Research into the NT live experiment shows just what a success this early stage is. Audiences at the live streamings in cinemas experience the ‘live’ experience not just as much as those in the theatre, BUT MORE. And they report even higher levels of emotional engagement than those at the theatre. My own experience bears this out – you get close to the actors in a way that you can’t in a large theatre. The audience appears to be more diverse, attracting more attenders from lower income brackets at the livestreams than in the theatre, and attracting those for whom attendance at the South Bank would be out of reach.NT live has contributed to the ‘virtual capacity’ of the theatre, with no signs of a cannabilisation of theatre box office income according to the research published by NESTA.
NT live shows how the main stream of our theatres can break through the so-called fourth wall of theatre.
During the last 50 years, theatre makers realised that they could become boxed in by the proscenium arch theatres prevalent in the control- and -command culture of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Some began the quest to break the ‘fourth wall’ through creative use of design and directing, so that the actor and audience could engage as directly as possible. In the 20th century, theatre auditoria which were more intimate were built, from tiny studio theatres like the Traverse to courtyard theatres like the Cottesloe, which took as inspiration the more interactive theatres of Shakespeare’s day, unconstrained by proscenium arches and dress circles. This escape from the prosc arch has picked up speed in the 21st century, with site specific and interactive work applauded by critics. Even the Theatres Trust trustees have declared prosc arch theatres to be old hat.
Old hat they may be for the avant garde and cutting edge of theatre makers. But the overall economy of theatre demands that the mainstream of work and audiences meet in the larger theatres, where work on a grand scale can take place and audience can attend in their droves. And while modern theatre architecture can make light work of the proscenium, like Daniel Libeskind’s Grand Canal Theatre, its still there. And opera glasses may be required if you are at the back of the upper circle.
People like going to the theatre, attendances are up, at least in the West End, and many want to see some of the grand scale work. Until now, that has meant travelling to the theatre usually in the metropolis,paying a hefty sum and if paying less than the top price,often being too far away from the stage to break through the fourth wall. The success of NT Live is a game-changing phenomenon.
And that’s before 3D is mainstreamed.