Does theatre belong in cinemas?

Laura Pledger finds out more about the trend for showing plays, musicals and even pop concerts on the silver screen

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Does theatre belong in cinemas?
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Laura Pledger

Ever wanted to see your favourite band perform live in Germany, but you live in Glasgow? Maybe you’re dying to see that West End show everyone’s raving about, but can’t afford the tickets, let alone the hotel room and the train fare?

In years gone by, you’d be sitting at home sniffling into a hanky, raging about the unfairness of it all. But not any more.

There’s an increasing trend in the world of entertainment to film events like these – and screen them in cinemas. But just how popular is the concept with audiences, how keen are the performers – and is breaking this niche market worthwhile for the cinemas and theatres involved?

Alternative content

Mark de Quervain, sales and marketing director at Vue Cinemas, sees it as part of an overall change in what cinema is doing. His company first dipped a toe in the water of what he terms “alternative content” back in 2007, when its cinemas screened a concert by rock group Genesis, live from Düsseldorf.

At the time, the technology required for such an ambitious project was in its infancy, but as digital technology has developed, so Vue’s coverage of music, comedy, theatre and ballet has grown steadily.

The National Theatre, meanwhile, launched its NT Live project in June 2009, with 70 cinemas screening Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren. Now in its third season, the number of UK cinemas involved has almost doubled, and its content has been opened up not just to audiences around Britain but across the world – its plays are shown in 700 cinemas across 22 countries.

You’d think a cinemagoer and a theatregoer are two very different types of people, but you might be surprised.

Attracting new audiences

David Sabel, head of digital media and producer NT Live, acknowledges that the National Theatre’s broadcasts appeal to the core theatregoing public, but points to research that shows an increase in younger and lower-income audiences attending – Frankenstein and FELA! proving particularly popular with the younger demographic. And, what’s more, once they’ve seen one production, the audience comes back for more.

De Quervain sees the potential: “Is [alternative content] a hugely significant part of our business yet? Probably not. Is it going to become more important? Yes, I think it is. And that is going to be when the content becomes less sporadic. So what we’re trying to do is develop packages into which we can feed content that is more regular, and then people will get a bit more into the swing of it.”

So what do people who’ve seen such screenings think? Commenting on NT Live’s Facebook page, Edith Swiatek observed of recent screening The Kitchen: “The director(s) have managed to make watching a filmed stage performance a delightful and unique experience.” Margaret Anich added: “That we were able to see this amazing production at a movie theatre in small-town, western Ohio is truly a gift!”

The performers' take

And what of the actors involved? Attending the cast screening of musical Phantom 25, filmed at the Royal Albert Hall, star Ramin Karimloo was clearly amazed by the finished product: “How they’ve edited it and how they shot it is just breathtaking. It really shows the cinematic aspect of it – it’s like we set out to do a film as opposed to a concert performance.”

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Both Karimloo and his co-star, Sierra Boggess (who played Christine to his Phantom), spoke of getting caught up in the story as viewers rather than actors – once they’d got past the awkwardness of seeing themselves on the big screen! For Boggess, it was recognising the emotional struggle Christine faces as her lover, Raoul, forces her to be the unwilling bait in a trap he’s setting for the dangerous Phantom. 

Karimloo was overwhelmed by the heart-tugging finale: “I’m sitting there watching the Final Lair scene and finding myself tearing. It’s hard, because I’m like, ‘I’m watching myself, as part of an amazing trio here’, and… it felt odd to cry. But I put that down to the cinematography, Laurence [Connor]’s direction and, obviously, my co-stars’ performances. I got lost in it.”

Vue’s de Quervain tells a similar story: “When we did Take That from the O2, live at Christmas, we actually showed it in the cinema at the 02 as well. The manager of Take That obviously went and had a look at them all performing live in the arena and then walked into the cinema – and went, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’”

Technological advances

Sabel acknowledges the benefits of advances in camera technology and the use of HD that have led to markedly different filmed live performances compared to the static, frustrating experiences of yesteryear: “We use a bespoke multi-camera set-up with each performance being filmed using a camera set up specifically for that broadcast. The house for the broadcast is held off sale until the camera positions are confirmed to allow them to have full flexibility, and the audience that comes is paying a discount price and aware that cameras are present – they are effectively a ‘studio’ audience.”

Comparing his experiences in Phantom 25 and Les Misérables 25 (in which he played firebrand student leader Enjolras), Karimloo notes: “Les Mis was more of a staged concert and there was a lot of power in the stillness of what we could do with that. But I’ve got to say, seeing now we had a full production [of Phantom 25], I would prefer if they keep doing musical films like this. It’s probably expensive to do, but having 17 cameras just catch one moment in time and to be able to edit from that is breathtaking.” 

Does it work?

But does theatre lose anything in translation from stage to screen? Beauty therapist Jennie Williams, who saw Phantom 25 at the cinema, enjoyed the experience overall but found that “it lacked the atmosphere of a real theatre. I like to feel the vibration of the music during dramatic moments of a show. I also found that I missed some of the peripheral action on the stage during close-ups of the main characters.”

However, for Boggess, who credits watching old film musicals with inspiring her to pursue a career in musical theatre, the benefits outweigh any disadvantages: “Yes, you lose the feeling of being there live, but I think it is captured quite beautifully on film. [And] millions of people can see something at the cinema at one time, as opposed to a Broadway or West End show where you’re only going to get, at most, 2,400 people in the theatre at once. So it’s a great way to spread art all over the world quickly.”

Karimloo, likewise, throws his support behind the concept of filming theatre for a wider audience. Currently resident in the UK, he talks with feeling of the Broadway performances he’d love to have seen and points out both the commercial and artistic positives of the endeavour: “Look at the success of Les Mis. It hasn’t taken away ticket sales, it’s actually increased it. 

“And we’re promoting, for the most part, bona fide actors who have learned their craft through years on the stage here. Not to say those who have become film stars or rock stars or pop stars shouldn’t be involved - it should go across the board, because I think it reaches a wider audience.”

The future

Looking to the future, NT Live intends to grow its broadcasts to between six and eight per year. At present, rights issues hold the theatre to cinema broadcasts for a limited time period only but, says Sabel: “Due to increasing demand and given the programme’s popularity, we are investigating the opportunities available through DVD and digital distribution and hope that we may be able to make the library of broadcasts available in the future.”

Vue remains focused on providing an “out of home, big-screen experience in auditoriums,” says de Quervain. “I think – with more involvement from studios, potentially from TV companies, and rights holders recognising that it’s a valuable asset in terms of getting the word of mouth out and generating some incremental income – it’s just set to grow.”

Have you experienced a theatrical, ballet or music performance at the cinema? Perhaps you're a theatre purist who thinks plays should be seen on the stage, not in the cinema? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!

The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall is available on DVD, Double Play DVD and Blu-ray, CD and download from 14 November.

The National Theatre production Collaborators, starring Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale, airs in UK cinemas on 1 December as part of NT Live.

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