Dec 7, 2010

Theatre on Screen

I think it's great news that the Broadway phenom Fela! (which I enjoyed) is getting a London production, and good news that it will be broadcast to American movie theaters as part of NT Live, a successful new program that bowed earlier this year with Helen Mirren in Phedre and has continued apace. But given that Fela! is the first Broadway export to get this kind of platform, and given that the Metropolitan Opera has a similar program, I have to wonder: Why doesn't this happen more often with theater? PBS used to broadcast the occasional Lincoln Center show--I still remember trying to watch the Helen Hunt/Paul Rudd/Nick Hytner Twelfth Night back in the late '90s through a fog of bad-reception TV static--and there was that odd MTV airing of Legally Blonde a few years back. But why haven't the likes of Shakespeare in the Park, Lincoln Center, MTC, or Roundabout--or while we're dreaming, the Guthrie, Oregon Shakes, Stratford Ontario, Berkeley Rep, the Taper--struck a similar deal? I'm sure it's no small undertaking, and I'm sure the National Theatre's state support doesn't hurt. And I have to imagine that it might raise hackles with Actors Equity, and engender the usual fears of jurisdictional conflicts with its sister screen actors' unions.

It reminded me of this piece in the current American Theatre about Seattle's On the Boards, which delivers plays and dance or performance pieces online on an Amazon rent-or-buy, with good terms for the artists. Their roster so far includes Radiohole's Whatever, Heaven Allows and Young Jean Lee's The Shipment, both apparently considered non-union productions for the purposes of broadcast (I'd imagine they were both produced under Equity's Showcase Code). An Equity rep is quoted in the piece as saying that without an "industry standard compensation" for such filmed ventures, Equity can't get behind them.

The economics would probably have to shift so strongly in favor of broadcast or filmed performances as a supplementary income stream for theaters (and, presumably, Equity members) for Equity to give some ground, but it would nice to think that American producers and unions could get out in front of this. Especially now that the Brits are showing us up.

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