Camera-ready theatre lovers

It takes dramatic ­instincts and ­impeccable timing to capture live theatre and dance in ­photographs

Taking photos is normally forbidden in the theatre – unless you do it for a living. It takes special skills and a flair for drama to capture the lively arts in two dimensions.

“I can anticipate when that important moment in the dialogue is going to come,” says Racheal McCaig, who brings a background in theatre (she’s an award-winning playwright) to creating dynamic shots for Second City (see below), Cirque du Soleil, Ross Petty Productions and Broadway World. 

“When I’m photographing dancers I know when that grand jeté is coming. And with singers, I know what kind of vowel sounds are going to make their faces look better, how the expressions are going to be more engaging.” 


Lindsay Mullan (left), Ann Pornel and Becky Johnson cracked us up in Come What Mayhem. (Photo by Racheal McCaig)

“Knowing how drama and comedy works definitely helps, because it’s all about timing,” says Dahlia Katz, an experienced director who, along with husband M. John Kennedy, runs Solar Stage Children’s Theatre.

Although she also shoots corporate gigs and is especially adept at portraiture (NOW readers will recognize her heart-stopping shots of late theatre writer Jon Kaplan), Katz brings an innate understanding of production processes, text and drama to campaigns for Cahoots (see below), Crow’s, Tapestry Opera, Luminato and SummerWorks, among many others.

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Dahlia Katz

Virgilia Griffith (left) and Shakura Dickson explore the lives of Black women in Other Side Of The Game.

The quest for that perfect representative image can lead to some oblique strategies.

“I like to come in from a deep angle at one side or another in order to overlap the subjects and eliminate the negative space,” Katz says. “Even though it’s not the way the audience views the play, it’s the way they process the image – if you were to map the brain, the scene would look like that.” 

For dance photographer Karolina Kuras, there is added complexity in working with choreographed movement. These days much of her work features dancers from the National Ballet of Canada, perfectionists who require images to uphold stringent technical standards.

If the dancers’ lines aren’t pristine, the photo won’t do, no matter how lovely.

Kuras, who has trained in ballet, is best known for her poetic studio and location shots. Or the high-profile TTC/National Ballet marketing campaign she shot in 2016. But she also shoots performances (such as The Winter’s Tale and Nijinsky, currently onstage at the Four Seasons Centre) live, from the front of house, the sound booth or backstage. 

“I love shooting live from the wings,” says Kuras. “Especially for certain ballets like Giselle, there’s something about the light and the way it crosses that’s so magical. The dancing itself can be hard to capture from that side view, but I feel there’s some room for those interesting in-between moments and facial expressions. Backstage for me is way more creative.” 

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Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer shine in The Winter’s Tale. (Photo by Karolina Kuras)

With a marketing emphasis on shareable content, evocative images are a key component for the performing arts on multiple platforms, from Instagram to online production micro-sites. McCaig and Katz agree that creating these kinds of images is “exceptionally important” for theatre companies of all sizes. 

All three photographers are frequently asked to create polished and eye-catching branding images at a dedicated photo call or staged studio shoot. But in these days of diminished resources, it’s more likely for these pros to shoot a tech run, dress rehearsal or even, occasionally, a preview with an audience present.

The latter is problematic because, as Katz points out, digital cameras like the Nikon she prefers to use, make noise, shutter clicks and beeps, and silencers are not completely effective.

“I’m reluctant to interrupt the intimate experience that audience members are paying for.” But sometimes – during big festivals, for example – it’s the only option available.

Audiences will be glad to know that those annoying digital noises may soon disappear for good. Kuras points out that professional photographers upgrade their gear and software continually.

Although she loves the rigour of shooting on film and will sometimes use a large format camera, it’s a rare luxury. More often Kuras uses her digital Canon 5D, which works well with the low light of theatre production.

“For what I do, the technology is just getting better and better. It’s making my work easier and making what I want to attain more possible. Dance is so technical on both sides of the camera – you couldn’t shoot a show with a point-and-shoot or an iPhone.”

In an era where everyone has a camera and we relentlessly record and share everything we see, you’d think professional photographers – especially those specializing in something as esoteric as capturing the performing arts – would be obsolete.

Happily that’s not the case. What McCaig, Katz and Kuras bring to the table is a real understanding of what modern theatre and dance productions need.

“How do you sell a live experience?” muses McCaig. “The visual is the most immediate marketing tool you can have. It’s the thing that pulls the audience in, that engages a viewer or listener. You really need a striking image.”

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