Over the past five years, the landscape of theatre has been digitalised by live cinema broadcasting thanks to the National and the New York Met. Audiences flock to their local cinema for the latest theatrical treat to come out of London. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Established in the same year as National Theatre Live, Digital Theatre has a more diverse approach. As well as capturing theatre for live cinema broadcast, it is also creating an online database of recorded productions. Now you can rent or buy a West End production from the comfort of your own home. By early 2011, audiences in more 130 countries on six continents were doing exactly that.

Admittedly this is small-fry on the scale of daily global technological advances. For some years now we’ve had the pleasure of on-demand services like Netflix and iPlayer. We can even pause, record and rewind live television. But theatre is different, right? It is supposed to be a form that is inherently impermanent. So why uproot it for consumption online?

“There is something very rewarding about the idea that people from Hong Kong to Paris to Yeovil are able to go and see stuff that they would never have any contact with,” says Robert Delamere, chief executive and co-founder of Digital Theatre. “There is this school in Malawi. We received this photograph of their kids watching the screen having just seen the Royal Shakespeare Company for the first time. Those are things that aren’t possible if you only broadcast to cinemas because usually again you’re dealing with an urban audience.”

Imagine being a teacher in a rural school where students are struggling with Shakespeare. Rather than the hassle of taking hordes of teenagers to London so that a professional production might help their learning, schools can instead sign up to Digital Theatre Plus. Students and teachers then have access to an entire backlog of captured productions as well as interviews with industry professionals and behind the scenes tours. Similar services are almost non-existent. While the National Theatre often includes educational programmes in touring shows, they offer nothing of the sort online.

However, Digital Theatre Plus comes at a price. These costs vary depending on the institution but, for example, a secondary school would pay between £360 and £960 for a 12-month subscription. It is difficult to tell whether this is good value for money because of the lack of comparison available. In our current climate of cuts to humanities and arts departments it is hard to see many prioritising that cost. But 1.5 million students from the 600 institutions across the globe who currently find the money must surely feel the benefit of easy access theatre.

Despite the educational benefit, an issue lingers as to whether the product can match the real thing. “We record everything on to cameras and build a construct [of] how we are going to edit it in our minds. And we shoot with that perspective and then it’s built in the edit”, explains Delamere. Captured theatre has progressed in recent times. Like NT Live, there are plenty of angles to choose between to help tell the story as it unravels on stage.

“It becomes very complicated because of the atmospherics in the theatre between the actors, the exchanges, and the energy. The edit automatically disrupts that and therefore it’s about that not being disrupted when you’re stitching it back together. It is quite a complex reverse process – splitting something into its constituent elements and then you try to put it back together again as if it had the same spirit and quality as in the live show.”

Toby Stephens in Private LivesOne of the most recent fruits of Digital Theatre’s labour was Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre in London. I saw it in Didsbury. Before Private Lives, a non-film event has never been asked back to do a second screening at Cineworld. With two Olivier nominations, this tale of a combustible ex-couple reuniting while honeymooning with their new spouses has been both a cinematic and theatrical hit.

The chemistry between Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens is charming and, in particular, Chancellor has an iridescent presence on stage. But capturing that quality is never going to be easy. Delamere reassures me that the team do watch the show live, but in doing a post-edit and not a live one they risk trying to recreate rather than capture. Private Lives seems to fall into this trap. Ultimately it felt too polished and consequently less alive.

However, theatres are searching for new and wider audiences all the time so it makes perfect sense to have recorded productions on the World Wide Web. Creating more democratic access means potentially broadening and diversifying theatrical audiences. A lot of theatres have clocked on and not just those in the capital. Digital Theatre’s expertise in picking productions (the last three shows they recorded have received 14 Olivier nominations) is helping them develop an impressive list of partners including Liverpool’s Everyman, Opera North, The Royal Court, the RSC, Young Vic and Manchester’s Royal Exchange. And that’s just a selection.

Digital Theatre is a great online opportunity to expand audiences or, as Delamere puts it “to create an appetite”. But an appetite needs feeding through real sustenance. And, with that in mind, these companies should resist viewing this opportunity as a substitute for touring. It would be a tragedy if regional and non-urban audiences only got to see recorded versions of plays. If the experience of live stage performance was reserved for a mature, engaged and cultural audience who could afford to travel to the theatre, it would only augment a crippling perception of elitism in the industry. Captured productions and online databases should act as a way into theatre, not be the only way.

By Alastair Michael 


Ghosts_605x300_1-news-heroThe Almeida’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts will be shown at cinemas in June. For more information click here: http://www.digitaltheatre.com/news/details/almeida-theatre-ghosts-comes-to-cinemas-trailer

For more information about Digital Theatre and Digital Theatre Plus, click here: http://www.digitaltheatre.com/, http://www.digitaltheatreplus.com/