Producing production photographs in a socially-distanced performance environment

Wednesday, 17th March 2021

By Claire Shovelton, photographer for Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival


This part of our Learning From 2020 tools for artists and producers.


Photographing Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival 2020


Throughout 2020, in a shared act of imagination, perseverance, creativity and hope, the team at Tête à Tête and its community of artists met twice-weekly on zoom to inspire, support, motivate and troubleshoot the work they were making for the festival (see manifesto here).


So the festival, when it happened between Lockdowns at The Cockpit Theatre London in September, felt like a vindication, a release, and a blessing. We witnessed so much emotion from artists and audience to be experiencing it in real life. We saw an enthusiastic gathering of people around the web broadcasts. We were uplifted by exquisite, co-created multi-form pieces online. 


It may not have fitted the mainstream media pandemic narrative (which strangely overlooked it) but it was intensely lived by everyone involved, feeling like a beacon for this artistic way of life – almost underground but super-connected – and therefore influencing so much in ways the establishment cannot see, like the fungi network in forests – maverick, curious, joyful, vulnerable yet resilient, making wonders with tiny resources.


I was grateful and privileged to be part of it. Here are some of the things that I learnt and observed.


In general: slow down, be patient


Moving in a more mindful way allows others to see your intention and facilitates maintaining social distance. In general this made for more calm throughout, which is something worth aiming for at any time! 


Socially-distanced photography (3m from singers and flautists, 2m from everyone else) often meant photographing from further back in the seating rostra, navigating steps and levels in the dark. I would normally be aware of steps and obstacles, but being mindful of distancing as well switched on a sort of safety radar in my head. There were times I knew would miss a moment – as there wasn’t time to safely get to the position to shoot it – and I  had to let those moments go. 


Essential: communicate 


I was in touch with festival artists in advance, and some sent visual references and inspirational materials, which informed the way I photographed their work in performance. 


Here’s a capture from A&E, where I had been briefed that they were going for illuminated heads floating in blackness.


At the venue I had general briefings with David (technical director) and specific show briefings prior to each session with Steve (stage manager), checking where the performers’ blocking extended to, so I could make decisions about where to photograph from – I’d then inform Steve, check that was OK, and he would let everyone else in the space know which areas I would be moving about in. It was a very holistic, efficient operation.


The Tête à Tête festival team shared a production space (the scene dock, only place with enough space for us all to distance) and this made all the on-site communication easy. 


My photo editing set up was there, and it helped to be yards from the performance space, making the most of time between shoots to edit. It was very useful to have the production board right there, with the show particulars for each festival day. Dan (LX) would update me on lighting he’d just worked out for the show, warn me about dimly-lit scenes, red lighting states etc. 


As my editing desk was near Leo (marketing), it meant we could co-ordinate rapidly when images were needed.  Having Bill (artistic director) and Anna (producer) in the same space also made for the best quality of inspiration and information.


Social Media


The Tête à Tête online community expanded and became even more engaged during the pandemic, so the briefing notes I took from the director of the show (sometimes also requests from the stage designer, or the creators) were important to ensure I was making images that worked well for them and their online base, as well as for the all the usual publicity and press purposes.


I was also on Instagram duties for Tête à Tête, a synergy which made sense as I was the one disseminating photos – making sure anyone who needed photos was getting them the same day of the shoot. 


So I did quite a bit of image-making for social media stories.  For example, we were gifted a unicorn, the festival mascot. Leo ran a social media competition to name the beast, and the winner was CHARM, inspired by the anti-bac spray “Charm” that Bill kept spritzing us with backstage. I set up a photo to announce the winning name, where masked-up Anna sprayed “Charm” onto a masked-up CHARM:


Camera angles and narrative choices


As my movement around the thrust performance space was limited, it was tempting to stay square-on and avoid the empty seats appearing back of shot. However, as the performers were also socially distanced there were no dramatically interesting 2-shots or group shots to capture from this angle and I found myself spending more time focusing on individual performers. 


Positioning at a diagonal to the performance space offered a more interesting angle, and shooting from the side of the space enabled framing 2 or 3 characters, spread across the performance space, where I could make good use of the depth of field. I found that minding the distancing, positioning myself further back in the audience entry corridors between seating rostra was also a good choice.


Socially distanced performing, with its minimal casts and more static blocking, offered the opportunity for some wonderful solo character portraits. The capture became less about the stage picture and more about the individual showing the emotion and story. (These types of frame filled with a performer’s emotion work very well as publicity shots too.)


Cutting the number of performing artists on stage meant the festival artists found creative ways of using film and projection to complete the show. With a restriction on number of live performers in the space some shows had filmed some of their cast, projecting their performances on the upstage screen. The spatial logistics of getting performer and projection framed into the same shot were tricky, but it was worth persevering. I also took captures of the projections on their own.


Documenting history


Indoor performances during 2020 were rare. I documented this extraordinary historic time in odd snatched moments – the performance space and teams working in it under social-distanced, covid regulations, and the socially-distanced audience.


These will also be useful for reporting and for sharing knowledge and know-how.


Here are two audience members in the socially-distanced queue outside the Cockpit, waiting to be ushered into their allocated seats.


Claire Shovelton is a London-based producer, photographer and creator of visuals, with over 30 years professional experience in theatre, opera, dance and classical music including the Barbican, the Young Vic, Riverside Studios, Opera Factory, the Royal Opera House, Sadlers Wells and the commercial West End.


She has been involved with Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival from its first incarnation in 2007.

Claire balances her work as an image-maker with her role as creative producer (in collaborative partnership with Artistic Director Stuart King since 2002) for the award-winning ensemble CHROMA – also Associate Ensemble for Tête à Tête since 2006 – and in both of those capacities is very involved in the area of new work.