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Guest Blog: Artistic Director Amit Lahav On Adapting Gecko's INSTITUTE For Screen

Guest Blog: Artistic Director Amit Lahav On Adapting Gecko's INSTITUTE For Screen
Amit Lahav in Institute

For 20 years I've been making theatre. My focus throughout this time has been human expression: the physical, emotional and gestural language that might convey universal meaning throughout the world. My work uses metaphor and symbolism, which creates a dreamlike world; every object, moment or character has the potential to reference something else - and, more pertinently, should reference something specifically personal to each and every audience member.

Five years ago, I had my first opportunity to think about film within the context of the work I create. The Time of Your Life was a 30-minute film broadcast live on the BBC. This process allowed me to play in a new and exciting way with visual and physical storytelling, utilising the 16:9 perspective of film in a way that excited me.

Theatre is an incredibly complex medium to control, as there are so many variable elements. For example, every stage has a different level of blackout, and some stages don't get very dark because of the endless light bleed from any number of sources. Therefore, what was a moment of magic in one venue; where a performer slips into total darkness and vanishes out of the image, becomes a clumsy exit in the next. When you make a world in which every ounce of life on stage is being interpreted, this, along with many other variables, becomes extremely frustrating.

With film, you have so much more control. As simple as it sounds, with a 16:9 frame, you can focus on whichever object, moment or character is important - everything else disappears. Wonderful! This means that, unlike on stage, we can bring all of our focus onto a very small area of storytelling detail, like the nervous fidgeting of fingers touching a piece of clothing, or the tiniest look of hesitation in someone's eyes. I can meticulously build up the composition of the piece moment by moment, symbol by symbol, layered with precision sound and music choices.

With The Time of Your Life, I attempted to create a hybrid world of physical theatre performance and film, and this hybrid experiment was particularly demonstrated through a nine-minute sequence in one of several rooms. The sequence involved an ensemble of performers skilfully manipulating objects, furniture and costumes in and around a Steadicam operator who rotated many times in the centre of the space. For me, this was the pinnacle of the film, giving me huge confidence that there was a special potential in the fusion of these two different mediums and that I felt there were exciting avenues to explore in the relationship between camera and performer.

Guest Blog: Artistic Director Amit Lahav On Adapting Gecko's INSTITUTE For Screen
Ryen Perkins Gangnes in Institute

My main feeling about that first film was that I was thrilled to have made something unusual and that I couldn't wait to have another go! I was also instantly unhappy at how flat the image was (specifically the depth of field), and how the sound was not as I'd imagined - certainly both pitfalls of a live TV broadcast. However, that experience and others were an important part of the process in developing my knowledge that would lead to the creation of a cinematic film adaption of Gecko's stage production, Institute.

Approaching a film version of Institute, I felt confident about the performances of the four main characters for screen and very confident about the relationships of those men, their stories and the narrative arch of the piece.

Finding a location with corridors and small rooms, a place in which patients and carers traverse, was immediately very attractive to me, but I was also aware that setting up a naturalistic world could cause problems as it creates an expectation in the viewer that certain narrative rules will be adhered to; these 'rules' are internalised as we experience more and more theatre and film in our lives.

I feel that we have very different narrative expectations when we are about to look at abstract paintings or listen to classical music. We still have narrative expectations with these other art forms, but there is greater openness for interpretation. Theatre has a history of morality-based learning through plot and character driven narratives. Therefore, every time the curtain goes up on a Gecko show, there is a settling in period in which we have to get the audience on board, settled and comfortable enough that they are willing to be made uncomfortable.

My instinct with the film was that I needed to solve this settling in period even quicker than on stage, and that if I could create intrigue (rather than disconnection) within the first five minutes, it would afford me the opportunity to take the audience somewhere special, and somewhere unusual.

I wanted to start the film within a recognisable cinematic world: a corridor. Then, a man walks down a corridor with trepidation...he attempts to enter a room and a buzzer sounds and a red light flashes, and then we immediately meet the authority figures (the carers) who are watching him. A phone rings and a short instructive conversation unfolds, and the man leaves disappointed with himself - he messed up. In the theatre show, the start is much more ambiguous; we don't meet the carers until ten minutes into the show. On stage, there are enormous filing cabinets three metres tall and small moving lights which track the patient's journeys in a menacing way. The theatre show is visually more abstract.

Having created a more naturalistic world and story for screen, I decided to increase the mystery of the treatment room - a cavernous black space with a large pristine plinth-like floor onto which the patients play out their complex inner lives. Importantly, this treatment room is also where a lot of the most physically expressive treatments play out. These more poetic scenes will stretch the television audience, but because of the clarity of the world outside in the corridors and rooms, and the clarity of the characters and their relationship to each other, my feeling is that we will have brought the television audience with us.

At least that's the hope!

Institute is broadcast on BBC Four on 19 July. Watch a trailer below!

Photo credit: John Ferguson

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