Total Audience Reality

Total Audience Reality

Immersive Theatre in the 80s

Australia, unlike the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe with their large populations, has some 24-million people, and these people live on the smallest continent or the largest island on earth. As such, many large professional theatre presentations like those in the United Kingdom are impossible to produce here. But due to the high degree of interest and talent in Australia and its neighbour, New Zealand, amateur theatre is here in abundance.

I have had the pleasure of attending many West-End and Broadway Musicals and Plays, and having seen the talent on offer, I can name at least five theatre groups in Victoria equivalent in quality to that seen in the West End of London and New York’s Broadway. And these Victorian (and many other Australian companies) are amateur, that is the actors and the behind scenes personnel (with the exception of the director, musical director, orchestra, choreographer, and heads of staff) are unpaid. Many professional performers perform in these shows to maintain their skills whilst waiting for another professional show to avail itself. In the professional field, of course, Australia has its famous opera companies, ballet companies and musical theatre companies such as State Theatre Companies, The Elizabethan Theatre Trust, etc, plus many smaller professional theatre groups working with financial assistance of the Australian Council and State Arts Funds.

As a director and lover of the arts, particularly in musical theatre, I have, over decades, been experimenting with different formats and concepts to attempt to create a variety of theatre productions. These productions have been new works or well-known "golden oldies" as they are known, and produced in such a way that the production has appeared in a new light to the audience. Because I felt that the audience should become part of the play and should experience as much of the atmosphere as the actors during the performance. And as a result, the concept Total Audience Reality (TAR) was created.

It's a concept which places the audience within the action, surrounding them with eight-track sound effects, surrounding them with stage lighting (not just performing areas), surrounding them with scented sachets reminiscent of the geography of the play, and, of course, the play is performed outside the proscenium area - before, through and behind the theatre audience. A large screen is added where normally the cyclorama or deepest front viewing area would be. Motion and Still photography is projected on this screen during the entire performance using Barcovision projection units, and multiple DVD & video cassette recorders, obviously holding the filmed and hundreds of slides content.

When sectionalizing the script, in this particular case for Fiddler on the Roof, I also created a second script for filming so that in the months of rehearsal and creation of the final product, both the live performance and filmed performance would marry together. A full production manual was created, including Lighting plots, the Scene and Sets needed (with diagrams), Costume and Props lists and designs, Sound plots and character interaction flow examples, and so on. This I do for any production, but here new running sheets were designed for continuity/editing purposes, as well as stage and film movement sheets. This was to enable live and filmed presentations to meld.

At this point I wish to stress that in the filmed presentations by cast, no animated or motion projection was screened except in song and dance to emphasize text, and bring it to life, as the singer performed revealing the thoughts of the songs and emphasizing dialogue. Projections of still photos or Sets, Forests, etc were the only rear projections during spoken dialogue to prevent diversion or distraction from the written works of the author and actor.

The following is a written transcript of a story produced by TCN 9 Sydney, for Sunday, a news magazine style show which ran from 1981 to 2008 and regularly covered the arts, social issues and public affairs. Due to the unusualness of this (small) theatre project they sent Jennifer Byrne, a top Australian journalist, with a two-man crew to report on it. (I will point out that this story was done purposely tongue-in-cheek if, for no other reason, than to show that we Australians - in the theatre and television field anyway - have a sense of humour while promoting various styles of theatre and the arts.)

This Sunday story called Fiddler on the Roof aired on the 1st of June, 1986. (Some slight changes have been made to clarify visual content.) It is reproduced here with kind permission of the Nine Network.

Sunday - Fiddler on the Roof

Jennifer Byrne (Reporting Journalist) = J.B.
Greg Keyes = GK
Voice over television visuals = V/O
Motion vision and/or still pictures = Visuals

(Visuals - On location of film set with cast/crew and animals being set for song "Tradition" Close-Up of GK indicating begin performance)
V/O = GK: "Action!"

(Visuals – Tevye the Milkman and lead of production is driving a horse drawn 18th century cart with Milk in rear and hay bales.)
V/O = J.B:
"History unfolds as a humble Jewish milkman battles poverty and persecution in pre-revolutionary Russia."

(Visuals - Cut to two lovers in pine forest about to hug and kiss.)
V/O = J.B:
"Watch passions burn as first love blooms beneath the pines. Hear the music, be transformed by the scenery."

(Visuals - Cut to Russians destroying the village of Anatevka.)
V/O = J.B:
"Share the thrills and spills, and with what energies remain, marvel at the mind which created this extravaganza.'

(Visuals - Bottle Dancers in Cossack squats, Singers in rehearsal at theatre.)
V/O = J.B:
"This all singing, all dancing, all strictly Amateur production from Portland, Victoria, of the old warhorse ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.

(Visuals - Cut to Tevye [Tim Mehmet] singing, "If I were A Rich Man".)
V/O = J.B:
"Played as you have never seen it before."

(Visuals- Film of interview between J.B. and G.K. in auditorium of empty
Theatre, one on one interview between J.B & G.K.)
"'I have called it T.A.R., Total Audience Reality. What is revolutionary about it is it combines film, slides, sound effects, lighting effects, live stage performance all in the one, as one."
V/O = J.B:
"His name is Greg Keyes and his Fiddler, he believes, is a ground breaker."
"In the scene you might as an audience member, hear a scream over your right shoulder..."
(Visuals - Cut away to scream by ghost of Fruma Sarah in rehearsal.)
"or you might hear horses galloping over your left..."
(Visuals - Cut away to horses galloping.)
"and then quite literally you will be surrounded by Russians coming out of areas off stage."
(Visuals - Cut away to Russians with fire brands terrorizing villagers.)
'It really is Total Audience Reality."
(Visuals - Film of interview between J.B. and G.K. in auditorium of empty
Theatre, one on one interview between J.B & G.K.)
"What has Portland done to deserve this? I mean surely it should go first to Melbourne or Sydney or one of the major towns?"

"Why Portland? Purely because it has not been done, and unfortunately, we in Australia tend to follow suit much of the time with what's happening in London and Broadway. We bring shows out here and I just felt why couldn't we do something first, and if we can do it in a country location, well the bounds are limitless!"

(Violin undertone of theme music Fiddler on the Roof)
(Visuals - Cut to Portland township - Middle East sheep ship and
aluminium smelter.)
V/O = J.B:
"This no doubt is news to the good burghers of Portland, a small, old coastal city, population 10,000 near the border of South Australia and Victoria. Excitement in the past has been limited pretty much to its two main functions, despatching live sheep to the Middle East and accommodating the Alcoa Aluminium Smelter. Nothing quite as radical as Fiddler has ever stuck here before."

(Visuals - Cut away to pine forest with cast for filming segment. Weather conditions overcast and it had been raining heavily)

(Visuals - G.K. explaining to J.B on location in the middle of a Pine forest and standing in mud ankle deep.)
'The action is going down around the tree. Tzeitel’s going to slip over, fall down and Motel the Tailor is going to jump down beside her and it's going to be a soft tender moment, as this is the first time they are about to kiss and ...,'
"It's freezing cold and it's wet. How can it be a soft, tender moment?"
"The audience doesn't see that. That's what the movies are all abort - it's make-believe. No, they will enjoy it once the film is rolling, won't you?"

(Visuals - Laughter with the two actors - action of scene commences.)
"Let's do it! ..Action!... Again! A lot more giggles out of you Tzeitel."
(Visuals - Constant cut-aways of retakes of scene, falling over in the mud and trying to be passionate.)
V/O = J.B:
“It's not the normal way a stage play is done, but it's all part of the grand plan to incorporate theatre and film to produce a very special ‘Fiddler’ and special it certainly is. To begin with at least half the cast have never acted before and are finding the going distinctly rough."

(Visuals -Cut away to J.B. and actress Linda Cooper (Tzeitel) walking together in pine forest.)
Interviewer J.B:
"So how many times did you have to do it?'
Interviewee Tzeitel:
"I think all up we had to do it about twelve times. There was one particular bit we could not get right. It was the bit where I had to fall over all the time. Thus I got very dirty."
Interviewer J.B:
"You must be soaking."
Interviewee Tzeitel:
(laughing) "I am."

(Visuals - Cut away to the middle of the pine forest beside a highway where filming is taking place. J.B. with Tzeitel and two other actresses as well as film crew, dressing and make-up in back of cars, etc.)
V/O = J.B:
"Then there's the small matter of facilities, dressing room and the like. At times it seems less a musical more a road movie."
(Visuals - Cut away to semi-trailer zooming past.)
Interviewee Tzeitel:
"... and so at the side of the road here, pegging out our washing, things like this (holding up Bombay bloomers) people stopped, wondering what was going on. I mean. three Jewish women hanging out their washing."
Interviewer J.B:
"Mad Jewish women. Loopy, clearly Jewish women."
Interviewee Tzeitel:
"Singing mind you!"
(Visuals - Cut away to second actress Miranda Myles (Chava) also in discussion with J.B. and Tzeitel - all three are laughing.)
Interviewee Chava:
"Yes, and dancing all around in this mud and over rocks and logs. It was classic!"

(Visuals - Cut to Chava Ballet being set in field in front of close-up of
Tzeitel and Chava hugging in dance.)
V/O = J.B:
"Finally, there is the sheer overweening ambition of it all, The Alfresco Arabesques, striving to create that mood of the Russian Steppes in the Portland mud."
Interview GK:
'Okay, let's try it, now!"

(Visuals – Cross fade to various cast of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ singing "Sabbath prayer in the Portland Theatre during rehearsal.)

V/O = J.B:
"Meanwhile there is the more conventional ‘Fiddler’ stage component underway in equally grand style ", at the local cinema, squashed between the movies and the aerobic classes. Rehearsals started in January. But there is still much polishing needed. Particularly in the orchestral area”
(Visuals - Cut away of solo pianist using slightly out of tune piano for

(Visuals back to original interview with J.B and G.K in empty Theatre)
"Everybody involved are Portland people, they own business, there are doctors, ministers. quite a lot of occupations in the show."'."
"Do you think they were a bit alarmed they found what they had undertaken?"
"Excited more than anything else. The only alarm is the actual expense. Portland or for that matter any Western District town, has not spent on a musical anything like the money we are spending here. I think this is eight times more than the dearest show ever in this area”.
(Visuals - Cut away to lead man Tevye singing solo “If I Were A Rich Man".)

V/O = J.B:
"... and the community has rallied to the cause."
(Visuals - Cut away to production office, costume making room with cast on sewing machines, etc.)
V/O = J.B:
'Creating costumes for instance at bargain basement prices. $34 for a
wedding dress made from net and old curtains. Peasant outfits from bulk bolts and kitchen dyes."

(Visuals - Cut away to exterior of Garden Centre.)
V/O = J.B:
"The Production Office, to keep those administrative costs down, has taken root in the local Garden Centre.,
(Visuals - Cut away to choreographer, Ron Eichler, setting Bottle Dance on the Cinema Stage with dancers.)
"The owner of the shop is fortuitously the show’s choreographer.

(Visuals - Cut away to film content of stunt workshop in action conducted by GK.)
V/O = J.B:
'But to all the real responsibility for the show and most of its jobs including chief punching bag have gone to Greg Keyes.
(Visuals - Cut away of GK being hit in stomach by Russian Cossack and then kicked in head as he falls back on mattress).
V/O = J.B:
“Besides directing, producing, and nurturing his concept, he is stunt coordinator, props organiser, and designer of the set. As ambitious and tricksy as the production itself."

(Visuals - Cut away to Production Office and GK demonstrating how the three-dimensional scale model of set is created and operated.)
V/O = GK:
"The set is quite simple; it's like a book. It is made out of scaffolding and around the scaffolding we quite literally built the sets. The orchestra starts the show by coming out to take their bow and the book / set starts to open."
V/O = J.B:
"Each chapter of the book, so to speak, will tell the different domestic stories,"
(Visuals - Cut away to individual parts of the set in close-up.)
V/O = J.B:
"the tailor's shop, the home of the milkman, Tevye, and behind it all the screen to show movie and slides."
(Vision - Cut to diagram of projection unit to be used plus slide example then face to face interview in Theatre.)
"It sounds awfully complicated. I mean, isn't there a rule, the more complicated the more problems you are going to find?"
"'Well, it sounds complicated. It does. But it isn't once you know the marriage of flow with live and recorded action. As an audience member you just sit there and one scene rolls on to another and the action keeps on going and the motion picture enhances what is happening on stage."

(Visuals - J.B. on location a short distance from a very Rustic Russian village especially constructed for filming. Close-up of Jennifer Byrne)
"This has been a production which knows no bounds and today we are going to see the highlight, the very denim ore of the action- It's all happening just down the road from the local rubbish dump actually, where they are building a replica of the Jewish village of Anatevka. Being built with the express purpose of burning it down.

It will be this production's equivalent to the burning of Atlanta in "Gone with the 'Wind", and since authentic Jewish villages are not easy to come by in Portland, they are there already abuilding."

(Visuals - Cut away with song "Who Day and Night must Scramble for a
Living", various footage of construction of the set.)

"Has anybody got any jumper leads to start off with? We have troubles with the camera car!"
V/O = J.B:
"Inevitably, there are problems."
(Visuals - Cut away to attempt in trying to obtain sound effects from animals transported to location.)
V/O = J.B:
"Some of the cast are reluctant to provide sound effects."
(Visuals - Cut away to goat refusing to make a sound for sound recording, with Greg holding a microphone.)
V/O = J.B:
"Even with prompting by Greg.
“baaaaa ---“
(Visuals - Cut to dog barking out of cue.)
V/O = J.B:
"Others all too enthusiastic..."
(Visuals - Film content of horse refusing to pull Tevye's can.)
V/O = J.B:
"Carts won't drive..."
(Visuals - Film content of Fruma-Sarah rising from the grave and getting
tangled in foliage over grave cavity,)
V/O = J.B:
"Graves won't yawn..."

(Visuals - Cut away to camera car, director indicating action.)
V/O = J.B:
"and certain minor characters fail to perform on cue."
".., and let the chickens out now!'
(Visuals - Cut away to chickens running down the wrong way from the
anticipated action. Everyone on set is laughing.)
V/O = J.B:
"For the major characters though it is all part of the fantasy and what else would they do?”
(Visuals - Film of Constable, John Pittendrich, in school teaching students.)
V/O = J.B:
"In the case of the precarious Constable, he would be teaching English at the local high school. 'While gossiping village matchmaker Yente,"
(Visuals - Cut away to Yente, Dawn Turner, on set.)
V/O = J.B:
"she would be down at the harbour typing shipping documents for the Australian 'Wheat Board. Frankly, she would rather be acting."
(Visuals - Cut away to Yente in her usual occupation behind a typewriter.)
Interviewee Yente:
"I would not let the play down for anything. I mean, some-one can do this. If I fall over in the street or something, someone can do the typing, but I'd hate anyone else to do Yente. (Laugh)"
V/O = J.B:
"As for Greg Keyes..."
(Visuals - Cut away to song "Sunrise, Sunset" being performed by cast in
theatre at rehearsal.)
V/O = J.B:
"to create a fresh feel for this well-known play is a considerable task, to film it as well is taxing, to do it all in a quiet country town with unpaid cast and crew is stretching even the most professional amateur."

(Visuals - Cut to Greg Keyes on top of camera car directing film action.)
(Cut away to Russians destroying mock village.)
V/O = J.B:
"To top it off by burning the set is courting disaster. What happened at Portland's Anatevka fell something short of that, it was not a total success!”
(Visuals - Cut away to villager (Greg Keyes in peasant outfit) being thrown through a window and then the house set alight with him apparently there-in.)
V/O = J.B:
"The stunts went well. There was kerosene, scads of it."

(Visuals - Film of Russians with large flaming torches terrorizing villagers.)
V/O = J.B:
"Fire brands, Russians, and screams rendered the air. But there is just no getting around it, the famous fire was a fizzer, and no amount of rekindling would get the beast to burn!!!"
(Visuals - Wide-angle shot of minimal fire with cutaway of Fire Brigade
standing with hoses dripping at the ready looking dejected.)
(Visuals -Live interview at scene with GK face covered in glue and dirt from the stunts.)
"Is that the fire you had in mind?"
'I had more of fire in mind. Unfortunately, I think we built it a bit too well. I was expecting a BIG fire."
"Congratulations on building such a solid township."
"Thanks to my set man. I'll kill him. (laughs) But we have plenty of cutaways and close-ups for the effects I'm after."
(Visuals - Cut away to camera disconnecting just as curtains and roof of house
Start to blaze. Rush to try to get the camera restarted)
V/O = J.B:
"And if it wasn't in the end quite "Quo Vadis", if the camera did unhappily disconnect at the crucial time, and if there now stands near the Portland rubbish tip"
(Visuals - Final shot of smouldering village with effect lighting.)
"a lonely, slightly singed Synagogue, well, they will still never forget the Fiddler and there's still opening night to come."
(Visuals - Titles - "The End" superimposed in "Star 'Wars" style with
musical crescendo over final shot of village.)


During most of the story, voice over and interview was sound tracked over location filming except where stated.

Opening night did come with a live cast of sixty-three. The orchestra used in this production was fifteen-piece with a talented musical director, Mr Kirk Skinner, who was flown to Portland from Melbourne to create a master tape of the orchestrations using the fifteen-piece orchestra plus a further eight professional musicians. By sound mixing and pin ponging certain instruments, a philharmonic sound was created.

The live fifteen-piece orchestra played in synchronization with the master recording during performances and this resulted in a final sound of a fifty-piece philharmonic orchestra.

As there was a cavity behind the Movie Screen of the Cinema on which the projections were being shown, the orchestra was placed in this area with video monitors for full visual contact with the performers on stage and conductor.

The fire, which was referred to as a "fizzer" in the documentary, 'RAGED" on the screen. In the mini-documentary wide-angled lenses were used consistently, where as in the production's filming, close-ups and cutaways were most effective.

New orchestrations had to be written for this added film content of the destruction scene and this orchestration had, apart from moog synthesizer, many sound effects mixed as one. The end result being a totally riveting piece of theatre.

A quick example of how I used the T.A.R Concept was in essence the Russian attack through the audience on to the festive wedding scene; the destruction of the wedding party furniture and assaults on wedding guests; there was a build-up of sound effects around the audience, light effects and projection then of the footage from the Filming of the burning of Anatevka.

Obviously, the end resulted in the audience being seated totally in the centre of the action. The sound inference of buildings burning around them and the stage destruction of the village of Anatevka, enhanced the destruction film on screen. (Yes the Fire Brigade was again on hand, hoses read yet again…? ) A final crescendo of music with a burning Star of David superimposed over a screaming Jewish child running towards the camera with her village burning in the background, brought up interval for the audience. The effect left them Silent and then thunderous applause with standing ovation at interval for two performances.

This technique was used very effectively for many other scenes. For example, the nightmare scene had only on-stage a double bed which was lit by a solo candle. From there, Tevye the milkman, in his small lit space commences to tell of a nightmare in which his eldest daughter’s proposed husband's first wife, Fruma-Sarah, rises from the dead. As this was written as a major vocal and eccentric performance piece, I added visual graphics and lighting effects to grow from this solo candle through the entire venue, imparting to the audience the same terror Golde (Tevye's wife) was experiencing. As the scene grew, visual footage of the cast filmed in an old cemetery at midnight with Rosco smoke machines operating at the cemetery and dry ice fog machines operating on stage, gave the visual appearance of a giant graveyard come to life:

The rising of the ghost from the grave commences on screen with Fruma-Sarah rising from the grave, her face being enlarged to the full screen width of six metres. Her face was made up like a' living ghostly painting.

From there special effect lighting swelled as did the live vocals and orchestra built as the apparition of Fruma-Sarah became three dimensional, some four and a half metres above the stage area with fog billowing from that height over the audience.

Again, this scene was built up and culminated in Fruma-Sarah’s final warning to Tevye and Golde that if the marriage was to proceed, she would come back from the grave and kill Golde's daughter. The final echoed scream was then heard and emphasized with four thunderclaps exploding around the audience.

After the final explosion all visuals were immediately simultaneously extinguished leaving only Tevye and his wife on stage, in bed terrified, with the sole lit candle.

This scene typified what can be achieved by the T.A.R concept. Two decades later ‘Wicked’ the musical, used a similar presentation with the witch growing, etc. and many other effects. I have seen it used now many times since it was created. The T.A.R concept was published in 1987 it is now in use Globally at virtually every Pop Concert, Musical presentations and Extravaganza’s. Our production was created in 1986, I began working on it late in 1985 before the real Techno era came to life in the 90’s and continues to this day.

Unfortunately, I never thought to trademark the concept methodologies, I certainly would be a multi-millionaire today if I had... ?

I will share two further scenes from Sholom Aleichem’s ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ of how effective the T.A.R concept is to emphasize written text. Sholom Aleichem's the author, I feel should be mentioned as the main thoughts I believe he wanted was to pass on to the uniformed, the many meanings of Jewish traditions, faith and their history.

The meanings through the song "Traditions. were able to be visualized on the screen behind the actors. Likewise, The ‘Sabbath Prayer’ and the ceremony of the Sabbath. Scenes such as Tevye’s third daughter marrying out of the faith to a Russian and Tevye’s imagination is fired, could only be shown previously by live ballet and vocals. But by this concept it was totally depicted on screen. To further enhance the emotional content of this particular scene, the choreography was synchronized by the dancers on stage with the film choreography to reveal instead of a cast shadow, a giant mirrored duplicate in the forests of Russia.

The audience's response was a ‘Sold-Out Season’ and ‘Sold-Out extension Season’, with further evidence of almost fifty percent of the entire population of the town attending and hundreds more from across Victoria and South Australia. The concept works extraordinarily well and I’m proud to say was also a financial success for the company for whom I produced it.

The particular production was experimental on my part for a number of purposes:

  • To test out the concept on a Grand scale in the words of Jennifer Byrne.
  • To train many people usually not involved in the arts, in various forms of theatre and film craft; set, sound, lighting design, costumes, etc.
  • To prove that with imagination and dedication, highly professional output can be achieved without vast amounts of money being expended.

I believe outdated plays and musicals can be adapted to appeal to audiences of today and tomorrow by using this concept and creating a totally fresh approach to older shows at present appealing to only true thespians.

My main purpose however I conclude with, is to thank you for permitting me to pass on to you a little of what I have tried to share with the arts by creating theatre that will draw the uninitiated into the theatres and make them more aware of the enormous amount of pleasure such can give.