One weekend last November, the biggest box-office at movie theatres throughout the UK wasn’t for the latest Hollywood blockbuster (the latest “Hunger Games” movie opened that Friday). It was for a live broadcast of Kenneth Branagh’s production of “The Winter’s Tale” which was streamed live to 520 theatres in the UK and 100 more internationally on November 26. Starring Branagh and Judi Dench, it sold more than £1.1 million in tickets.
More people saw that performance than will fit into the National Theatre in a year of performances.
In December, a live theatrical performance of The Wiz was a ratings hit on NBC, seen by 11.5 million viewers. Compare this to the record 13 million who went to a year’s worth of all of Broadway’s shows in 2015.
Then of course there’s the Metropolitan Opera, which pumps its theatre-casts out to movie theatres around the world in 60+ countries. The remote Met audience is vastly larger than the one that comes to Lincoln Center (this has long been the case for the Met when you factor in its weekly radio broadcasts, though I’d argue the movie theatre experience is an entirely different animal).
But this isn’t a post about the relative merits of the video/movie versus live theatre. Nor am I suggesting that the arts ought to focus all their energy on getting their work onto the screen.
The Medium Is The Magic
Most people’s primary relationship with artists now is through screens or speakers. Self-evidently, the screen/speaker medium is different from the live experience. Understanding this is what made the Met Opera movie theatre project so much better than a Live from Lincoln Center broadcast. The movie theatre streams speak the language of the screen; by comparison, Live from Lincoln Center imagined its broadcasts as facsimile of the live theatre experience.
Inevitably, the language of the screen will increasingly change how artists will think about the live theatrical experience.
And there’s this. One of the questions we asked Los Angeles dancers in the DanceMapLA survey I wrote about yesterday was how much video of dance they watched. Thirty-eight percent reported they watched dance videos every day. Seventy percent said they watched at least once a week.
We also asked them how often they went to live performances of dance. Less than eight percent said they went even once a month! These are dance people in the business of making dance, and even they are not going to see their colleagues’ work in person.
But put aside that for a moment.
If you buy the idea that an artist’s aesthetic is influenced by the work they see, what these answers suggest is that the typical LA dancer finds dance on a screen at least as compelling as the live experience. Over time, this suggests that their work will be more influenced by the language of the screen rather than the live theatre version. How will that change what they might make for a live theatre audience?
And if you’re an artist, how are you going to reconcile an increasingly screen-driven audience used to looking at performance on a screen when it comes into a live space?
I still maintain that the perfection of audio recording in classical music in the 60s, 70s and 80s’ changed expectations of audiences in the concert hall for note-perfect performances. Over time, the recording fetish of “perfection” bred a sterility that damaged the spontaneous connection between artist and listener in the hall. If artists more and more start playing for the screens, how will that change what happens to the live in-the-space performance?