They are marketed as great opportunities to attend events we would not otherwise have access to, and there is some truth to that: NTLive and GlobeOnScreen offer theater-goers all around the world the ability to enjoy productions from London’s National Theater or New York’s Metropolitan Opera from the comfort of the movie house next door, if they are lucky enough to live in an area with an interest in those things, which generally assumes the presence of an indie cinema or a large, pre-existing subset of residents likely to attend those events. Shakespeare’s Globe, The Metropolitan Opera, the Berliner Philharmoniker have all launched “Live in Cinemas” operations to raise their visibility and expose audiences everywhere to their own brand of high-quality performing arts. (Some have met with more success than others.)
It is certainly better than nothing, although it happens in areas where there is, arts-wise, already more than nothing, simply because the programmer at the movie house must believe there is a sufficient market in his town. The program allows spectators to see Anna Netrebko at the Met, Gillian Anderson at the Young Vic, Carey Mulligan at Wyndham’s Theater in the West End. Each of them, as far as I was able to judge, has been truly spectacular. Movie audiences around the world cherished the opportunity to see them, albeit through a screen. But what matters more: seeing a star on a screen or a lesser-known performer on the local stage? Today’s cult of personalities suggests an easy answer. We like name-dropping too much for our own sake. In doing so, and in becoming used to the passive viewing of online webcasts and on-demand entertainment, we relinquish our own ability to influence the work on stage.
People nowadays are so busy going through the world in their own little bubble made of their smartphones and iPods they have become completely oblivious to the fact that their presence can affect, in a good way, the people around them. Theatergoers have been told watching a performance in HD isn’t the same thing as watching it live, but they usually have no clue what the curmudgeon expressing this opinion is talking about. Isn’t a better view of what happens on stage always preferable, even when that means watching it on a screen, especially if the choice is between a third-rate performance live in a small town and a first-rate one broadcast from New York or London? What difference does it make to sit in a performance hall, perhaps in the back, perhaps with someone tall in front of you, when you can sit in a movie theater and admire face shots of the principal actors, whose slightest gestures and expressions are revealed to you with more clarity than if you had sat in the very first row of the theater?
We dismiss too easily the influence of old-fashioned presence: of being there, sharing that moment with the cast. It may sound like New-Agey nonsense. Before I started teaching, I didn’t know it existed and couldn’t have imagined what others were talking about if I’d been warned. But after a couple of years in the classroom, I noticed that when my students were getting collectively confused about a point in my lecture, they didn’t even need to raise their hand and ask about it. I sensed it even with my back turned to them, while I wrote on the blackboard. I sensed it, quite simply, because of the shift of energy in the room. Mind you, this was an early-morning class for college seniors: they weren’t sitting on the edge of their seats clamoring for an encore. They weren’t particularly excited to be there in the first place. They had come, though, and they were trying to follow the lecture to make it worth their time. I knew right away when I’d lost them.
Maybe as a long-time meditator I am more attuned to energy than most. I suspect a similar energy shift occurs when a rowdy gathering in a dive bar is about to turn into a brawl, although I am fortunate never to have experienced that type of energy shift first-hand. But when you think that this phenomenon can happen in a random college classroom on a topic not nearly as fascinating as an artistic performance, then hopefully it becomes more obvious than stage performers, whether musicians, actors or opera singers, will work off the energy they get from the audiences in the room. In the many excellent “Live in HD” programs I’ve attended, I’ve never felt that same shift, although I often witnessed strong performances. They don’t withstand comparison with two live occasions etched in my mind: one at the Metropolitan Opera when Anna Netrebko was singing Lucia di Lammermoor, and one on Broadway during Eric Lenox Abrams‘s monologue in All the Way, when – after young voting rights activists have been murdered in Mississippi – he keeps shouting “Are you angry?” without catching his breath from the balcony to backstage to the front of the stage. Later, at a panel on human rights at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a clip of that play was shown to the audience, and included that very same monologue of his. The audience did correctly recognize something important was happening on the screen, but the energy shift just wasn’t there. In fact, when I watched it on screen, I wondered how Lenox Abrams’s performance had affected me so much live, since it barely moved me now. Yet, it had – so much in fact that I bought another ticket full-price to watch him (not Bryan Cranston) a second time.
This is not only a call for watching performing arts live, in the same room as the actors. This is definitely snot a call for not going to “Live in HD”-type events, which are enjoyable in their own right, in addition to (rather than in replacement of) live theater. This is a call for people not to forget they can influence others – in a good way – by simply being there. The quality of the performers is certainly important. But our culture has become one of labels and rankings, where we don’t believe regional theater or small opera houses, for instance, can ever withstand comparison with what happens in New York City. We thus convince ourselves that something happening on a movie screen, often at a cheaper price than live theater, should be viewed as a superior option. Names on a marquee matter, but the ability to shape the experience in front of us matters more. Whether it is by supporting the local high school theater club or professional actors in town for a traveling show, we should fiercely protect this opportunity.