By Hubert Ta
Curtains obscure the stage, and the theatre is quiet. People steadily file into their seats, with the sounds of whispers, popcorn being munched on and drinks sloshing around. As the feature presentation begins, the curtains lift and the actors take the stage. Only, this stage is hundreds of miles away in New York City, with two audiences: one sitting and watching the action live in the concert hall, and the other sitting in movie theater seats watching a livestream of the theatrical production through a projector.
Every year, thousands of theaters stage screenings like this, ranging from the Bolshoi Ballet direct from Moscow and “Hamlet” at Shakespeare’s Globe, to UFC bouts and Metallica live on tour. This has even translated to TV, with productions of “The Sound of Music Live!” and “Grease Live!” being transmitted to millions of homes.
What does this bode for theatre? Live theatre is an experience of its own — an intimate setting in front of the actors on stage — where you can hear the echo of the hall’s acoustics and the laughter and applause of the crowd. To see Idina Menzel belt out “Defying Gravity” as Elphaba and Lin-Manuel Miranda rap as Alexander Hamilton is an entirely different experience in a seat devoid of the physical presence of the actors.
However, while theatre on a screen may not provide the same experience of being physically present at a show, a screening on a movie projector provides one principal benefit: access. The Tony Awards display this benefit every year, showcasing the best of Broadway in quick snippets of live theatre broadcast to the nation at large, most of whom would not have seen these plays during their initial run. Attending plays, musicals and live shows is much more expensive than watching the films that document them. What these recordings provide is similar to that of concert films and TV sports’ broadcasts. It might not be the exact same experience, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. For example: You could pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to get front row seats at the Super Bowl, or you could watch it for free on TV and get aerial coverage, commentary and the NFL’s yellow first-down line.
With theatre and the majority of entertainment events, recordings and streams will always provide a good seat, typically at a fraction of the cost of the worst seats in the theatre. Access in this manner is democratizing, allowing more audiences to experience shows that would be closed off due to their affordability or location, and hopefully sparking their interest should theatre become more accessible to them in the future.
Professor Vincent Olivieri, Head of Design at UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, notes that these theatrical recordings have one immense advantage: “Productions are affected by being immortalized in some sort of medium, rather than only existing on one stage, in one theatre, for a limited time. This means that productions can be viewed in historical context, years after they were created.”
Theatre on a screen isn’t completely theatrical, nor is it inherently cinematic. Nonetheless, the medium provides mass access to audiences and its own unique perspective, preserving lasting performances for future generations to come. If revivals already renew interest in decades-old material, imagine what footage of the original performances could do. The next time the Irvine Barclay Theatre screens “The Threepenny Opera” or your local theater holds a screening of the latest revival of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, check out the show. If you can’t fly to Broadway or London’s West End to see a play, you might as well watch it streamed live on a giant screen. It’s not the same as front row seats, but it’s close enough.