Live Broadcasting: The Future of Theater

by Maureen Towey

in Leadership U

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I sit down in a small movie theater in Berkeley as the curtain rises on a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the National Theatre in London.  Through the NTLive program, we are able to watch the production in real time from halfway across the world.

By intermission, I am sold.  The production is beautiful and the camera work is more impressive than any I have seen in capturing live theater.  I keep thinking, this is going to save us.  It’s going to build theater audiences in places where world-class theater is unavailable.  It’s going to make great theater as accessible as a movie.

I had to go see how it was done.

Luckily, the man who runs NTLive, David Sabel, is an old friend of mine from college.  David started as a gifted puppeteer, trained at Lecoq, spent a few years as a pastry chef in Paris, and after an MBA at Cambridge, combined his artistic expertise and his business acumen to start NTLive.

Before The National began to broadcast, the Met Opera was the first fine arts company to capture their performances and broadcast them in a smart, vibrant style.  Upon seeing some of the early Met Opera broadcasts, Nick Hynter, the Artistic Director at the National, recruited David to do a feasibility study and eventually premiere NTLive with a production of Phedre starring Helen Mirren.   They now broadcast their performances in over 500 theaters in 23 countries.  This means NTLive has added 1.5 million audience members to The National’s reach.

When I called David, he offered me full access to an NTLive broadcast of The Magistrate, starring John Lithgow.  Thanks to the travel funds available through my TCG Leadership U grant, I was able to quickly make arrangements to get to London.

Still jetlagged from the ten-hour flight from California, I stepped into a notes session for a camera rehearsal.   Around the table, the camera director, assistant director, and camera operators reviewed tape and made adjustments to their scripts.  These talented filmmakers are all seasoned staff for live broadcast events.  While I had assumed that to broadcast a theater event, a whole new system would have to be invented.  But, this team moved from awards ceremonies, to sporting events, to game shows without batting an eye.

I was amazed to see how detailed the camera work was within the script: 1,500 camera moves for the two hour performance. The style choices, with quick cuts between characters, resembled a 1970’s sitcom, which worked remarkably well for a farce from the 1880’s.

On the night of the live broadcast, I walked through the theater and saw the cameras placed in good house seats.  NTLive do not try to hide the cameras.  The audiences in attendance might have blocked views, but the National considered them a privileged audience getting the chance to be present for a broadcast.

Outside the theater, a fleet of hired staff in trailers make sure that the performance is broadcast in the highest quality.  The sound booth was running like a well-oiled machine: two main sound engineers were on the boards, one of whom was mixing each individual actors voice and one was mixing the overall sound.  This, to me, seemed like a key component to the success of the event since the hallmark of a poorly shot theater event is usually its uneven sound.

The business end of NTLive was more straightforward than I had anticipated.  After receiving some seed money from a mix of grants and government support, the broadcasts now pay for themselves.  There is still some sponsorship, which is used to cover ongoing in-house costs.  After some wrangling, the National was able to come to equitable agreements with unions and create a favorable arrangement for royalties for performers.

After this event, I spent a day at the National Theatre Archives, a small inviting library where I watched past NTLive efforts. Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein offered a dizzying camera angle from above the stage and a sumptuous visual design caught by long, elegant camera shots.  David mentioned that Boyle and his camera director had a closer collaboration than most teams but, that Boyle mostly stuck to the stage and let the camera director do his work.

Half a dozen other broadcasts all did justice to the beautiful and work on the stage as well, across diverse styles and subjects.  Rather than replacements for live performance, they felt like the next best thing to being in the audience.

The real surprise of the trip was meeting the staff of the Digital Media department, which houses NTLive.   The National recently updated their mission to include the priority, ‘creating innovative digital content’ – that is how strongly they believe that high quality digital work can expand the reach of the theater.

The Digital Media department dedicates time and resources to researching emerging technology trends in the arts.  For example, they curated this exhibit for their lobby, not because it was related to a show but because it was a cutting edge and emotional use of new technologies.

This department also does wonderful work with short form videos, which aim to have a longer shelf life than their stage shows.  Many of the videos are intended to be educational but, they don’t feel didactic in any way.  Some examples are A Design Concept Realized, An Intro to Greek Theatre, and Stage Managing a Multimedia Performance.  Like NTLive, these videos are intended to extend and deepen the reach of the theater.

After seeing NTLive in person, I couldn’t help but, wonder – why has a similar initiative not been taken up by the American Theater?  I recognize that the National has tremendous resources and that theater in the UK, in general, is more culturally embedded than here in the States.  But, it seems like an opportunity wasted to not give the American Theater a similar showcase.

Until then, I will keep finding my seat at that little movie theater in Berkeley to watch the curtain rise in London and see what The National has built.

See David Sabel speaking at TEDxBroadway about NTLive here:

Maureen Towey directs live performance events.  She works as a creative director for musicians such as Arcade Fire and Ray LaMontagne.   She has been recognized as a AOL/PBS MAKER, a Princess Grace fellow, a TCG Leadership U fellow, and a Fulbright scholar in South Africa.  She is an ensemble member of Sojourn Theatre where she has directed Throwing Bones and Finding Penelope.  Other theater highlights include The Saints Tour (River to River Festival), Three Sisters (Working Theater), Emergence (Foundry Theatre), Swallow What You Steal (ubom, South Africa), Gruesome Playground Injuries, Animals Out of Paper, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document… (Boise Contemporary Theatre).  In 2014, she will be premiering The Islands of Milwaukee with Sojourn and a new work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival.

Leadership UniversityLeadership U[niversity] prepares professionals from all areas of the theatre for greater leadership responsibilities and long-term careers in the theatre. The program makes awards in two different areas: One-on-One grants of $75,000 plus additional support for early-career leaders and Continuing Ed grants of up to $5,000 for mid-career or veteran professionals. Leadership U[niversity] is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

  • Mark W Kidd

    Marueen posits: “[Broadcasting is] going to build theater audiences in places where world-class theater is unavailable.” I argue that important,
    aesthetically accomplished theater can and should be available everywhere. In places where it isn’t, I’d like to see theater institutions address that as a priority issue rather than using media *instead of* live theater.

    I wish there was more description of the experience watching the broadcast live from the Berkeley theater. Does it still feel like theater to the audience? And how easy would it be for my local movie theater (40 miles away) to offer this? It does sound fun.