Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cinecasting: A View from the Cheap Seats

Danny Boyle's recent production of Frankenstein still intrigues me, now months after I saw it twice (each casting) through the National Theatre Live broadcasts. Without NTL, I wouldn't have seen two performances so mesmerizing that I can still envision particular moments from each. When I read Nick Dear's script (which I ordered from the National Theatre) or listen to Underworld's evocative music (especially my favorite, the joyful "Dawn of Eden"), I remember what I saw at that moment on screen. Frankenstein, for all that it was not perfect, did for me what good theatre should do--it made me, or still makes me, think about the arts, the beauty of these performances, and the questions being raised about what it means to be human.

My reaction would have been different if the actors had been filmed for a movie instead of captured, glitches included, during a live performance. I have been moved by many films, and I love the capability of analyzing each shot close up or replaying certain scenes dozens of times. I still enjoy the act of going to a movie in a darkened theatre, because watching at home just isn't as magical, even if I later attempt to wear out the DVDs of my favorite films. Although I hope that Frankenstein makes it to DVD so that I can share it with more students and treasure the performances once more, a DVD will not recreate the experience of watching NTL and knowing that earlier that day, thousands of miles away, this one-time performance took place.

Please read this article by Kate Abnett, "The Cost of 'Cinecasting.'" In it she discusses the dangers of "cinecasting," that blend of recording a live performance for broadcast internationally. Her concerns and criticisms strike home. I love live theatre, and I try to support it whenever I can, whether it's regional in the Southeastern U.S. or Big Name in New York, Toronto, or London. I don't want to be an accomplice to theatre's murder.

But I can't help but remember my students and I chatting animatedly for more than an hour in the lobby after we watched Frankenstein together. For several of them, the NTL broadcast was their first exposure to theatre--and they loved it.

I understand Jonny Lee Miller's concerned comment at the Frankenstein Q&A that the scene shown from the NTL broadcast was not the way Boyle would've directed it as a film. He reportedly added that Frankenstein was meant to be seen within the National Theatre in a live performance. I understand his point--and I don't doubt that if I had been sitting somewhere in the National Theatre, I would be even more obsessed with Frankenstein (hard to believe, I know). Like Victor, I long for the moment of creation, and to view that on stage, and to know that, whatever happens, the performance can't be repeated--that is an addictive experience. It keeps me returning to theatre year after year.

Cinecasting is less than a film, because it simply captures what happens on stage as it happens. Of course, the techniques and technology are a far cry from early movies that were basically stage plays filmed with one stationary camera. NTL broadcasts are far more sophisticated. Cinecasts are truly a hybrid, and as such, I agree with Abnett, should be considered as a separate form of entertainment and funded or priced accordingly.

In this economy, again, as Abnett noted, the arts in general and smaller companies and programs in particular are being slashed, and the temptation to have only big name performances or blockbusters to make the most money is one that too many businesses find overly attractive. Again, I don't think that a "one-size-fits-all" mentality is conducive to the arts, and having homogenized theatre pandering to the widest paying audience possible often leads to something commercial, but not artistic.

Not every NTL broadcast has to be as controversial or commercially viable as a Frankenstein. I would have gone to see the broadcasts anyway, but certainly having two acclaimed actors, who are two of my favorites, alternate roles gave me yet another reason to attend.

I confess; casting sometimes determines where and when I spend my travel dollars. I tend to make the big trips to see specific actors in specific roles. I can't always afford to do that, and I often wait to watch PBS or or buy a DVD, but sometimes theatre with a Big Name is worth the trip. I got my tickets to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing before I booked my flight; I scheduled the trip around the performances I could see. Would I have spent all of fall break seeing La Cage more than once if John Barrowman hadn't been starring? No. I would've waited for a local production or the New York revival so that I could see the play. If Benedict Cumberbatch comes along with After the Dance to Broadway, I'll start planning a getaway weekend.

However, last summer I visited Toronto primarily to go to the theatre. I saw everything to which I could get tickets. Sometime around the David Tennant tickets, I'll be standing in line in the West End to buy tickets for as many shows as I can manage, given my budget and time frame.

I'm afraid that, just like everything else the average person is expected to bail out, the arts needs our help, too. I can't blame NTL completely for choosing to hype a blockbuster, because I'm grateful I could see Frankenstein. I admit I fly to another country to see the big names I'll otherwise never be able to see live in performance. I love my afternoons spent with matinee movies at the local cinema. I'll support them all, as much as I can. That apparently is what we have to do--vote with our money, if we can spare it--if we're going to have truly daring, breathtaking, controversial art in our future.

If the small theatres and regional companies--and their training programs and experimental workshops and local showcases--are killed off, we won't have the same quality of big names or venues for inspirational art.

I'm not sure how to respond to Kate Abnett; her article, as you can see, certainly got me thinking this morning. I don't have an answer, but I don't want to limit my viewing options to one thing or another. I want it all. Maybe we should start having some discussions about how, on a personal level, we can collaborate to make that happen.

I'm interested in your comments about the Abnett article and cinecasting. We seem to be at yet another technological crossroads concerning the arts. Where do you think we should go, and how should we get there?

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