A few months ago, I first heard of On The Boards.tv, which bills itself as a Netflix for live performing arts (there’s a New York Times article here). In practice, it’s more like a Netflix on Demand for the performing arts – for a fee, you can watch a taped theatre or dance performance stream over the Internet. All the artists and production team receive a cut of your rental fee, creating something like residual checks for ordinarily-live performers. Productions are shot from multiple angles with high tech cameras, a la PBS’s Great Performances.
All this brings me to an experiment. One of the productions available on On the Boards is The Shipment , by TCG alum Young Jean Lee. In addition to receiving good reviews during its New York run last year, The Shipment also has the distinction of being on a production that I sincerely intended to see while it was running, and never actually did. It seemed the ideal test case.
Watching The Shipment on On the Boards was more like watching a live play in a theatre than like watching a taped show on Hulu. There was something fundamentally more challenging about it. Film and TV, material that is “supposed” to be taped, is usually subject to pressures from advertisers, markets and various agencies concerned with naughty language. All of these things take some of the bite out of the finished production. Theatre isn’t free from outside pressures either, but its smaller audiences mean it is freer to work around them. It’s difficult to imagine NBC showing The Shipment without creating a national uproar. The Shipment is a show about how race affects how people view each other in America, and it’s tells the story using realistic sounding monologues, humor, strategic pauses, dialogue that sometimes seems deliberately over the top, tangents, and the occasional song. A note I wrote for myself about dialogue midway through the play reads “Pacing: normal/funny/awkward/ outrageous bomb. Now: Long extended awkward.”
“Long extended awkward” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch the play. You should. It’s thought provoking in a way that only theatre can get away with being, and it’s wonderful that it has been preserved. The video and audio quality are excellent, and it’s a great relief to be able to get the material online. Like many people, work and life prevent me from to enjoying theatre as much as I would like. It’s wonderful to have a second chance to see it online.
The $5 price tag may have made me more determined to pay close attention to the play. When I watch free video online, I have a tendency to get distracted by chat and email and the need to google cabbage recipes. In this case, I closed everything on the computer and focused in on the play, determined to get my money’s worth.
There are, of course, limitations. Waiting for video to buffer does not help me suspend my disbelief. I had to pause once in the beginning to determine whether there was a blackout on stage or whether my computer monitor had turned itself off.
As close as On the Boards comes to being like live theatre, it can never totally reproduce the experience. There’s a moment in which the actors face the audience for about 45 seconds without talking. This creates a lot of discomfort – people never stare at each other silently for so long in real life. It creates a feeling of being sized up, perhaps being watched by a predator. Watching the tape, I felt a bit unnerved, but little more than that. The actors couldn’t have been sizing me up, because I wasn’t there. If I had actually been in the audience, with real silent people staring at me, I would have been desperate for them to start talking.
In the end, though, maybe this sort of not-quite-as-good online rendering is exactly what theatre needs. It makes plays available at flexible times, but it’s also clear that you have to go to the theatre to have the full experience.
Katie Barry has been a preschool teacher in Vietnam, a theatre tech in Vermont, and, most recently, a web associate at TCG. When not writing descriptions of herself in the third person, Katie enjoys traveling, theatre, all things international, long brunches, books, and playing with her two kittens. She lives in Brooklyn with Yuki and is learning to swing dance.