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Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.
Theatre on the screen
by Jennifer Ross
The lights dim: expectation feels electric. A lone figure comes on stage in tribal costume, axe in hand. This is Nation, by Terry Pratchett. But it's not London's West End: it's The Screen - a small cinema in Winchester.
The broadcast of Nation is part of NT Live, a UK National Theatre (NT) scheme which sees productions beamed in high definition from London to over 270 cinemas in 21 countries, including Iceland and America. Helen Mirren - the lead in Phèdre, the first NT Live production - compares it to a sports outside broadcast. Sharing in a nationwide event is very much part of the appeal. Live images of the auditorium in London are relayed before the show starts, so one can see the theatre gradually filling up. Those watching in cinemas are also treated to special documentaries on the performance, which add to a sense of expectation and, arguably, give the plays more depth.
NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner: 'The NT Live project is designed to bring what we do at the National to a much greater number of people than we would ever be able to reach otherwise. I'm confident that we have pioneered a new genre: not quite live theatre, certainly not cinema, but an exciting approximation of the real thing whose potential reach is limitless.'
The project, almost a year in creation, saw the uniting of NT Live producer David Sabel and Nicholas Hytner. Nicholas Hytner had seen the success of the New York Metropolitan Opera's satellite broadcasts. His own production of Don Carlos for the Royal Opera House had been screened in London's Trafalgar Square. Together they came up with a pilot project and received an enthusiastic response from cinema chains and independents. Funding was provided by The Arts Council, The National Endowment for Science, Technology And The Arts (NESTA) and Travelex.
Nicholas Hytner: 'We are not trying to make a movie. What we are trying to do is use the skills of a multi-video camera team to broadcast as vividly as possible the experience you might get if you were sitting in the theatre. There are going to be some big advantages. We are going to be able to take you in close.' For Phèdre, five or six cameras were used, as well as a track in front of the stage and a small crane. Nothing in the production was left to chance: video director Robin Lough attended performance rehearsals as well as two 4-hour camera rehearsals.
The first two broadcasts were seen by over 75,000 people and have been well-received. Dawn Hedger from Romsey - an audience-member at Winchester's broadcast of Nation - said 'It was fantastic - you got the whole theatrical experience without having to trek up to London.'
Digital Theatre is a website for downloading recordings of theatre performances. Co-founders Robert Delamere and Tom Shaw say 'We wanted to bring the theatre into the internet, and obviously there's a lot on film, music, TV, sport on the net, but for some reason theatre still seems to be in a kind of ghetto. So many young people spend a lot of time online, so it was a way of getting it out to them.'
The site has been viewed by people in over 100 countries and six continents. For £8.99, users can download and keep recordings of performances from each of five creative partners - Almeida Theatre Company, English Touring Theatre, Royal Court Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Young Vic. In time Digital Theatre hope to expand their range of companies in order to cover as much theatre as possible, including international performances: 'This has the potential to make theatre a new mass media. We need to mirror theatre as best as we can and make more available.'
Each performance takes around 8 weeks to create, depending on how many cameras are used by the team, but the process is getting faster. The main challenge is to relay effectively the drama and emotion of each performance. To do this they work closely with creative teams during editing in order to capture the best experience of the play. Sometimes multiple performances will be filmed and edited together.
The future of theatre? A NT spokesperson: 'I wouldn't say this is "the future of theatre", in that nothing replaces the experience of attending theatre in person - we also have an extensive touring programme - but NT Live is a way, as David Sabel puts it, of "opening the walls of the theatre for one night". The project also demands a lot of resources, both technical and financial, so not many theatres are likely to be in a position to follow suit.'
The end of theatre? Hardly. Robert Delamere: 'There's no question of whether or not there's a place for live theatre... as long as actors want to perform in from of a live audience there'll be theatre. I think actors will always want to perform in front of a live audience.' Tom Shaw: 'We've had the privilege to film work by great artists and great companies. Theatre's not going to die and nor do we want it to.'
(c) Jennifer Ross 24 February 2010
Notes: NT Live features The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett on 22 April 2010. Information: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/45462/home/nt-live-homepage.html. Digital Theatre productions include Far From the Madding Crowd, The Container, Parlour Song. Information: www.digitaltheatre.com
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2013