It’s Time for Theater to Embrace Film’s Accessibility

By Dolores Quintana

One of the core tenets of theater is that it is available for only a limited time and that if you don’t go to a theater and see a play, you will miss the experience forever. Like a puff of ephemeral fairy dust, those not in the know and able to go, miss their chance to see magic. Many theater people consider this to be something that makes the art more special, more rarefied. To all of these people, the National Theatre of England has one word: poppycock.

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It is a bit ironic that one of the older and more hallowed theater organizations is one of the first to embrace the idea of filming a play and broadcasting it around the world in movie theaters or digitally but to this writer, it would seem to be both a natural extension of the art and a great idea. In a time where many theater companies complain of being ignored by the general public, this is possibly one of the greatest ideas to spread the magic of theater arts to everyone.

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It’s not a new idea by any means, Sir Laurence Olivier started filming his productions at the Old Vic decades ago, prior to the National Theatre of England being formed and he became its first artistic director in 1963. His dedication to the theater arts cannot be questioned, but as an innovator himself, he saw the wisdom of preserving his performances and letting the world see them. The current director, Nicholas Hytner, also saw that wisdom and carried it further with ideas like the National Theatre Live, created in 2009 and NT Future, an initiative stating the specific goals to carry the NT into the future by taking steps to improve the theater’s infrastructure and education for the general public. The inaugural broadcast of the play Phèdre starring Helen Mirren played to an audience of 50 thousand people around the world in 200 movie theaters. Think of it. You can only fit so many people into a theater. The number is finite, but all things are possible with theater broadcasting.

To me, the idea that plays are only there for the moment has always seemed a selfish and counterintuitive notion. Art exists for the propagation of understanding, and as the noted movie critic Roger Ebert once said about films, to teach empathy. What’s so special about a beautiful creation disappearing after a specified time? It’s a piece of art, not a phone in Mission Impossible. What would it be like if the classical works of painting and sculpture were only available for a certain time or certain people? What logic would that serve? It can only be seen as being a bit elitist and not populist no matter what the actual intention may be.  Here’s a hint, if you want to sell tickets to more people, it is a better idea to open the door as wide as possible and invite many different types of people in.

Consider this quote from the Royal National Theatre‘s current artistic director,  Nicholas Hytner:

“I grew up in Manchester in the 60s.  If I had been able to see Olivier’s National Theatre at my local cinema, I would have gone all of the time.”

It is becoming much more common for theater plays and operas to be recorded for broadcast or streamed live. There is the site Broadway Live, Digital Theatre  (for shows in the UK other than those put on by the National) and The Met Live,  in addition to the National Theatre Live, so it seems to be a trend that has much potential to grow.  But why aren’t more Los Angeles theaters taking advantage?

Unfortunately, theater is slow to warm to new ideas and concepts. There may be a perception, drawn from the 99 seat agreement with AEA – which was written in 2006 before the explosion of streaming video and a more common incidence of the filming of live plays for broadcast, that AEA is opposed to any filming or broadcast over the stated 30 minutes for news or community affairs broadcast purposes. According to an article from the LA Weekly on this very subject, Actors Equity seems to have made the process easier and become more open to the concept, “We’ve really streamlined it, and producers have bitten,” says Larry Lorczak, a senior business representative for the U.S. Actors’ Equity. “In the last year, we’ve had more deals than in last four years combined prior to that.” So it seems that all that would be necessary is for productions to apply for Equity agreements and adhere to Equity guidelines and contracts and request the permission to film. The more requests they get, the more it will convince them that the demand is there and open up the process further. It might perhaps convince them to revise the 99 seat code to include a more progressive stand on theater broadcasts and archives for those theaters who use that agreement. It couldn’t hurt to ask and to negotiate. That’s how things change. Certainly, among the 99 seat theaters, it might be a way to reward actors, who are paid minimums, with tape for their own promotion which is something that films and television productions already do.

There may also be the lingering notion that broadcasting theater will keep people from coming on their own when they can just watch from home. From the same LA Weekly article, the experience of the National Theatre Live belies that idea, “David Sabel, the executive producer of National Theatre Live, the British company at the forefront of live broadcasts of British shows, is adamant that these broadcasts don’t affect ticket sales, even for their most popular titles. In fact, the opposite ends up being true. As he puts it, “The broadcast seems to be a really positive thing, because it drives even more excitement and interest in the production…” But the fact is, if they aren’t coming now, how is attempting to reach out to a new segment of a potential audience and making the shows more available to them hurting ticket sales exactly? How will not telling them about and not showing them that play you’ve put so much work into make them come to see it? In the area of music and live concerts, even music festivals like The Coachella Music Festival and Bonnaroo are live streaming and archiving concerts and it also seems to have the same affect on attendance and word of mouth, namely, it gets people more interested.

What better way to ensure that the theater you love to watch and create lives another day and into the future? Also, what better way to have the privilege to watch shows from other parts of the world? It is this kind of forward thinking and generosity that will forge a way for theater to thrive in the future and allow us all to enjoy theater access. There might be a few bumps on the way, but in a world where streaming video is taking a much larger percentage of even the film and television audience and some of the younger generations are wholly innocent of what theater is and that it is even an option in entertainment, what better way to reach them?

Dolores Quintana is an actress, singer, and writer who has strong opinions and who likes to exercise them regularly. She works in film, television, and theater with the occasional foray into stand up comedy. Follow her on Twitter at @doloresquintana or check out her credits on IMDB.

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3 responses to “It’s Time for Theater to Embrace Film’s Accessibility

  1. Wonderfully stated. I saw a filmed version of the National’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and it made me want to see the live production. It will open on Broadway this fall.

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  2. Thank you much, Michael. Sorry it took me so long to reply, I thought there were no comments, but this one is very gratifying and a good example of how well this idea can work. Theater needs progressive ideas and the willingness to work with new concepts to be able to reach as many people as possible. To the theater traditionalists, I say it might be scary, but wouldn’t it be worth it in the end?

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  3. Thank you for your insight, Dolores! I very much appreciate what you wrote and the sound rationale for believing that the work we produce should be experienced by as many people as possible. Given the increasing costs to tour, and our theatre company tours a number of different shows simultaneously, it only makes sense to find other ways to offer our work so we can reach those people who simply do not have access to, or the means to attend live theatre.

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