“I'm sorry theater only exists in one place at a time but that is also its magic.”
There is a widespread belief that watching theatre on screen means you’re no longer experiencing “theatre.” While I would agree that the phenomenon of theatre on screen needs a new name, there is a small but growing body of research to show that watching filmed live theatre is just as exciting a way of experiencing theatre as being in the room where it happens.
Given that the vast majority of filmed live theatre is coming from the United Kingdom, it should come as no surprise that the research is also being conducted there. Arts Council England, the Society of London Theatres (SOLT), UK Theatre, and, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), have all released reports investigating audiences’ responses to watching live theatre on screen.
A finding across across all the reports is that watching theatre on screen is not a replacement for live theatre, but an alternative way to consume it. In writing about enjoying opera on the cinema screen, British commentator Clemency Burton-Hill wrote
while there is nothing like sitting in the plush red velvet of the Royal Opera House stalls, waiting in anticipation for that legendary red-and-gilt curtain to rise, watching it in the cinema is an exhilarating alternative when I can’t be there in person."
The research also shows that audiences can have strong emotional reactions to live theatre on screen. During real-time live broadcasts, audiences have reported feeling a part of the live experience, despite not being physically in the theatre.
Shakespeare scholar Erin Sullivan reiterates this in the newly published Shakespeare and the ‘Live’ Theatre Broadcast Experience, adding that audiences do not even need to be viewing a broadcast in real time in order to be moved by theatre on screen. Watching a live performance on screen, even years after the performance has taken place can still generate an emotional response. Sullivan also discusses how social media has allowed audiences to engage with content in a new way, making “spectatorship visible in a way that has not been previously possible.”
The internet is not only creating new ways of interacting with theatre, recent reports suggest that streamed theatre attracts a younger, and a more culturally, and economically, diverse audience. As columnist Christopher Zara has noted, “streaming media [makes] Broadway more accessible,… ultimately preserving it for the next generation.”
And what about the room where it happens? Is theatre on screen negatively affecting ticket sales in the theatre? The Audience Agency, a British charity aiming to help arts organizations use national data to understand audiences, recently found that there was “a small net increase in arts attendance in areas where there had been a screening.” In an earlier blog post, I took a look at how Broadway ticket sales are affected by filmed live theatre and found that ticket sales were not negatively affected.
In an article comparing the experience of watching Kenneth Brannaugh’s Romeo and Juliet on stage and screen, British theatre critic Peter Bradshaw noted “People watching a football match on TV as opposed to in the stadium can still have a great time – without worrying that it’s inauthentic, or that they have somehow made a wrong or disloyal choice.” While academics Bernadette Cochrane and Francer Bonner believe comparing live theatre to live sport on screen will reduce the “cultural capital” of theatre, the research is showing that live theatre on screen is a viable alternative to being in the room where it happens.
The magic of technology means we can experience theatre magic in a room thousands of miles from where the action is taking place. Will you be in the next room?
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