The digital age could destroy theater productions as we know them. A new website and application allow viewers to see filmed performances in high-quality visuals on computers and tablets. But what is to become of the live dimension?
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Although I am a great fan of progress and a lover of gadgets, I am a romantic deep inside. So when people started talking about digital books, I didn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand, and I even agreed wholeheartedly that when it came to reference books (encyclopedias, lexicons and dictionaries, for example), the computer and CD-ROM would send the paper versions (particularly the multi-volume editions) into the dustbin of history and wastepaper. I was convinced that literary works would always have a future in the form they had inhabited for the past 500 years, and not because it was difficult, if not impossible, to curl up in bed with a computer to read a book.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading most of my books on a Kindle or iPad, with which it is definitely possible to curl up in bed. That didn’t keep me from claiming that the theater — the experience of a live performance taking place in real time, presented by one group of live human beings to another group of live human beings paying attention to a certain space specifically for that purpose — was immune to digital incursion.
It was not just because it was impossible to curl up in bed with a theatrical production. (It can be done with an actor or actress, though that is not recommended if you are a theater critic or in a relationship.) And, of course, I am not ruling out combining digital technology with a production using the screen or even using the Internet to provide a content-related or visual component in the experience (for example, using chat in Patrick Marber’s play “Closer”). My certainty about theater’s immunity to the screen, the computer and the Internet was based on the living human essence of the experience and its physical constraints. Isn’t viewing by the audience, in a single physical space, of something human and even tangible, a vital part of the experience? Just as film did not bring about the end of theatrical art, as had been predicted, and television did not kill the movies, the computer screen and the Internet could never take the place of television (it seems I was wrong there), film (I could be wrong there, too, as home television screens grow larger), and certainly not the theater.
It turns out that I was wrong about that as well, but before I tell about my new discovery, the Digital Theatre website and application (www.digitaltheatre.com), allow me to say how proud I was of what I am about to tell you now, and show where I was wrong (again).
In 1969, I watched Roger Vadim’s film "Barbarella." Vadim, who directed "And God Created Woman" (1956) while he was married to Brigitte Bardot. (For the young ones among us, Brigitte Bardot was the Bar Refaeli of every man on earth in the 1950s and 1960s, only more radiant and much sexier.) He made "Barbarella" while he was married to Jane Fonda. The American film industry began distancing itself a bit from the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code), which determined what could and could not be shown on film. Vadim took advantage of the opportunity to turn Jean-Claude Forest’s sexy 1962 comic for adults into a semi-pornographic (very soft-porn, actually) science-fiction film.
In the film, Fonda played Barbarella, a space pilot, who went almost nude in zero-gravity conditions. In the film, she arrives on a planet called Sogo (a combination of the names Sodom and Gomorrah) to save a teen idol named Duran Duran, a native of Planet Earth. (That was where the British pop band of the same name got the name from.)
The nice part of the film was that Barbarella’s space journeys gave Fonda an opportunity to take off her clothes again and again, display her comic talent and be incredibly sexy. It is no surprise that those who saw the film, including myself and one wonderful woman, ran out of the theater heading straight for the nearest bed.
Why am I bothering you with this, and what does it have to do with the connection between theater and the digital world? At an international conference of theater critics in Turin about seven years ago, I had the chance to hear a lecture by Porter Anderson, a senior producer at CNN. He told the theater people that they were living in the past, and that unless they woke up and joined the digital world, they would go the way of the dinosaur.
Anderson said that there were already Internet sites of CNN capable of broadcasting live and unedited material from four sites at the same time, and that in the near future they were planning to do it from culture sites, too, such as from theaters during the play. You must learn to leave the closed space of the theater hall, Anderson preached to the critics; otherwise the end of theater is not only in sight, it is upon you.
I don't know what came over me when I heard that. I asked for the floor and told those present about "Barbarella" - not about what happened to me after the movie, nor that Marcel Marceau plays one of the roles. In one scene Barbarella meets a hairy, impressive man who is willing to help fix her space ship. In return he asks that she sleep with him. Since she comes from Earth in the year 40000, she is accustomed to have sexual intercourse by swallowing a pill - that both the man and the woman take - and then touching hands and experiencing an orgasm together. But the man in the movie doesn't want that, he wants to do it the regular, accepted way. Barbarella agrees, and from that time on she understands that an orgasm from a pill is not the real thing.
I related all this to say that theater on the Internet is excellent and needs to be used, but theater critics need to exploit the opportunity to explain to Internet users that what they are seeing on their screens is not the real thing, and doesn't even look like the real thing.
There is nothing like a little sex to resurrect academic discussions. The moderator had already proposed that the topic of the next conference of the theater critics be "Sex and Theater" and the representative from Korea came up to me and asked, in the name of the members of the delegation - who it seems did not know "Barbarella" - what orgasm pill I was talking about. And where could one get it. I was sorry to disappoint him and admitted that as far as I knew, there were no such pills.
From stage to screen
And now a fast forward to our day: I read, with envy, that since 2009 the National Theatre in Britain screens plays via satellite to selected movie theaters around England - and even to a few places around the rest of the world. Numerous cameras placed around the hall broadcast to the movie theaters, from the play going on in real time, a picture that will provide the digital viewer the feeling he is sitting in the best seat in the house - including close-ups of the actors and even unconventional camera angles of the action onstage. The Metropolitan Opera House in New York does the same - and you can see the broadcasts from there here in Israel. And of course, it is possible to buy from the stores in the large theaters the video recordings of the selected productions from the past - basically a film of a theater production - while taking advantage of the preference for diverse viewpoints of a number of cameras over the eyes and ears of the static spectator.
The disadvantage of these two digital experiences is that in the first, you are dependent on the screening dates and availability of the play near your home. In the second, the disadvantage is that it is really digital documentation of the theater from the past, which is missing the live dimension of the real-time performance. And here enters the picture the Digital Theatre. This is a private initiative of stage director Robert Delamere and television and radio producer Tom Shaw, with an investment of 1 million pounds from private sources. In 2009 they started a number of arrangements with well known English theater troupes such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe Theatre, the Royal Court, the Young Vic, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet.
The result is a website and application for tablets that allows rental for watching (at a price of up to four pounds for 30 days, and the first viewing must be completed within 48 hours), or for purchase and downloading to your computer (for about seven pounds in regular quality and around nine pounds for high definition), one of some 33 productions offered as of now; three were added since I discovered the application. The marketing method is based on some of the productions being offered as screenings in the movie theaters in the first stage, in England and a few other places in Europe. For now, the Digital Theatre is showing "Merrily We Roll Along" this way, a new production of the Stephen Sondheim musical. This production was a big success in London and on Broadway, and is now being shown again in London. Since I saw the production in London and was excited by it, I followed the news about the play and that is how I discovered the wonderful Digital Theatre site. In a few weeks, or months, it will be possible to see it at home for about NIS 60 (if you want to keep it forever). I made do in the meantime with Sondheim's "Into the Woods," a wonderful production at the open air theater in Regent's Park, right among the trees.
I laid bundled up in bed and watched a colorful musical with a big cast for over two hours on my iPad. The quality of the picture and sound were excellent, the cameras changed viewing angles and felt as if I was sitting in the London park in real time, and looking at the expressions on the faces of the actor-singers as if they were in bed with me. So that's it. I was mistaken here too, and I was watching theater, well done, photographed with great love and exactitude - on my tablet, in bed. I certainly will continue to go to the theater, since I too still prefer the real orgasm over the one produced with technology. But if they offer me seductive theater pills like those of Digital Theatre on my iPad (and where is the Israeli initiative like this?), I will happily give in to digital temptation.