Behind the scenes at The Royal National Theatre

By , csmonitor.com

A little over a month ago, this space reviewed a website dedicated to preserving - and even digitally recreating - the lost art of vaudeville. This week's selection also revolves around live performance, but in this case, concentrates on the modern theater and spends a great deal more time behind the scenes than it does onstage. If you never thought about all the work that goes on before the curtain rises, Stagework will give you a whole new appreciation for that next recitation of "To be or not to be."

A production of London's National Theatre, Stagework is one of those websites that are created with schools in mind. But it offers material that can hold the interest of visitors of any age - including those who rarely, if ever, attend live theater. Making heavy use of streaming video (though delivered in short, digestible clips), the site is also able to illustrate its points with sometimes impressive impact.

Drawing on plays from the current and past seasons, and using both classic and contemporary works, Stagework tells its tales through the filters of seven different Productions. Each play's treatment offers everything from background information and Rehearsal Diaries to Creative aspects such as choices in Direction and Music. There are also behind-the-scenes glimpses at the Technical side of the business (Special Effects, Props, etc.), and even a peek at such vital but easily overlooked subjects as the process of actually "Running a Theatre." (The Business side of the business.) In addition to these elements, Issues explores questions specific to each production (e.g., the role of corruption in an updated retelling of Nikolai Gogol's "The Government Inspector"), while People introduces some of the seven hundred real humans behind the creation of the fictional characters.

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But returning to the website's primary destination, Productions is clearly the best bet for getting a comprehensive picture of what happens behind the scenes, not only at The National, but at theaters around the world. So, choosing a widely known play to illustrate Stagework's approach, we'll look at the Productions exhibit for the 2003 staging of Shakespeare's "Henry V." ("Once more into the breach, dear friends....")

As with the home page for each of Stagework's plays, "Henry V" displays its content in a series of horizontal layers, based on the type of information available. Links in the top layer provide preliminary introductions to both the play and specific topics about the production that will be further explored deeper into the exhibit. (Examples of the latter include the director's use of video in a live stage production, and the decision to give certain comic characters more dimension than they have traditionally been allotted.) Under that, the Rehearsal Diary provides blog-style observations of events and personal reflections from the more than six months that passed between the first day "meet and greet" session and the eventual live performances before families and the press.

In the next layer, the site starts offering up its multimedia content with Performance - featuring excerpts from the production and interviews that explore such themes as actors getting into the mindset of soldiers, and the modern staging of a classic play about war against the real-world backdrop of the invasion of Iraq. As with most of these elements, this second theme ("Shadow of War") presents a text overview of the topic and then adds related entries from the Rehearsal Diary and streaming video. Clips include one actor's experience as he watched his play being "mirrored" on the news every night, and a workshop performance of the speech, "If the cause be not good...." (This second piece strikes the viewer rather forcefully with the contemporary relevance of words written four hundred years ago.)

Below the Performance layer, Creative looks at choices made in Directing, while Technical further explores the integration of contemporary television and video footage (including a Prime Ministerial broadcast and Propagandistic music video) into the live performance.

While the layout is similar for all seven Productions, there are varying degrees of depth from one play's exhibit to another, so while, for example, the "UN Inspector" homepage may not have as many multimedia elements as "Henry V," it does have a series of videos about the process of promoting a play, which Henry lacks. But the most interactive feature appears in the exhibit for "His Dark Materials," as Stagework invites surfers to construct their own scene from a collection of alternative elements. (Because, after all, we all want to direct.) Presented with four segments from a single scene, each available in three slightly different versions, and each version available with "acting only" or complete with discussion between the actors and director about various interpretations, viewers are invited to use any combination of the alternatives to build a sequence of their choosing. New combinations can be created ad infinitum, and when you're satisfied with your own choices, you can compare your vision to the scene as it was eventually performed onstage.

(If you're not familiar with the Philip Pullman books that this play is based on, "His Dark Materials" is a trilogy of fantasy novels that has generated a good deal of controversy due to its condemnation of organized religion. The author's intentions are examined elsewhere on the Stagework site, but the interactive performance feature holds nothing more controversial than a kiss between hero and heroine.)

Meanwhile, for anyone interested in some of the unique considerations behind the other productions, Issues offers some fairly in-depth explorations of various plays' subtexts. And for those thinking about a career in the theater, People does a nice job of detailing the various roles played by the off- and onstage employees of the National.

Ironically, the site's greatest weakness might stem from the abundance of its content. Navigation is a bit of a mishmash, and since many of the exhibits are available in various locations and from various directions, you may occasionally find yourself following in your own footsteps - or alternately, backtracking to be sure you haven't missed anything. Having new exhibits opening into new windows might have made things simpler, but while you may not always be sure about your options, you do always know where you are, so it's an easy matter to back up and have another look at the road ahead.

And the rewards are well worth the occasional case of overlap - in fact the only elements that I really would have liked to have seen here are full-length videos of the productions that I had just been learning about. An impractical request, I know, but that says a good deal about the site, in that almost all the practical desires have already been met.

Stagework can be found at http://www.stagework.org/.

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