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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It sounds like a paradox: The National Theatre’s production of London Assurance is only playing in London, yet audiences can see it in New York, New Jersey, and beyond.
That’s because the show will be broadcast via satellite as part of the National’s “NT Live” program.
Here’s how it works: A crew in London will film the June 28 performance of Dion Boucicault’s comedy, with cameras stationed in the audience. Some European cinemas will broadcast the show as it happens, while movie theatres throughout the world will host limited-engagement screenings between late June and mid July.
That sounds simple enough, but NT Live represents a complex and increasingly popular entertainment genre. Not quite theatre and not quite film, it brings a hybridized experience to audiences who hunger for live performance but don’t always have access to it. Let’s call it “live-ish” art.
Though it’s been emerging for several years, the live-ish method has recently gotten a boost from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which has broadcast performances in Times Square and in cinemas throughout the world. Rock stars like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Green Day have also had concerts beamed directly into megaplexes.
But no matter what’s being featured, these broadcasts walk a delicate path. If producers are going to turn cinemas into event venues, then they have to bring the screen come to life. If they just switch on a camera and leave, then their broadcasts will feel like every lifeless YouTube video of the second grade play.
However, a broadcast can’t feel too much like a film, or audiences may feel they’re watching a typical documentary. The sense of now-or-never energy will be lost.
After overseeing five productions this season, David Sabel, the producer of NT Live, has learned a great deal about striking the balance between film and live performance.
His first goal is honoring the play. “We want to broadcast a piece of live theatre, because it is a piece of live theatre,” he says, and he stresses that NT Live only shoots once, in front of a paying theatre audience that’s actually watching the production being recorded.
“I suspect if you shot in a studio, like a film, with no audience present, you would have a very different product,” he continues. “But the actors are playing and responding to a unique audience, just as they do every night. What we have found from audience feedback is that we are not making a movie of a play, but rather we are transforming cinemas into something that resembles a theatre.”
But here’s the true paradox: It takes cinematic tricks to make a movie screen feel like a stage.
For instance, Sabel and his team often keep the audience in the frame, recalling how stand-up comedy films let us see the crowd. “People want to applaud, even though the performers in London can’t hear them,” he says. “Seeing the audience in London sort of addresses that need.”
Camera techniques also guide the viewer’s eye. Certain areas of the stage are highlighted during key moments, for instance, and cameras may cut between bickering actors to emphasize their comic timing.
Sabel says, “We almost try to film it the way you might film a live sports event. We try to take you where we think you want to be looking.”
Meanwhile, some elements of the “event experience” have nothing to do with the play. Each movie theatre only screens the performance one or two times, which emphasizes the ephemerality of a live event, and the NT Live productions can only be seen in a cinema, not on television or on a laptop. “You need that sense of being in an audience with other people,” Sabel says. “You are sharing in a collective, theatrical experience, which is very different from a film.”
But for all this, NT Live does occasionally feel like a night at the movies.
Before the show and during intermission, theatres screen DVD-extra-style featurettes that include everything from set tours to actor interviews. On the technical side, the National erects special platforms just for the cameras, and it operates lighting instruments at more intense levels so that cameras can pick up the subtleties of a lighting design.
Cameras can also clarify storytelling. Earlier this season, NT Live taped a performance of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, which uses a play-within-a-play structure. When the characters were “in rehearsal,” NT Live used an in-your-face, handheld filming style, and when the characters were “performing the play,” it took a more formal visual approach.
So far, people are embracing the program. Granted, there have been a few technical problems, and there will always be people who are understandably dubious about seeing a play at the movies, but reviews of the broadcasts have been strong and ticket sales have been encouraging. (A second season of NT Live shows will be announced next week.)
And at the end of the day, even if they can’t replicate the entire experience of live performances, live-ish broadcasts can make art available to people who would never see it otherwise. Within the parameters of the big screen, they can eliminate the distance between us and a show.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
photos by Catherine Ashmore