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Theatre in the streaming age

| Monday, November 2, 2015

Theatre_Scene_WebEric Richelsen | The Observer

A new website has its heart set on shining the lights of Broadway on theatre fans everywhere.

In late October, Broadway producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley launched a new streaming website called BroadwayHD, which provides, after payment of subscription or rental fees, access to a library of filmed stage productions. While its selections are still slight at the moment, its aspirations are high. The service’s website describes itself as being “on a mission to promote and preserve live theatre, extending the reach of Broadway and Broadway-caliber shows to anyone, anywhere.” Their project is among the latest to attempt to challenge and update the status of live performance in the Netflix age, where consumption of entertainment increasingly occurs online.

BroadwayHD is not the first website to feature streaming of theatrical content, but its proposed scope, its singular attention to theatre and its exclusively online platform differentiates it from many of its competitors. Netflix has occasionally included live-recorded productions, such as “Shrek The Musical,” on its diverse roster, but such content is hardly the site’s focus. The “Great Performances” series through PBS prominently features plays and musicals, such as its October broadcast of “Billy Elliot,” in its rotation. National Theatre Live out of the U.K. focuses on cinematic rather than online releases.

What all of these share in common is an endeavor to make theatre more accessible to more people. As a theatre fan who grew up in West Michigan and had access to Broadway only in delayed or partial forms, I greatly appreciate the attempt.

Conversations about theatrical accessibility found recent vigor following J.K. Rowling’s announcement that “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” a play written by Jack Thorne in collaboration with Rowling and set to premiere in London next summer, will function as a sequel to the books of the beloved “Harry Potter” series. The play marks the first release of a major installment in the franchise’s story that will have significantly limited accessibility. Even fans who would gladly pay for the opportunity to experience the play but who live far from London or are unable to secure a high-demand ticket may be out of luck. The idea of conceiving a means to widely distribute this upcoming production is popular, at least among fans.

Even if broadcast, those who see the play live may have fundamentally different experiences than those who experience it recorded.

Different approaches to sharing theatre outside of the theater exist. While the above-mentioned sources generally film productions as they are performed on stage — with all their sets, lighting and choreography intact — NBC offers another model. Their recently ensconced tradition of broadcasting one musical live annually, which opened with “The Sound of Music” in 2013 and will proceed next month with a Queen Latifah-headlined performance of “The Wiz,” represents not so much innovation in the televising of theatre as it does a revival. Fox has picked up the trend, too, planning a broadcast of “Grease” in January 2016.

Plenty of films are preserved in official videotaped recordings. These are housed in the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. In general, they are available for viewing only to academics and professionals in the field of theatre. There, they become artifacts — non-commercial, highly exclusive objects of study.

The potential of BroadwayHD and similar sites may lie in their becoming able to share those artifacts to the general public. Should they accomplish this, they could broach not only the problems of distance, availability and affordability that inhibit access to theatre, but also the fourth crucial issue of timing — many of the shows that fans are eager to witness closed before they were born.

At the moment, that seems to be BroadwayHD’s goal. However, theatre has always been essentially ephemeral. No two performances are ever the same. When live, a magical relationship develops between the audience and the actors. The audience accepts an invitation into the cast’s world, sharing their air and feeding their energy, participating inherently in the work done on stage. Without sharing a space, the process of emotional exchange between performers and audience becomes stilted. Streaming of theatre, for all the richness that it can share, can never fully substitute for the experience of theatre live and in-person.

But without the option of the live experience, I’ll take what I can get and stream whatever BroadwayHD offers me.

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