To Film or Not to Film Live THEE-EH-TAH

To Film or Not to Film Live  THEE – EH – TAH

I’ve always paused and reflected, when, at the end of a sitcom, a voiceover remarks, “This episode of Three’s Company [or insert your favorite show] “was taped before a live studio audience.”  The emphasis on the “liveness” of the audience is intriguing.  Would it matter to TV viewers at home if there were no audience, unless you told them so and prompted them to think about it? I’ve also paused on occasion and thought about the idea of “liveness” when watching Saturday Night Live…it’s in the title for goodness sake.  On this show, the actors’ interaction with the audience and the actors’ ability to laugh at their own jokes, mistakes, and other actors keeps us viewers conscious of the liveness and, you might go so far as to say, comes as close as you can to authentically capturing liveness.

Lovers of the theatre have and will always speak endearingly, passionately, proudly, even defensively, about the incomparable immediacy and intensity of live dramatic performance. (My goal actually wasn’t alliteration at the end of that sentence. But anyway.)  Can you tell, I’m one of those people? One of those people who is simultaneously grossed out by, but totally okay with, the inevitable spit spewing that you get to observe when you sit just rows from the stage?  Theatre lovers aside, many people appreciate, and are even willing to pay extra, in order to experience a live performance, from readings and CONCERTS to dance and opera. Beyond immediacy, and the heightened intensity it can yield, what else is it about live performance that draws people in? The social factor? The brag factor?

Last week Elizabeth Vincentelli, the theatre critic for the New York Post, commented on the fact that decades ago Americans used to watch theatre on TV.  The phenomenon of filming theatre sounds almost like an oxymoron.  Perhaps it feels more palatable to think of it is as “preserving,” rather than “filming” or “taping” liveness?  The endeavor, after all, is really not that different from filming a sitcom or even SNL, is it?  Does the difference lie in our preconceptions about and expectations of the different genres?

What’s interesting to me is that over the past few decades Americans have proven quite uninterested in watching filmed theatre, unlike, say, the Irish or the English.  For example, RTE, Ireland’s national television broadcasting organization, has long aired theatre productions.  I was in graduate school at Trinity when the project to adapt all 19 of Samuel Beckett’s plays to film had just been completed.  In addition to screenings at the Irish Film Centre, the filmed plays/adaptations were shown on RTE television, and the town was abuzz about it (bzzzz…I’m not kidding).  In fairness, they were also shown here in the U.S. on PBS, and I remember the NYT covering this, but I just wonder how the viewership numbers compared. I think I know the answer.

Yesterday Patrick Healy had a piece in the “Arts Beat” section of the NYT entitled, “Major British Theater, Now Available to Couch Potatoes.”  Apparently, Digital Services, a new British online service, has enlisted five British theatre companies (the Almeida Theater Company, English Touring Theater, the Royal Court Theater, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Young Vic) to film their theatre productions in high definition and make them downloadable for $15. Americans can get in on this viewing action also IF they know about it. And American theatre companies might consider how to adopt this practice.

What are your thoughts on televised theatre? Downloadable theatre?  Are they for the birds? Just for nerds? Or potentially appealing to the herds?  (As one of my dearest friends would say, “ya know, Nic, we are in a recession.”)  Who knows, with proper marketing, perhaps, all of the above would tune in or download.

This nerd is signing off now.

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