In my post on bootlegs a few weeks ago, I mentioned the National Theatre’s success in broadcasting theatre around the world through its program National Theatre Live (NT Live). This week, we're taking a closer look at the program.
NT Live began as an experiment to see how digital technology could allow a wider audience to enjoy National Theatre productions. The first broadcast took place in June 2009 with the live cinema screening of Phèdra starring Helen Mirren.
Over 60 productions later, NT Live has been broadcast on 2500 screens in 60 countries around the world, and viewed by over 5.5 million people. To date, NT Live has broadcast three musicals, FELA! (2011), The Threepenny Opera (2016), and Follies (2017).
The vast majority of broadcasts are from within the National Theatre in London, however beginning in 2013, NT Live has also broadcast select productions from the West End, including The Audience (coincidentally also starring Helen Mirren) and War Horse. In 2015, NT Live broadcast Of Mice and Men from the Longacre Theatre on Broadway.
Camera plots are specifically designed for each show, allowing the theatre and film director to ensure the most effective capture. Cameras are often placed right in the audience, and audience members are able to purchase tickets for filmed performances at a discounted rate.
Adjustments to various elements of each production are also made, including lighting and sound design, and wig and costume design.
If adjustments are being made to the production for the capture, is the film still a capture of a theatre production? In the 2009 National Theatre annual report, artistic director Nicholas Hytner noted, “…I am 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.”
NT Live screenings are advertised as special events — a limited time chance to see a live capture of a National Theatre production. Cinemas located in the same timezone as London receive broadcasts in real time, while cinemas outside the timezone receive the same capture at a later time and/or date. Due to popular demand, “encore screenings” are also scheduled.
While some broadcasts are also available to schools for streaming in the UK through its On Demand program, most productions are not available to view or purchase after the cinema broadcasts. This is due to licensing, and contract negotiations.
At the time of its launch, NT Live was the only program for broadcasting live theatre in cinemas. As such, there has been significant research into its impact. In various reports, UK organization Nesta has found the following:
Nearly ten years after its launch, NT Live provides a great model for how filmed live theatre can co-exist with, and provide a new experience of, live theatre.