Will Video Recordings of Broadway and London Shows Solve L.A.'s Theater Envy?

Tom Hiddleston and Hadley Fraser star in the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus, broadcast via National Theatre Live from London to Los AngelesEXPAND
Tom Hiddleston and Hadley Fraser star in the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus, broadcast via National Theatre Live from London to Los Angeles
Photo by Johan Persson

Los Angeles is a city all about digital storytelling, especially in this age of streaming movies, TV shows and YouTube series. And so it seems, more than ever, that live theater is an antidote to that trend, as one of the last forms of real-life storytelling.

Unfortunately, though, for all the good theater we have (and we do have quite a bit), there's still so much "can't miss" theater happening in places that are far away. Not everyone can afford a thousand-dollar flight to New York or London and tickets that cost $150 or more per person. Shows from those cities sometimes make their way to L.A., but sometimes not until years later, once a place like the Pantages or the Ahmanson decides to host.

This is where recorded live theater can come to the rescue. While recording shows has been commonplace for quite some time now - in addition to bootlegs, the New York Public Library and similar institutions in San Francisco and Washington, DC have performing arts libraries full of legal recordings that can be accessed to academic purposes - the practice has been successfully commercialized by a number of companies who are screening these recordings in L.A. (and around the world).

The model's been mostly perfected with British productions, the most well-known being National Theatre Live, which screened last month's live broadcast of Coriolanus, starring Tom Hiddleston. But more and more, American productions are now getting into the mix. Well, Angelenos have a few options, mostly provided by BY Experience, which distributes much-publicized broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera's performances (known as The Met: Live in HD), among other events. The next big theatrical outing is the recently-closed revival of Romeo and Juliet, starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad, which hits theaters today through Sunday, in time for Valentine's Day. Brand new company BroadwayHD is broadcasting high definition recordings of the show to movie theaters in the L.A. area this weekend. 
These Broadway events are few and far between. They include MTV's television broadcast of Legally Blonde: The Musical, Screenvision's movie theater distribution of Neil Patrick Harris in Company, and Shrek: The Musical, which appeared on Netflix this winter with little fanfare. Sony Pictures Releasing started the movie theater trend in 2008, broadcasting the final performance of Rent on Broadway to movie theaters, and later releasing it on DVD. (Another similar model is PBS' airing of theatrical, musical, and operatic performances in its Great Performances series, such as the 2006 revival of Company starring Raùl Esparza, though those are only on television.)

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" for shows like War Horse or One Man, Two Guvnors, which are still running in the U.K. and many other places around the world.

These shows are initially simulcast to movie theaters such as Los Angeles' Downtown Independent, and, occasionally, as in the cast of the Benedict Cumberbatch/Johnny Lee Miller Frankenstein and the aforementioned Coriolanus, re-released every so often.

Like NT Live, Digital Theatre, a website based out of London, offers anyone with a computer and a credit card the ability to download or rent filmed stage productions to watch at home. Digital Theatre has about as many titles in their catalog as NT Live, but there is little overlap in their offerings - Digital Theatre features companies like Shakespeare's Globe, the Almeida Theatre, Regent's Park Open Air, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Young Vic.

Co-founder and CEO Robert Delamere sees initiatives like Digital Theatre as great equalizers.  "We've got a big belief in making the arts available to people, regardless of economic or geographic constraints," he says. "Digital technology provides a way of creating access for people and also making sure the arts don't become elitist... It seems to be creating more audiences rather than the opposite."

Why have the Brits had so much more success than us so far? Well, the union situation in America is a tad more complicated here. American actors are represented by Actors' Equity for stage productions and SAG-AFTRA for movies, TV, and other recorded media. In England, their version of Actors' Equity covers all the domains, making it much easier to work out a contract that pleases all involved parties. It looks like the American process is now becoming simpler for producers wishing to broadcast a show. "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."

As recording theater for mass consumption becomes more commonplace, it looks like there will be fewer and fewer kinks to be worked outs, and more audiences will be able to see previously-inaccessible shows. And while recorded theater will never be able to replace the live experience, it appears to have graduated its previous, experimental status. As Julie Borchard-Young, a Los Angeles native and owner of BY Experience, puts it, "We believe that the live cinema experience is here to stay."

Romeo and Juliet is playing at movie theaters in the Los Angeles area February 13-16. For more info, visit BroadwayHD's website. Encore screenings of Coriolanus continue through March. For more info, visit National Theatre Live's website.

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