Theatre for Theater

25 Jan

A world lies between the words theater and theatre: the positioning of that impudent little ‘r’ means the difference between a night buried between buckets of buttery popcorn and an evening spent cradling a bottle of fine wine.

When I learned I would be viewing theatre in a theater, I had a few reservations, in spite of my free tickets (courtesy of TheaterJones.com).

Let me be clear.  The Angelika, where the National Theatre Live screening occurred, isn’t your run of the mill location.  It has a bar, a café, a sprite Uptown location and a reputation for showing specialty films.

But the whole idea still seemed absurd: The beauty of performing arts lies in its impermanence, the magic of an audience and performer sharing the same air and space, a joy that can never be captured on the big screen.  Viewing an opera, watching an orchestra or attending a play on the big screen is an affront to the art form.

Or is it?

Several performing arts behemoths don’t seem to think so.  The MET has been broadcasting its music theaters across the world in HD since 2006. The Los Angeles Philharmonic began movie theater showings in January. London-based National Theatre Live launched its satellite season last year.

Fans see the move as a means of broadening appeal.

In many ways, the new venue and product is ideal.  Viewers still get to enjoy the company of fellow lovers and are yet offered a group environment.  But the price is less (Tickets for FELA were twenty bucks) and the venue less intimidating, making viewers more likely to view multiple broadcasts and heightening the overall spending of the customer.

Genius, right?

But a smart business plan still doesn’t answer the question of quality.  Of course, the overall viewer experience is better.  Movie goers are granted a front row perspective and carefully guided, via camera, to see the action.

But what about the atmosphere, the sense of being completely immersed in the action on the stage?

Ticket in hand, I ventured into the theater and sank into its plush seats, in pursuit of this answer.

The footage began by capturing the wandering of unaware guests slowly streaming into their seats in the National Theatre.  Band members slovenly warmed up their instruments and cast members dawdled about to set the atmosphere.

The opening scene began in a nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria where FELA was playing.  As the minutes wore on, the lax beats of the band erupted into an organized frenzy, as barely-clad dancers paraded across the stage, transforming the atmosphere into that of a festival, a surreal state somehow between fantasy and reality.  I nodded my head and tapped my feet to the beat.

From the back of the theater, a woman voiced her consent, shouting “Yeahhhh,” whenever she liked what was happening on stage.  It went on like this for the next three hours, silence interrupted only by waves of laughter, occasional applause and the voice of the lone woman.

The production itself was phenomenal.  I love the actors, their energy and the spirited evolution of the major character from a wandering musician to a leader who toted music as his weapon.

My one suggestion:  Those transporting the magic of the performing arts to the big screen must find a way to break the “fourth wall.”  It’s the task of every performer to do so, to make audiences feel that they don’t have to sit solemnly until intermission and curtain call, let them that yes, performers can see you, even when you sit incredibly still.  To tell audiences that they are not invisible and are required, just by their presence, to react and interact with the action on the stage.

A moviegoer to my left suggested that our Dallas audience would have felt more inclined to dance, to reply, to respond, if somehow, the screen were able to reflect and capture that notion.  In FELA!’s “Breaking it Down” bit when audiences were encouraged, if not required, to stand up and dance, she suggested cameras capture and send footage from the various showings to the screen.

Complicated but not impossible.

It was incredibly awkward watching the screen audience enjoying the revelry, when my own audience simply wriggled uncomfortably in its seats.

Overall, my reservations were unwarranted.

After all, all the world’s a stage.

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