Two years ago, David Sabel, an American pursuing an MBA degree at Cambridge University, arranged a meeting with Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the London-based National Theatre (NT). He was writing a dissertation on digital opportunities for theater companies and was curious to discover whether the National was considering entering the high-tech arena.
To his surprise, he talked himself into a job. Hytner’s finance director, Lisa Burger, had already brought up the idea of simulcasting shows, noting the success the Metropolitan Opera was enjoying with its Live in HD program. Sabel was hired to determine whether that program could be replicated.
In June 2009, NT Live began its first season with a performance of Phèdre, seen in cinemas around the world via digital technology. For its second season, the program is expanding onto still more screens—including two in the Santa Barbara area.
First up is Friday night, when UCSB Arts & Lectures digitally presents A Disappearing Number in Hahn Hall, on the Montecito campus of the Music Academy of the West. A second screening will take place November 9 in UCSB’s Campbell Hall.
Simon McBurney’s tale of love, loss, and mathematics, which won the 2008 Olivier Award for Best New Play, tells the story of two intense relationships that take place a century apart. The New York Times called it a “lucid, dynamic, and continuously engaging” play, which movingly addresses man’s search for meaning.
In the coming months, four additional plays will be screened in both locations: Hamlet; King Lear, starring Derek Jacobi in the title role; the musical Fela!; and a new adaptation of Frankenstein staged by Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle.
While the eight-hour time difference between London and Santa Barbara makes live simulcasts impractical, the performances will be of very recent vintage: A Disappearing Number was recorded just a week ago, on October 14. Sabel discussed the logistics and genesis of the program via an email exchange.
How large has NT Live grown? Did your first season, which we missed, live up to your expectations? We launched with around 270 venues in 19 countries. Going into the second season, we are now on around 320 venues in 20 countries. We honestly didn’t know what to expect, though we were fairly confident that there would be a good audience for live theater in this format, and we hoped that audiences would relish the opportunity to see the National’s work. The response has been overwhelming, even more positive than we hoped for. After each production, we get hundreds of emails from all over the world, thanking us for the opportunity to see the shows and expressing how well they feel the filming works.
How influenced were you by the success of the Metropolitan Opera cine-casts? Did you carefully study what the Met was doing right, both economically and in terms of the product? I did study very carefully how the Met approached it. Many of the lessons were invaluable, and other aspects needed to be readdressed with a theater context in mind. One of the big challenges in launching this series was finding a way to successfully capture the nuances of theater on camera in a way that was dynamic and successful.
I think the challenge with theater is that you don’t have the music to carry you. In theater, the level of concentration required is often higher and generally the storytelling or narrative more complex. In opera, you often focus the camera on those singing, whereas in theatre, there may be moments of characters not speaking which need to be captured to help tell the story.
When filming a live performance, we prioritize the audience in cinemas that night. The audience in the theater is paying a reduced price. They are aware that cameras will be present, and we are able to lose seats, build platforms for tracking shots, and add movement and dynamic into the shots. Thus, we are giving you the best seats in the house, taking you straight to the heart of the action and not cutting between fixed, static shots.
Do you strive to mimic a “live” experience? How so? Yes, I think the sense of “event” is key. The Met does this very well, and this was a key lesson that inspired us. We show the audience as you walk in and at the curtain call, so that you feel you are really connected to the theater in London. We sometimes take you behind the scenes or backstage at the theater. We always have a live host and introduce the event with a short film which gives some background and insight into the production you are about to see. We have free cast sheets that are handed out so that you feel like you are getting the real, theatrical experience. We are also starting to create multimedia digital programs which can be purchased and downloaded on our Web site.
We said from the very start that this is not the same thing as live theater. You can never replace the feeling of actually being there; however, you can create a sense of the experience—the live, collective experience—which retains something of the electricity and DNA that make live performance unique. It’s like live concerts or sports; it’s always special to be there, but if you can’t otherwise see these productions, this is a great opportunity.
One study found people actually pay closer attention to the action during these remote simulcasts than they do when sitting in the theater. Did that surprise you? Yes, research that we conducted indicated that people found the cinema experience even more “immersive” than the theater experience. In some ways, it is not surprising, because I think it is generally easier in a cinema to “melt” into the screen and lose the sense of the audience around you. The cinema screenings offer you an intimacy with the performers that you wouldn’t get in the theater. In any case, we have found that the cinema screenings only encourage people to go to the theater, and have no cannibalizing effects on our box office—if anything, the opposite.
This year, you’re presenting two shows by other London theater troupes: A Disappearing Number is a production of the innovative company Complicite, and King Lear in February is staged by the acclaimed Donmar Warehouse. What was the thinking behind that decision? We have built up this great network of venues and grown our knowledge and skill base for filming our productions—it seemed to us a great opportunity to collaborate with other companies as a way of diversifying the season, growing the number of events we can offer, and working with partners we value and would feel confident programming on our stages. The U.K. theater scene is generally quite collaborative, and we like the idea of being a truly national (small “n”) theater, whereby we can bring audiences worldwide the best of British theater through the channel we have created.
A Disappearing Number screens Friday, October 22, at 7:30 p.m. at Hahn Hall and Tuesday, November 9, at 7:30 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Tickets are $18 general or $10 for students with IDs. Passes for all five NT Live productions are $70. For info, call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.