Coming to a (Movie) Theater Near You

I love going to the movies, but I leave writing about them to others, especially my CityBeat colleague tt stern-enzi, who routinely offers a perspective worth reading. Nevertheless, I’m going to local cineplexes more often for digital transmission

I love going to the movies, but I leave writing about them to others, especially my CityBeat colleague tt stern-enzi, who routinely offers a perspective worth reading. Nevertheless, I’m going to local cineplexes more often for digital transmissions of theater from around the world. It’s a lot easier to drive to Oakley, Springdale, Newport, Ky., or Florence, Ky., than to fly to New York City or London.

Is the experience the same as seeing a live performance onstage? Well, no. But it’s a lot better than not seeing it. Of course, camera work and production values are the big difference. Traditional films have trained us to expect close-ups and viewing angles that are not possible in the theater. In fact, it can be disconcerting to watch a live performance on screen and have your attention focused on a single character as opposed to in the theater where you can take in the whole stage and watch action develop. 

Live performances often appear overdone when they’re projected on screen, a dissonance resulting from theatrical conventions. Stage actors are trained to project their voices and perform broadly so everyone in a theater can “get” what’s going on. That can make onscreen performances seem unnatural, overly intense or just plain cheesy. (The recent movie of Tracy Letts’ play August: Osage County had a stellar cast, including Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, but it was criticized for being too “stagey.”)

I’ve seen several Metropolitan Opera live HD offerings since they began in 2006. The Met invests roughly $1 million per broadcast, with approximately 40 people working on technical aspects for each production, including 10 cameras, with magnificent results. There has been some debate as to whether these events have eroded attendance at Lincoln Center in New York City, but they certainly represent a marketing coup as well as a valuable revenue stream for the Met, which sends performances to 1,600 theaters around the world, attended by 2.5 to 3 million total ticket buyers during the season.

Other opera companies (Milan’s La Scala and London’s Royal Opera House) and performing arts organizations have given this approach a shot, including the New York City Ballet and the Bolshoi. Theaters have been slower to jump on the bandwagon, but London’s National Theatre has found success with live transmissions and encores, as has the Royal Shakespeare Company. The latter will distribute Henry IV, Part I, in May and Part II in June. (You can see the same works onstage locally at Cincinnati Shakespeare, opening late this month.)

Greater Cincinnati cinemas have been a bit slow or erratic in picking up and promoting these events. Since last fall, Cincinnati Shakespeare has partnered with Springdale 18 Cinema de Lux to promote NT Live presentations from London’s National Theatre, including Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh and Coriolanus with Olivier Award nominee Tom Hiddleston. “We will continue to participate with NT Live,” says Brian Isaac Phillips, Cincy Shakes’ artistic director. “We saw much better attendance than expected. Macbeth, Frankenstein and Coriolanus all sold out. My hope is that this series not only introduces our theater to a new audience, but also helps our current audience gain a better understanding of what is happening theatrically on the world stage. The more theater you experience, the more you want to see. That makes NT Live an all-around win for audiences and Cincinnati Shakespeare.”

Miscellaneous one-time theatrical events have been occasionally available to Cincinnati audiences. The New York Philharmonic’s 2011 concert production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company with Neil Patrick Harris did well in movie theaters here and nationwide. (It subsequently aired on PBS and is available on DVD.) An acclaimed London revival of another Sondheim show, Merrily We Roll Along, filled movie theaters in New York City and Chicago last November. I saw it here in Cincinnati at the new Cinemark facility in Oakley, although the audience was pretty sparse — maybe 30 people. A few other Broadway productions — the musicals Memphis and Jekyll & Hyde and the Roundabout Theatre Company’s The Importance of Being Earnest — have been presented as one-time events, but more such offerings have found it hard to overcome financial obstacles including costly union issues.

Nevertheless, more and more productions seem to be in the pipeline. An Australian production of Driving Miss Daisy starring Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones has been filmed and is planned for distribution this spring; I urge you to check out such opportunities. 

To repeat Brian Isaac Phillips’ remark, “The more theater you experience, the more you want to see.”

CONTACT RICK PENDER : [email protected]

Rick Pender

RICK PENDER has written about theater for CityBeat since its first issues in 1994. Before that he wrote for EveryBody’s News. From 1998 to 2006 he was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor. Retired from a long career in public relations, he’s still a local arts fan, providing readers (and public radio listeners)...
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