May 2016 as part of Digbeth First Friday in Birmingham.

We always thought the camera obscura could be used to stage a play. There was something about the forced point of view, the live projection, which seemed to both lend itself to theatre and somehow extend it. Of course, we’re photographers, not theatre people, so this was mostly a hunch, but the notion that using the camera in an artform far out of our personal comfort zones could help us understand our device in new ways formed the kernel of this R&D programme.

Photographers can be narrow-minded about cameras. They exist as tools to make images and very little else. But the camera obscura does not make images – it comes from an era before this was possible. It is in many ways a performative space, where the viewer sees a slice of the world unfolding in front of them, mediated by the angle and focus of the lens and flattened on the screen, but very much live and direct. We are not capturing slices of time for posterity – we are very much in the moment.

This distinction between the camera obscura and the photographic camera implies that a photographer can only understand the obscura as a crippled machine, missing the fundamental ability to save the light. But the camera obscura as a creative and scientific tool has been around for hundreds of years before Daguerre and Talbot appropriated it to house their chemical processes.

So if we really wanted to understand how the camera obscura could be used in the 21st century we needed to ask people who weren’t photographers and whose work exists in the now, such as theatre and live performance.

Matthew Tweedale performing to an audience inside the camera obscura.
Matthew Tweedale performing to an audience inside the camera obscura.

Matthew Gabrielli is a playwright, currently studying on the MRes in Playwriting Studies at the University of Birmingham. His work, previously performed at the MAC, Liverpool Playhouse Studio and RSC’s The Other Place, is often comical and explores people from the fringes of society, finding theatrical answers to the questions and themes he's exploring.

He particularly liked the strange dichotomy of the camera obscura where the image projected is both real and fake, and also the possibilities this gave to a performance that was live and of the moment but viewed on a flat screen inside a box. Is it theatre or is it cinema? Or is it both?

Perhaps inspired by the monocular lens visible in the camera's mirror, Matthew's original plan was based on the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops with the performance projected into Cyclops' cave, but he felt this didn't make best use of the camera as a thematic device.

During a meeting of our four artists, Matt latched on to the simple idea of how the camera changes the viewer's perspective of the world. He developed this to think about the many meanings of perspective and how it can change quite suddenly and dramatically, sometimes without us even acknowledging it has happened.

Promotional image for Reflections
Promotional image for Reflections

Matt started to relate this to the story of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, the first actor to earn a million dollars and arguably the first Hollywood superstar. He was also involved in the first major scandal when he was accused of the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe. He was ultimately acquitted but his reputation was destroyed by the same powers that had brought him fame.

“I’ve always been interested in silent cinema" he said, "and I thought the themes that the camera had sparked and the story of Arbuckle dove-tailed together, creating an opportunity to explore this story visually.”

In both cases the audience perception of Arbuckle was two dimensional, switching from the lovable clown to the sinister villain. There was no room for depth in the character of Fatty Arbuckle, just a flat caricature of a man.

Matthew’s play, titled 'Reflections', is a 10-minute monologue set in a sunlit urban backlot, the sort of environment used by studios to save money on studio lighting.

The play is a monologue with a solitary actor playing Buster Keaton, talking to the camera about his friend Arbuckle and his fall from grace. His characterisation of Arbuckle has depth and his story is fuelled with detailed evidence and righteous anger, in between custard pies and other slapstick motifs.

But Keaton is not talking directly to his audience. He is talking to the lens of the camera and his audience is inside. We see his image cast sharply on the screen but hear his voice, mixed with the urban noises of the Digbeth canalside, through the blackout curtain. Keaton strives for clarity, to make the case for his friend. But he is flattened and mediated by the act of talking to the camera. Can his message survive?

Matthew Gabrielli
Matthew Gabrielli

The experience of watching the play in this manner is unique. It is live and happening just a few feet away, yet our eyes are seeing a flat, rendered image on a screen. We are hearing the actor as if in an open-air theatre yet we are seated in a small wooden box in the dark.

The process of staging a play for a camera obscura poses more questions than it answers, which is a delightful state of affairs. Matt certainly feels challenged to take things further and to push the boundaries of what could be done with the camera. "Can a line be drawn between what is live and what is camera? If so, could we cross that line? Could the audience cross the line from audience to live performer?”

As with 'Obscura Island', we found ourselves thinking of the fourth wall, of being made aware that you're in a camera obscura watching a play, and of how this is a good thing. The camera is a semi-controlled space. We control the direction, the focus and some of the action, but that's all. Everything else is left to chance, from the weather to the interruption of a noisy goose. To work with the camera obscura is to embrace the world around the camera obscura.

Reflections poster
The exhibition poster for Reflections, designed by Gareth Courage. Click to download at full size.