First photography, then books – and now not even theatre can resist the influence of the digital age. When National Theatre Live broadcast its first performance of Phèdre in 2009, the launch was branded as a modern artistic experiment. Unsurprisingly, the idea of screening a live play in cinemas across the country was met with the usual consternation by traditionalists – but the result was (and is) an overwhelming success. Now, this hybrid form of the digital and theatrical is as popular as a trip to the cinema or the theatre itself. New platforms such as Digital Media have expanded the network of live-broadcasting theatres, with each screening surpassing an auditorium of 250 to a nationwide audience of 25,000. But does this revolution pose a genuine threat to the future of theatre as we’ve known it?
One of the most admirable benefits of this digital innovation is the higher level of accessibility it has afforded the theatre. A recent broadcast of the NT’s War Horse drew an audience of 120,000, over 100 times the seat capacity of the new London Theatre. This is indisputably positive, particularly where rising ticket prices and accusations of elitism have undermined theatre-going in recent decades. As remarked by John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera for the Royal Opera House: ‘We’ve reached a tipping point where the people here in the auditorium will soon be a minority within our total audience… The Royal Opera’s brand is now the work we do, rather than the stage we do it on.’
Indeed, the potential to reach a worldwide audience has implications for the variety and quality of each production; the possibility of performing to new demographics promises to enrich theatre even further. And for a society that has somewhat decentralised the importance of the arts, it’s difficult to comprehend what could be bad about the opportunity to reinstate theatre back onto its rightful pedestal. Perhaps this is the closest we can expect to return to that Elizabethan ‘golden age’, where theatre formed the pinnacle of everyday culture.
Of course, this neglects the blindingly obvious difference: that of sitting in a cinema and sitting in the theatre. There is an undeniable magic in the experience of watching a drama unfold and pulsate on a stage only metres away from your seat; the intimate, elusive bond built between actor and audience is one of the most electrifying aspects of watching a play. For some, therefore, the physical distance of a live broadcast creates an emotional detachment, and one which is insurmountable.
Stephen Wood, executive director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, argues for this case. He labels these live braodcasts as ‘weird’: ‘They are neither theatre nor film, but something in between. That’s not to say they are not valid, it’s just that they are a very odd thing… it is not the same experience as being in the theatre. When you are sitting in the room where a performance is happening, every single person has a unique “shot” or take of the performance. In this case, the shot that everyone sees is exactly the same – and it is the one chosen by the camera director.’
His points are fair; and admittedly, as a fairly regular theatre-goer, I had my own reservations about the concept of watching a live broadcast last month. The performance in question was Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic. No doubt like most of the others attending, by the time Gillian Anderson’s exceptional portrayal of the tragic Blanche Du Bois became word of mouth, the play was sold out – so the opportunity to catch it in the cinema was a lifeline. Within moments of it starting, any frustration I had at not being present within the ‘real’ audience dissipated; over the next three hours, I’d never been more immersed or affected by a play in my entire experience of theatre.
The action of the play takes place on a constantly revolving set, something which the cameras could not capture for the cinema, and in that sense we lost a sense of the organicism constructed by the director. (And perhaps it would be nice to say I saw the ‘real’ thing, particularly now that the broadcast will be repeated for months to come). But nevertheless, the stakes are high to find a production that has as profound, memorable or transfixing an impact: my reservations about digitalised theatre are no longer.
Wood remarks that the theatre industry must be ‘careful that we don’t arrive at a situation where this type of thing is what people’s only experience of live theatre really is… It must not ever become a substitute’. Even the most die-hard fans of this new cinematic hybrid would surely agree. The aim is not to supplant theatre, but rather to expand its horizons and shatter some financial and social boundaries. Every new medium poses a threat to the last – but little ever changes. Online viewing has not diminished the television; Photoshop has not killed photography; the radio has not superseded live concerts. Rather, the experience of live broadcast theatre is likely to accentuate the power of sitting in the real auditorium – and give us a taste of what we’re missing.