Theatre: Wonderful stuff. Not theater. How to tell the difference.

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES July/ August 2011

OPERA, DANCE, AND theater are coming in high-definition video versions to screens near you, or at least reasonably near  you. In fact, they’ve already done so.

I’ll be going to see the video version of Brian Bedford in The Importance of Being Earnest tomorrow night. I hope to catch the video version of Zoe Wanamaker in The Cherry Orchard later on this month. I’m sorry I missed the National Theater’s video versions last year. I’m sure there will be more of these offerings, and I’ll probably take in as many as I can.

What I won’t do is regard any of this as going to the theater, theater-going, theater attendance, enjoying theater, or anything of that kind.

I will regard it as going to the movies.

The essence of theater is the living presence of the performer. Read that again - the living presence of the performer. When it's up on a screen, it may be wonderful, but it is not theater. It's a movie. Where, how, when or why it was filmed doesn't matter. The fact is that it was filmed, and when we watch that film, it's a film, not live--not theater.

The key point is this: we've become so immersed in media that we no longer understand the difference between media and live experience. That's really, really sad. When Julie Borchard-Young, one of the leaders of the company that produced the Bedford project, says to Mark Kennedy of Backstage, "There's this extraordinary appetite for unique and special programs that goes beyond what the movie theaters are traditionally offering," she’s right. Lots of people who can’t or won’t go to see the live performance will happily go see the video version.

But then she tells him, "These shows are never designed to be a replacement. The nature of these HD presentations is such that it whets the appetite for theatergoers to re-engage in a really meaningful way in their local communities, particularly for those who cannot travel to New York for various reasons to catch a show during its run."

Excuse me? Re-engage in their local communities? Sitting in a darkened room watching bright pictures on a screen has absolutely nothing to do with your local community. Nor are the people who are doing that in any way, at that moment, theater-goers. Watching a movie of a show is not the same as watching the show. It’s not even the same art form. It’s not happening live in front of you, done by people breathing the same air you’re breathing. It’s a movie of something that happened at another time and another place involving  people you don’t know, will never meet, who don’t know you, nor anything about you, nor anything about your “local community.” The only operative community relationship at work is the equation that reads, “you aren’t going to buy a ticket to the show in New York, so we hoping you’ll buy a ticket to the video version.” In your “local community.” Wherever that is. We don’t even know that. Did we fly over that place sometime or other?

How would we, theatrically speaking, re-engage in our local communities? No, it won’t be Brian Bedford. But it will be theater. Live. In person. Sharing the same air with you. Try it. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to tell the difference.

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