The Right Kit

The Right Kit

Vision mixer and assistant director Alex Mermikides gives us a first-hand account of the live interaction between on-stage and off-stage performers and operators in Lightwork's London/My Lover

The Panasonic MX-50 is a vision mixer, a device that allows the user to mix visual inputs, editing them together. This model has four channels and can take video, S-video and digital format. It also has effects facilities such as wipes, strobe and mosaic that can be used on single outputs, or to mix between two sources. It's a piece of industry-standard TV and film editing equipment.

So what is it doing in our rehearsal studio?

We are working on London/My Lover. It's a sort of boy-meets-girl, but also a love-letter to London. The driving principle is to examine London with the eyes of a lover - a close scrutiny that makes the familiar strange. Director Andy Lavender encapsulates this in two quotations, reproduced in the programme:

'London is a labyrinth, half of stone and half of flesh. It cannot be conceived in its entirety but can be experienced only as a wilderness of alleys and passages, courts and thoroughfares, in which even the most experienced citizen may lose the way' Peter Ackroyd, London the Biography.

'I catch myself carefully scrutinizing the loved body... To scrutinize means to search: I am searching the other's body, as if I wanted to see what was inside it, as if the mechanical cause of my desire were in the adverse body.' Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse.

It's a principle that determines our approach to all aspects of the process including the guidelines we give to Detsky and David, who are making the films for the production:

'The video material shows the texture of the environment, no more, no less. It does so predominantly through close up/extreme close up. The camera is locked off and usually static to enhance the cool, factual observational feel.' Email from Andy Lavender to Detsky Forsythe-Graffam

London/My Lover simultaneously follows each character over the course of a day. We are offered just a fragment of the activity David, a nurse whiling away the hours before his night-shift, and Lucy, an ergonomist hurtling through a busy schedule, happen to be engaged in at time-referenced moments: living, eating, drinking, thinking. So while at 8.36 Lucy applies her make-up on the tube, David sleeps; and as Lucy lunches with a client at 14.23 David drops bottles at the bottle bank.

The Mechanics

Each performer is on separate glass-topped podium and has just 1500 X 500mm to work in. The stage is backed by a huge screen, onto which are projected a neat window behind each performer (Sony PX31 LCD projectors 2800 lumens) and a central projection that gives time codes (company own, Hitachi, with a customised cardboard shutter system). The performers' windows show pre-recorded images of London - Waterloo Bridge, Maison Bertaux, the Prince Charles cinema, Bella Pasta - filmed on S-video and edited using Adobe Premier and Final Cut Pro.

The Panasonic vision mixers (one for each of the performers' windows) allows off-stage operators to bring in this pre-recorded material at the allotted moment, and mix between and into live images of the performers as they are circled by on-stage camera operators. These live cameras zoom in and out, find unfamiliar angles and isolate close-up, offering the audience the scrutinized detail that their eyes alone would miss.

The performance style is an exploration of the everyday movements of walking, sitting, writing, jogging and so on; isolating, repeating details of the movement so that, again, the familiar becomes strange through scrutiny. Meanwhile, the soundscape - a mix of pre-recorded (stored on MiniDisc and CD and replayed through an Allen & Heath console) and live (played through a Korg Triton keyboard) audio composed by Gregg Fisher, weaves through the scenes.

The sum of all this is a theatrical language composed of pre-recorded and live motion video, pre-recorded and live sonic sources, and two distinct performance spaces. The company's mission statement claims that: 'we see a fusion of the live and the recorded as part of a performance language appropriate for speaking twenty-first century concerns and stories to twenty-first century audiences.'

It is a compositional language that can create dislocating, hallucinogenic and poetic effects. A long slow zoom into David's navel as he sleeps becomes a journey into the night. We ponder the pattern of chewing gum on wet pavement, static shots overlaid with the shush of Lucy's hair as she runs - 7.41). Meanwhile David's screen shows images of maps in an Atlas that coincide and echo the gum shapes.

When the characters meet (20.01 Chelsea and Westminster Hospital), the screen tumbles in a ripple of silver silk. The full depth of the stage is revealed for the first time - it's a soft, sepia, space with no hard lines, a direct contrast to the colour and texture of the film images and the clean Jubilee-line grey squares of the podia and screens. The new space is a sort of realm of the senses. Still separated on their podia, the performers explore each other's body with cameras, huge monochrome and slowly strobing close-ups of flesh spilling across the space.

'The "moral" I suppose, is that beyond the veneer of city life, each of us has an intimate, personal, fleshly, dream-line, erotic space and that we reach this through connection with an other.'

(Email to Andy)

The vision mixer, with its array of sliders, dials and buttons, is at the centre of this meditation on the gritty city and the intimate, human realm behind its surface. During rehearsal we explored all the technical possibilities, gleefully flicking between inputs, applying tacky effects and discovering ways in which both live and pre-recorded camera could be more than moving backdrop. The moments of discovery were magical: we find that we can make Lucy swim in clear blue water by flipping the live camera upside down; the 'interference' when the camera accidentally catches its own projected images becomes the reflections on the surface of the water as Lucy dives. We discover that if Lucy lies on her back, we can match the recorded image of her in an office - filmed overhead and in fast motion - with a ghostly double that weaves in and out and disrupts the pace. We discover that a 360-degree pan of each performer can bring their images to face each other in classic profile, even though the 'live' performers face away, and the characters are separated, one on Waterloo Bridge, the other in a Trocadero arcade (19.19).

After these playful explorations, the performance is a tightly choreographed affair. Operating one of the two vision mixers (the other, projecting behind performer David Annen, is operated by Kate Coggins), I need to be precise, taking cues from my on-stage camera operator (I mustn't bring her in until she's got her shot), from my fellow vision-mixer (we need to synchronise our fades and in some cases, precisely match our films), from the time-codes (projections operated by Andy) and the soundscape. In some scenes, I'm running through effect after effect, precisely timed with the taped images: a second out and I miss the cue.

Watching a video of the performance at a 'post-mortem' gathering at month or two later, I will find myself experiencing moments of tension and anxiety, quite unrelated to the story's strictly linear and deliberately un-sensationalised narrative. I will work out that it's the trace left by my experience with the vision mixer: I find myself controlling my breathing as we come up to my 'big moments': a circle-out (tribute to Goddard), the quick fades and flicks of the Lucy taking photos at a site visit.

From the 'outside' it is hard to believe that there is someone behind these moments - after all, in a conventional film these would be pre-recorded. Here it is as live as the performance. By taking kit like the Panasonic MX-50 vision mixer out of the editing suite and into the rehearsal room, Lightwork and companies like them are expanding the range of theatrical languages. Making new technology pivotal in such performance creates a new form of 'liveness'.

This article first appeared in Performance/ Technologies - A User's Guide, published 2003 by University of Winchester in association with Total Theatre and produced in collaboration with Visions Festival at the University of Brighton. To order a copy of this or other titles in the User's Guide series, see

Alex Mermikides is a director, dramaturg and teacher. She is completing a PhD on devised theatre and lectures at Kingston University. She has been an associate artist member of Lightwork since 2002.

Lightwork makes theatre that fuses live performance and digital technologies. Lightwork's London/My Lover was originally produced for the London International Mime Festival 2002, presented at the ICA. Other Lightwork productions include Blavatsky and Here's What I Did With My Body One Day (touring 2005/2006).

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