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Courtesy of NTLive

January 27, 2019

YANG | In Defense of Filmed Theatre

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My long and grueling trips back to Ithaca from China usually involve spending a night in New York City, and being the theatre nerd I am, that always means a potential opportunity to see shows. Unsurprisingly, right after I booked the hotel for my trip back from winter break, I gave in to the temptation of reading The New York Times’ theatre reviews. And before I knew it, I had the ticketing pages of about 10 shows open on my browser.

I ended up buying none of them, mostly because they were just so damn expensive. Bryan Cranston’s Network, arguably the hottest new play on Broadway this season, had only “premium” seats left, which cost over four hundred dollars. Yes, you read that right; my jaw was also on the floor. The other plays had ticket prices closer to what I’m used to, but still noticeably more expensive than I remembered them.

Now, it’s not that I haven’t paid an arm and a leg for shows I desperately wanted to see. I did book a trip from San Francisco to New York just because I got tickets for Hamilton in 2015, and back when The Book of Mormon was the Hamilton of 2012, took a trip down to LA to see it on tour, paying some ridiculous amount for what turned out to be a nosebleed seat. But I’m incredibly lucky and privileged to have the means to do so very occasionally, and to have parents who see the arts as beneficial to my education and understand my love for  theatre. Even then, the theatre feels increasingly inaccessible. This brings me to what I consider the next best thing — filmed theatre.

Hamilton undoubtedly epitomizes the issue of access to the theatre. And ever since the news broke that a film of the performance with the original cast was available, the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has been repeatedly asked in interviews about when it would be released to the public. While there has been no official announcement, word on the street is that it won’t happen for another year or two. When asked why, Miranda replied, “I want as many people to see it live in its original format — which it was intended — in the theatre, before we release it.”

Coming from the show’s creator, the sentiment is more than understandable. Miranda’s not wrong about live theatre: part of the magic of the experience is being in the room where it happens and feeling the electrifying atmosphere, and in that respect, no recording could replace the real thing. It can, however, come really close, and in some cases be better than in person.

Unless you have the best seat in the house, there are often things onstage that you can’t see. And for those sitting in the nosebleeds, it can be difficult to see the nuances in the acting or production design. That’s something filmed theatre does better — making sure everyone has the best and the same view of the show. The experience is independent of how much more or less you pay compared to your fellow audience members. NTLive, a project at the National Theatre in the UK that broadcasts productions in cinemas, has proved to be a remarkably successful attempt at capturing live theatre and imitating the experience as closely as possible through film. I saw Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in cinemas twice for a fraction of the price of The Book of Mormon, and to be completely honest, I would take that over squinting in the nosebleeds any day.

There’s something else Miranda is implying here — he thinks that releasing the show on film would stop people from coming to the theatre, diminishing the commercial success of the production. I used to agree with him before I noticed what happened in the theatre scene in China. Alongside Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera, some of the most popular musicals there are French and German. Mozart l’Opera Rock, a show that closed in Paris back in 2011, recently went on tour throughout the country. It’s perplexing and bizarre, until I realized the one thing in common these shows had was that they were released on film. As a result, I don’t believe that releasing the filmed version would take much away from a good production, or, at the very least, it shouldn’t. If anything, it helps spread the show’s popularity and preserves its longevity, potentially drawing more people into the theatre or paving the way for future tours and revivals.

Show business is, by definition, a business. No one’s running a charity and artists have to eat. Yet access and profitability don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I anxiously await the day productions welcome everyone into the amazing world of theatre without burdening them with the price tag.

 

Andrea Yang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ayang@cornellsun.com. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.