Live Theatre Screenings – Boon or Burden?

Years ago, I read Yes Prime Minister, produced in the form of the Diaries of Jim Hacker. In one episode a suggestion was made that the National Theatre was made truly national by simply renaming all of the regional theatres as The National.  I remember it purely because I grew up in Leicester and one of the examples in the diaries was renaming The Haymarket Theatre, Leicester as The National Theatre, Leicester.

In 2009 I went to the first of a new experiment by the National to extend their reach beyond the walls of the venue.  NTLive was developed to screen live performances from the their repertoire to cinemas across Britain and internationally.  They weren’t the first to do it, (The Metropolitan Opera in New York broadcast shows in 2006 and Berlin Philaharmonic launched a service in 2008) but the concept really took off in this country with NTLive.  That first showing was Phedre starring Helen Mirren.  The idea threw up a number of questions.  Would there just be one static camera trained on the stage?  Would you feel completely distanced from the action?  What if the sound failed?

As an audience member I was completely drawn in to what NTLive achieved.  Multiple cameras that essentially edited the action in the same way you do with your eyes, cracking sound and to me no sense that you were watching a diluted film, but that you were still experiencing the live show, just in a different way.  I’ve attended a lot of the NTLive canon since then, including All’s Well That Ends Well, London Assurance, One Man Two Guvnors and War Horse.  I am a big fan.  Like thousands of others I welcome the chance to see the sort of quality work that The National presents in an affordable and accessible way, when otherwise I just wouldn’t be able to due to time, family and financial pressures to name but a few.  The spontaneous applause that broke out in the cinema after that first performance confirmed for me that the connection between audience and action remained despite over 120 miles of distance between us.

And then there is the added value, interviews with the creative teams on the stage or glimpses of the backstage workings of the productions for example.  Most recently we took our whole family on a Sunday afternoon to see a screening of Billy Elliott that was also being recorded for DVD release.  This wasn’t an NTLive screening, but delivered in exactly the same way.  The cost for 5 of us to see it was £65.00 as opposed to going to London where the best seats for a Saturday matinee are £96 each.  Economically it makes sense to keep the screenings coming.  Visually we got to see a level of emotion that perhaps wasn’t available to those live in the theatre  (The rendition of Deep Into The Ground was stunning).

But then I put my other hat on, one of someone running a theatre and the conversation can be very different.  There has also been a lot of suspicion accompanying NTLive, focusing largely on the impact of the screenings on audiences for live theatre in venues.  Talking to industry colleagues opinion is split.  There are some for whom it is clear (especially in small scale venues).  They believe that people are unwilling to pay £12-£15 for a small scale live show which could be perceived as a risky venture when they could pay roughly the same to see a screening of something with well- known names that comes with the ready-made stamp of quality that is The National Theatre.

On the flip side, I have spoken with other colleagues who have cited examples that (In larger scale venues) the screening of a production has helped increase ticket sales to the same show when it has toured.  Almost a Try Before You Buy scenario.

Following an article by Alan Aykbourn for the BBC where he expressed his own worries about the potential negative effect of screenings on live audiences NESTA commissioned some research into whether there was a negative impact.  I was interested to read this, not least because I discovered that our venue along with a number of partners had been used as part of the 54 strong sample of venues whose sales data had made up the research.  The findings were that there was no negative impact at all.  The paper reported an overall increase of over 6% in London in the year following a screening in the areas closest to where that screening took place.  Outside of London, no change between the two. Well that’s alright then.

Except that like all research it isn’t an exact science.  The venues ranged hugely in size.  At least one is certainly under 200 seats, whilst at least one has well over 2000.  To my mind it’s difficult to compare a large venue in central London and the impact there with a small 200 seat studio theatre in a rural town or suburb 120 miles from the capital.  There is also an issue around categorisation.  Some venues categorise their NTLive audience as theatre goers rather than cinema attenders, especially when that venue is also the actual cinema as well.  This could potentially lead to a huge immediate increase in the theatre audience for that venue.  What is the impact upon venues that do both screenings and live programmes as opposed to those that don’t carry the screened product?  (We don’t have the facilities for NTLive screenings, which are carried by the Odeon in Lincoln). So I don’t think that the research can be produced as definitive.  It seems that impact, negative or positive is going to be so much more specific to local areas and demographics.

As I say I sit in a strange limbo when it comes to NTLive.  I am a massive fan of the screening as an audience member, but remain unsure about how the growth of screenings from the big hitters will affect the live audiences for small scale venues such as ours.  Our venue can’t play host to War Horse, but we do programme a really exciting range of small scale live theatre.  I keep my fingers crossed that there continues to be room for both.