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The NT live season streamed its second show last night.  All’s Wells that Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays which is unlikely to be seen by many. Firstly, its a ‘ problem play’ because of its genre defying characteristics and idiosyncracies.  And secondly, the production resources needed to solve the problem – more than met in Marianne Elliot’s wonderful, grim and fantastic fairytale production with very fine performances, a wonderful design and all the creative and technical resources afforded by the National Theatre – are scarcely available outside the NT, RSC, Globe etc.  It simply doesn’t stack up for a regional theatre to produce this play.

So last night the audience for this show was seated not only in the Olivier Theatre but in 70 cinemas throughout Britain. Most of us were seeing a show to which we would not have access otherwise and that is a great thing.  The quality of the experience is fantastic – as an audience you are in the room with the performers, live but also have the advantages of being in great and moving seats, up close.  And, for those of us who live far away from London, we haven’t spent a fortune or increased our carbon footprint.  So it is certainly the way forward for work which our regional theatres won’t or can’t produce.

But its only the beginning.  NT Live is a spearhead for change in theatre programming and participation throughout the UK and for cultural planning.

Taking All’s Well that Ends Well as an example – its just the beginning for other plays by local writers and for participative projects  on What Happens Next or Be careful what you wish for or Why that could never happen in Perth or Why do clever women want men who behave badly etc etc

The next issue to sort out is venues.  We need creative hubs throughout the land, neutral, enabling spaces where live screenings, performances and participative activities can all mingle and mash up with the local communities.  Like the Dukes in Lancaster. The Dukes remodelled itself two years ago, leaving behind the sausage machine of traditional producing theatre to become more open, mixed, varied and connected with Lancaster and Lancashire.  Yesterday the Dukes programme included their own production of  Of Mice and Men, Live Theatre’s Motherland, and a full creative learning programme so couldn’t accomodate the  screening of NT Live in their modest multiplex. But they did screen Phedre and will do more. The  audiences at the Dukes happily browse and buy in all the spaces and are treated to the same standards of ‘customer care’  – or good old Front of House management no matter what the event.

This is in contrast to the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh which is a fine little cinema – not a creative hub.  Many of us found the queues at the box office frustrating – because only one sales assistant  was on duty, I guess because for movies you dont have all to be there at the beginning and you filter in during the ads.  But the audience at the Cameo last night was a theatre audience and we wanted to be on time!  The queues for the loo were just like at old theatres, so that was familiar.  And the Front of House presence was not the friendly Front of House Manager which most theatres provide, but some very assertive market researchers determining our demographic details.

As the NT live stream flows, we need the venues, the interface with local partners and other advances like letting all the audiences communicate with each other.  Sure we can tweet.  But we should also applaud.

Bring it on.

Following hot on the heels of NT Live, Opus Arte has announces that productions  from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre will now also be accessible  in cinemas throughout the UK and abroad.

The Opus Arte 2009/10 season also includes world class productions from the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne,  Madrid’s Teatro Real and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu as well as concerts from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.  Opus Arte claims:

“Recorded in High Definition and true Surround Sound these performances from the world’s great stages give you an experience as vivid and as ambient the best seats in the house”

As the work of world class brands becomes more and more accessible, regional theatres will have more opportunities to diversify and free up resources.

Its part of the programming balance in a regional theatre to present world classics and Shakespearian productions but this is a costly business.    The cost of mounting a Shakespearian production or major classical production in our regional theatres varies.   So does the cultural success of the productions, in terms of the specific resonances and connections to local audiences through the production and the quality of the production.

But if a regular supply of excellent productions of Shakespeare and classics becomes available at a nearby cinema, then theatres could free some of their resources into the streams of theatre that are very specific to their audiences.  Collaborative work, participative and community work, research and development are all costly activities which tend to be subordinate to putting on the big productions but which embed theatres into their communities and allow them to take artistic risks.

Cinemas should be the bed rock of cultural planning for the 21st century.      In their inherent neutrality, they are more democratic and accessible than theatres, concert halls and opera houses.  The network of cinemas streaming opera and theatre live does not cover the whole of the UK at the moment, but it could.

It remains to be seen how much more diverse the audiences will be for Shakespeare and opera  in cinemas than they have been in  theatres, where audiences in regional theatre overall have remained static and lacking in diversity over the last five years at least.  Removing the barriers of cost and location and providing more certainty as to the quality through the assurance associated with household names should surely open up the experience to a wider audience.

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Phèdre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Phèdre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The success of the  live screening of the National Theatre’s Phedre this week in 70 cinemas through NT  Live has sent up a flare signalling the future for theatre and how it can  become both exponentially more democratically accessible and available and also more economically viable.

That most esteemed of theatre critics, Michael Billington, was at the Chelsea Cinema for the premiere and his review in The Guardian surely will startle the doubters and traditionalists of the theatre world  who believe that being in the auditorium is the only place for the play.

He writes:

I came to a startling conclusion: the production worked even better in the cinema than it did in the Lyttelton. And the implications of that are enormous.

Once the show started, I and the rest of the audience sat spellbound. For a start, Bob Crowley’s set, with its sweeping platform and vast open sky, looked beautiful: I could even see, as I couldn’t in the theatre, how the palace walls were pocked and weathered by time. Robin Lough, using five multi-video cameras, also directed Hytner’s production impeccably for the screen: the cameras took us inside the action, allowed us to see faces in close-up and framed characters against the blue cyclorama, investing them with an epic quality.

So what does the success of this screen Phèdre tell us? Partly that a cinema audience can be as moved as people sitting in the theatre: everyone applauded loudly at the curtain call just as if they were in the Lyttelton. But the main lesson is that a theatre production can be made democratically available to a mass audience without any loss of quality: indeed because the camera can mix close-up and long shot and because we can all hear easily, the aesthetic impact may actually be enhanced. For generations we have been told that the theatre is elitist. Last night it was shown that a supposedly difficult classical tragedy can speak simultaneously to people across the globe. The National already has plans to broadcast three more plays over the next year. But my hunch is that this is only the beginning of a revolution in making theatre available in ways of which we had never dreamed.

With the advent of 3D screening, the potential for further extending the availability and intensity of the theatrical experience will be increased.  Live screening will revolutionise the business model for theatre and make it more economically viable for those theatre companies able to produce great work and then sell more tickets than available for the performance in the theatre.

The ramifications for our current theatre infrastructure could be profound.  If we can all have access to world class national and top flight theatre in our comfortable cinemas at low cost, will we be still be willing to take the risk attending our local theatres where not only will the offer be less reliable but we have to queue for the loos?

Will the public funders, confronted by the constraints of their less public sector resources over the next period, be willing to continue to subsidise some of the companies and venues which they have supported in more prosperous times?

We need to recognise the revolution in theatre making and embrace the potential to make great theatre available to all of us.  We need more local, collaborative and community theatre projects and we also need to provide venues which will house the live screenings of great theatre, now and in the 3D future.  This means that communities should have creative hubs, neutral centres for creative experiences including screenings, debates and discourse, performances and socialising, a 21st century refreshments of the civic theatre of the 20th century.

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