How we watch theatre

The National Theatre introduced live screenings of their productions in June 2009, an event which has prompted many a debate in the years that have followed. Our recent post about site specific theatre highlighted the importance of the location of a performance, and the controversy around live screenings centers on the fact that the performance is taken out of its context.    

At BoxedIn we are also passionate about making theatre more accessible, and the live screenings certainly do that. Tickets for these performances are generally cheaper than most theatre tickets, as mentioned in our previous blog post, by moving the performance out of the traditional space of ‘the theatre’, people are less likely to be intimidated by the elitism which plagues the theatre when they go to see a screening in a cinema.


There are, however, negatives to the introduction of live screenings. One of the main concerns is less people will go to the actual theatres to see productions, and this is likely to affect smaller, local theatres rather than established theatres in big cities, consequently making live theatre less accessible. Another obvious negative of a live screening is that the audience member is not in the same room as the actor, the immediacy, intensity, and immersive nature of the emotions on stage is lost, as it’s something which cannot be transported through a camera lens. Thinking about the experience of an audience member in a theatre, live screenings may affect the quality of their viewing experience. As live screenings continue to blur the line between theatre and cinema, will theatre directors have to start to think about how the piece will look like on camera, rather than how an audience member will experience the show?      

On Thursday, I went to see a live screening of the Young Vic’s production of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ starring Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell, having already seen a performance in the Apollo Theatre earlier this year. Despite the mixed reviews this production has received, I loved it when I saw the show in July, and as a result was sceptical about whether I would find a live screening as enjoyable. The screening, however, did not disappoint. I was able to notice aspects of the performance which I had missed before, a particularly poignant moment being when Maggie (Sienna Miller) was looking at her own reflection. Through the zoom of the camera you were able to see all the emotions playing on her face. While the live screening style suited Miller’s performance, possibly due to her strong film background, it did not suit her on screen partner O’Connell. The first act the play almost seemed to be ‘the Maggie show’, the camera following Maggie as she had most of the dialogue. O’Connell brings such a powerful weight to the role, a weight that can only be described as energy, which is untranslatable, and non transportable, Brick’s silence cuts his camera time, and this cuts an integral part of the play. In the second act Brick’s power comes almost as a surprise to the audience. When watching a performance of the play in the Apollo this strength is not a surprise, it is palpable in the air from the very first second, juxtaposing Brick’s initial nakedness and setting up his enigmatic character. This is a problem with live screenings of theatre, you lose the immediacy of the action, and the intensity of emotions.

While we are excited about making theatre more accessible, we are also passionate about immersive and site-specific theatre, which relies on the importance of the audience’s surroundings. Lobes, our next production going up on the 13th, 14th, and 15th March, would lose an integral dimension if it could not be performed in the medical center, as this location adds another layer to the piece.

Lobes Big Brian Mid Text

How we watch theatre is undoubtedly changing, as is every other aspect of our lives thanks to technological developments. This is not, however, necessarily a bad thing, as Lyn Gardner from The Guardian writes, ‘British theatre needs … both’ live theatre performances and live screenings. Screenings make theatre more accessible, but they should also in turn encourage people to get their bottoms in seat and attend live performances when possible.    


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