The Playgoer: The Theatre Will be Digitized

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Theatre Will be Digitized

The revolution to make top-rank live professional theatrical performance accessible to millions via digital technology is happening. And it's happening in the UK.

First there was "NT Live" the Royal National Theatre's broadcasting of select performances into cinemas around the world. (Similar to the Metropolitan Opera's program here in NY.) Having now seen an NT Live showing--of a fetching All's Well That Ends Well) I'm convinced the future is here.

Not a future without live performance or where video substitutes for that. But where easy-access digital video exists as a second-choice alternative to at least get a sense of performances one is not able to see firsthand--not just due to cost or scheduling, but because the performance might have been halfway around the world!

One of the pleasures of watching the National's All's Well is that I really felt an amazing approximation of experiences I've had at that theatre myself. Having been there I could imagine myself in the space watching that performance. And all from the comfort of my corner art-house movie theatre in Queens. For $20.

No, it wasn't better than seeing the real thing. But honestly I wasn't going to get to London anyway this fall. And it was definitely better than watching it on television from my couch. At least I was in a proper seat and couldn't just go to the kitchen or answer the phone. (Thus it demanded the same kind of attention live performance does.)

Speaking of television, there's another key function this innovation could play today--filling the gap left by the abandonment of live theatre by television networks. With not even PBS any longer committed to an "American Playhouse" preserving great dramas (not just musicals) done by great actors, can new media step in to provide that service.

So enter yet another British company, a two-bloke startup, simply called Digital Theater that has begun offering, for a modest rental fee, "high definition, downloadable theatre productions filmed in front of live audiences" straight to your laptop.

So yes, this would return us to the diminished screen of the tv. But still. Pretty neat, I say. And aside from the simple pleasure of peeking in on interesting productions from the UK--and soon, hopefully, elsewhere--just think of the value to history and future research.

I tell you, the first major US theatre company that pulls an NT live or Met Opera and goes ahead and gets a grant and puts their entire season online...that'll be a trailblazer. (I'm looking at you, Guthrie. Goodman. Anyone?)

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