According to Arts Professional “Netflix is exploring a foray into filmed theatre productions as it announces it will adapt its first stage play this year to be screened live. The move may signal a wider expansion by the streaming giant into capturing theatre for the small screen, which experts say could see it capitalise on a demand for more accessible ways to watch live performance”.

This is always a contentious issue of course, those who are involved in live streaming claim it enhances the public’s attitude to live theatre and encourages attendees whilst others claim monies go to a few large wealthy theatre companies and having established an artificial value by which a play is deemed worth viewing anything less than this value is not theatre worth viewing.

Apparently it won’t be a live recording; “Netflix is producing a specially created version of the Broadway play “American Son”, which its subscribers across the globe will be able to stream. The play finished its run at the Booth Theatre in New York last week. It has not been captured live but will be reproduced as a “movie/play hybrid”, according to its star Kerry Washington. The original cast, which also includes Steven Pasquale, will reunite with the play’s director Kenny Leon when production begins in New York next month”.

“Until now, Netflix’s live content has been mostly limited to comedy; however the company also recorded Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show for streaming last year. Netflix declined to say whether it had plans to develop other theatre productions in the US, or in the UK”.

The idea of screening live theatre shows as live theatre is not new, it is doing it by having the content viewed in your own home that is. Existing companies operating in this area in the UK include Digital Theatre, which captures live theatre to stream on a dedicated subscription-based platform, while a number of venues broadcast performances live to cinemas, including the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre, through NT Live. The “Grand Met” in New York is also involved in recording operas for live transmission.

Producer David Sabel, who founded NT Live, said he welcomed Netflix’s exploration into this area, particularly around the idea of adapting live event capture for audiences at home and said he viewed it as a “new variation on existing forms”.

“The growth of event cinema has shown there is a huge appetite for people to be able to see this work if they can’t physically get there, or it’s sold out, or they can’t afford it. “My feeling when we launched NT Live was that more is more. A great experience of watching a piece of theatre in the cinema is never going to replace the real thing” he said but added “but in fact it encourages you to go.”

It is this last point that is so contentious. Would an audience that goes to see a specific play featuring a specific person really go to see a piece of performance that doesn’t? Having seen a live screening (or a cinema performance as we know it) would you automatically go to a theatre performance?

Sabel added that Netflix’s ability to match viewers’ interests with relevant content could increase the profile of filmed theatre productions, but could also mean they are more easily discoverable. “One of the things that’s hard about these events is that you never have film-style marketing budgets to make sure that people are aware of them. I think the appetite and the audience is there, but often raising the awareness is harder,” he said.

Which can, of course, also be said of live theatre in general. Except that the budget for “Parochial Theatre Company” producing extremely good theatre is hardly the same as a company like Netflix. And once an audience gets used to seeing a famous name in an equally famous theatre performing in a famous play written by a famous playwright will their appetite be ignited to see a small scale production in a 42 seat theatre on the outskirts of town? Somehow I doubt it.

Cinemas seem to be the right place for screenings rather than theatres. Even then they’re called “event theatre”. The Odeon has a whole array of “live” screenings to tempt you:

Once upon a time we had a weekly television programme called “Play for Today”: it was recorded live in those days. Except then it was called a television programme. Same idea, different name. Now it’s called theatre “live”. Is it really theatre as we know it? Can we smell the grease-paint? Can we smell the sweat? No. If you can see it on your television is it a television programme or is it live theatre? Yours truly might be an old theatric and a little cynical but let’s keep live theatre live. And only call it live when it is just that….

Photo: Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan in “American Son” at The Booth Theatre, New York. Photo: Peter Cunningham



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