If COVID-19 hadn't shuttered all the theaters in town about a month ago, Scott Silberstein estimates that his company, HMS Media, "would have been in ten different theaters over five or six days, capturing everything possible." Par for the course for HMS, which has recorded live performances of everything from small dance companies to touring Broadway productions over the years, as well as creating original documentaries about Second City and John Kander and Fred Ebb, the legendary songwriting team behind Cabaret and Chicago, for WTTW.
Instead, like everyone else, Silberstein and the company he cofounded 32 years ago had to retreat and rejigger. They worked with the Actors Fund to create a video of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," featuring actors and musicians from Beautiful, the hit King biomusical, performing from quarantine (including Chicago native Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony for playing King in 2014, and her sister Abby Mueller, who played the role on tour). Silberstein and his fiancée have also postponed their wedding until after the shutdown.
With so many fans of live performance now getting their fix through the screen with streaming productions, both newly created and archival, it seemed like a good time to check in with Silberstein about what he and HMS view as the most essential tricks of the trade.
Silberstein and his HMS partner, Matt Hoffman, met at Wisconsin's Camp Nebagamon when they were 13. A shared love of the Beatles brought them together in a camp version of Beatlemania, and they stayed friends through college (Silberstein at University of Pennsylvania, Hoffman at Syracuse). The camp also provided Silberstein with an introduction to Kander, who was his dad's counselor at Nebagamon in the 1950s.
"You just can't get a better mentor," says Silberstein. "John was all about collaboration and all about not knowing, but going for discovery and humility and ensemble. Which is remarkable for a man in the Broadway world, because that's not necessarily an environment that Broadway fosters."
Silberstein joined Hoffman in Chicago after graduating and they worked at a cable production facility. Their first collaboration to gain notice was a documentary highlighting the work of Rape Victim Advocates, Why Am I Hiding?, which Hoffman directed. That won a couple of local Emmy Awards and launched their relationship with WTTW.
Before shooting theater productions, HMS first got into capturing dance on camera. The first Chicago modern dance performance Silberstein saw with the now-gone Lynda Martha Dance Company was because Martha, one of his neighbors, wanted to set him up with one of her dancers. He became hooked instantly on the art form, if not the artist.
"The only way I could describe what I saw was to say 'This is what music looks like.'" With he and Hoffman both having musical backgrounds—Silberstein is a classically trained pianist—the transition to translating dance for video came naturally. A special they did for WTTW on River North Dance Company followed.
For Silberstein, the key to doing the work well lies in both preparation and improvisation. "The phrase we kept using was make it not just presentational, but make it invitational. You can only take that so far when you're archiving [a live performance]. But if you're doing something that is a documentary, like the River North special . . . we take a look at it and say, 'Well, what can we do with video that only video can do?' What can you do? You can violate time-space continuum. You can give people access to places they couldn't go, in quick proximity that they could never have, and show them things in an hour that might otherwise take them three days to get to everything."
He adds, "Even when we're doing full-out live performance specials, we start with 'What's the analogous experience? What can we do that feels really responsive to what's happening onstage as opposed to capturing it? We'll have shooting scripts in the sense of 'Here's what's about to happen.’ But however it happened at rehearsal is not how it's going to happen tonight. Renée Fleming might be in one frame of mind in the afternoon rehearsal, but now she's in her wonderful formal gown and there's a whole other energy and there's an audience. So we've got to make sure that we're in a position to respond to Renée, as opposed to capturing her."
For his staff, that means hiring camera operators with "innate talent and a willingness to surrender to the logistics. If you are a camera op who needs to have things a certain way with a certain amount of light and a certain amount of control, this is probably not for you." Instead, Silberstein and HMS embrace the "yes, and" ethos of Chicago improvisation, where obstacles become opportunities.
Silberstein notes that many people think that the bigger the show, the more cameras you need. The opposite is often true.
"Think about this big musical I just shot for you. There's stuff happening around the stage all the time. If I cut wide, that shot is meaningful. You can actually make that look really good with two cameras. Now the play that we're about to shoot, there's a scene where someone is all the way stage left, someone's center, and someone's all the way stage right. You want close-ups of everybody at any given time. Our editors know that sometimes you don't want to edit that shot too soon, because part of the joy of the moment is popping your head over to catch them a half second after they started speaking, as opposed to half a second before. In that split-second difference, all your energy is gone, because your element of surprise is gone."
Audio quality remains a key for a good video experience, notes Silberstein. "A great audio design can make so-so video feel like it looks better than it actually is."
For companies creating new content or repurposing older content online for the shutdown, Silberstein thinks the same questions he asks artists at the start of any collaboration apply. "Why this video? Why this platform? Who is it for, and why do we think they'll be interested?"
But he also finds value in watching older performances and the sense of community it captures for our current state of isolation. "The magic is the space between what's onstage and the audience and that air. We're trying to shoot that energy of that air, and hopefully that's what you feel when you see it." v