HD or Not HD: That Is the Future?

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Today we're going to talk about the future of theater—and how you may be watching it at movie theaters or even on your laptop.

On Tuesday night, at the Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood, audiences saw a clash of the titans, but it wasn't the 3-D Warner Bros. version. The titans clashing were W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, two heavyweights of 20th century British culture who are the main characters in the new play by Alan Bennett, The Habit of Art. Taped last Thursday at London's National Theatre, The Habit of Art is the fourth offering of a venture started last year titled NT Live, which broadcasts plays from London's biggest theater company to cinemas around the world.

The notion that people would drive to Hollywood, buy popcorn and watch a taped version of a two-and-a-half hour British backstage comedy about an aging poet and composer, may sound odd — it certainly bucks the conventional wisdom in Hollywood that only giant action franchises drive people to the big screen. Yet NT Live has found its niche. The screenings I've attended have been packed and The Habit of Art is expected to be seen by around 50,000 people worldwide. (About the same number who might see the show during a sold-out month and a half-long run)

The idea behind NT Live is that theater has a huge audience, but because there's only one Helen Mirren and she can only be in one place at one time, many of these people will never be able to buy a ticket and see her perform. Last year, when I interviewed Nicholas Hytner — the head of National Theatre, who also directed The Habit of Art — he likened the venture to the broadcasting of sports events.

I think he's right – just as football owners realized decades ago that airing NFL games for free on TV wouldn't replace fans going to pro, college or high school games, it just generated more excitement for the sport in general.

Hytner cited the Metropolitan Opera's HD Broadcasts as inspiration for NT Live. Indeed the Met is the leader of this new technology, and 2010 marks the fourth season that it's been showing opera in movie theaters, and it seems to be thriving.

I've made a point to see the Met operas both live in the house and in cinemas — and overall, the telecasts are a rich experience. Sure, there is the magic of seeing something live, but compared with just listening an opera on the radio or just missing it completely, the HD Broadcast is an amazing deal.

For example, the opera Armida is rarely performed. Unless you go to Italy often or you happened to be in Tulsa in 1992 for the work's American premiere, you probably haven't ever seen it. This season Renée Fleming is singing the title role in a production directed by Mary Zimmerman. Thanks to the Met's HD Broadcasts, you can see it on Saturday at your local movie theater. Zimmerman's production is attractive — not something that requires you to get on a plane and see in person — but Fleming and the opera are lovely. I plan on seeing Armida again when they screen the encore in a few weeks — but I could even wait a little longer and watch it at home, as the Met recently launched a website that allows you to pay to stream the same HD videos at home.

I know, I know, works written for the stage are best appreciated live in the theater. But opera and theater, especially world-class opera and theater is expensive to mount and expensive to see. This year the Met has sold over two million tickets to its opera in movie theaters – triple the audience that has seen its productions live.

HD Broadcasts and streaming video will never replace live theater-going, but like sports on TV, I think these events like these are going to be playing a big part in the future of performing arts

The Metropolitan Opera's HD Broadcast of Rossini's Armida screens at 10:00am this Saturday at 27 cinemas across Southern California; the next NT Live event, London Assurance, will screen in Hollywood this July.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: A scene from Act II of Rossini’s Armida with Teele Ude as Love, Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo, and Renée Fleming in the title role. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera