While British robotic technology continues to lag embarrassingly behind ours, British advances in live-theater broadcasting keep leaving us Yanks in the dust. The National Theatre, flagship of the U.K. stage, is in the midst of its second season of live-captured, direct-to-multiplex theatrical broadcasts: Last fall's Hamlet (starring Rory Kinnear) was a big hit on both sides of the pond, and Derek Jacobi is howling through the airwaves in the Donmar's Lear (with occasional, unavoidable, Taymoresque you-are-there glitches). And soon, a Danny Boyle–directed Frankenstein — featuring After Miss Julie's Jonny Lee Miller and neo-Sherlock
Actors' Equity, the theatrical performers' union, has pretty strict rules about taping live theater, and for good reason. Actors need to be able to protect their work, and theater, quite frankly, shows very poorly on video — unless it's done very, very well. (It can be!) But apart from Lincoln Center and Great Performances, no private producer, nonprofit entity, or network has shown a great deal of enthusiasm for the practice. It's complex and risky, and the whole business model is based on getting people to come to New York and/or wait for the tour. But as embattled NEA chair Rocco Landesman has pointed out, theatrical audiences appear to be shrinking, not growing. He suggests this diminished demand might be an argument for "restricting supply." But let's pretend for a moment that we're not a bunch of dejected aesthetes, but a trade group like Dairy Council. Would we accept demand as a fixed thing? Or would we make plans for goosing it?
When sales for a commodity top out or fall, industrialists and their Mad Men find new and ever-more–Milo Minderbinderish ways to cloud-seed their product into the national consciousness: Cheese on every sandwich! Eggs with every breakfast! Snooki is an actual celebrity you can't afford to ignore! So how about live theater, direct to your DVR/Roku/Tablet? Hell, package it with a season of Glee. Salt it with stars. Wrangle "name" directors. Make it a can't-miss pop-culture moment, or at least give it the urgency of a UFC title bout. Would it cut into ticket sales? Doubtful: Livecasts should be aiming for an entirely new, uninitiated audience — younger, tech-savvier, hungry for the energy and spontaneity of live performance. And yes, by "spontaneity," I mean the ever-present possibility that an actor will fall from the rafters. Hey, it's worked before.