Would we rather have Live—or Memorex?

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES May/ June 2010

I’ve believed, for a long time now, that live theater’s key advantage is that it is in fact live, that being in the same space, breathing the same air as the performers is a fundamentally more intense experience than any mediated version of drama, such as cinema or television.

Now I’m scared. I might be wrong.

I’ve been studying a fascinating document from NESTA, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. In June and October last year, the National Theater transmitted live performances of Phedre and All’s Well That Ends Well to digital cinemas around the world, including 70 cinemas in the UK. NESTA went out and surveyed both the live audience in the National Theatre and the cinema audience, collecting over a thousand responses from each, for a total of about 2,500 responses in all. They were very interested in the demographics of it all, of course, but along the way they also explored the reception of the performances by these two audiences.

88 percent of the cinema audiences “felt an emotional response to the play.” That’s ten percent more than the live audience. 63 percent of cinema audiences felt “transported to another world and lost track of time.” Only 48 percent of the live audience felt that way—15 percent fewer. 80 percent of the cinema audience felt “real excitement because they knew that the performance they were watching was taking place ‘live’ at the National Theatre.”

Of course, the cinema experience was not live, any more than sitting at home watching a football game is live. “Live on TV” isn’t live, no matter how big the screen is. And yet—is it not true that many of us rarely never go to the stadium, but watch many a game at home on TV? And haven’t we all found ourselves jumping up and down in our living rooms with excitement at a really great moment in a televised game?

So how important is it that live be actually live? Isn’t it clear that we are quite willing to accept “live on TV” as the emotional equivalent of live? In fact, do not these results suggest that we are actually more likely to be emotionally involved with the moving image on a screen than with the real thing directly in front of us?

We are, after all, exposed to the screen every day, almost everywhere we go. It’s becoming normal to see screens in all sorts of places—the hallways of a college building, the customer service area of a supermarket, on the walls of a restaurant or bar, almost anywhere—not to mention our own homes. In contrast, how often are we exposed to actual live performance in person? Are we not more likely to have learned to respond more to screens than to live performances?

I don’t think we can outgrow live performance, but I think we can grow away from it. And maybe we are doing just that. We’re better at responding to what we see on screens because we do so much more of it and because the screen does have some innate advantages. Are we heading down a road that will lead to the audience in a live theater serving the same role as the studio audience of a TV show? And when we get there, will there be any difference?

The NESTA document is available at http://www.nesta.org.uk/library/documents/Beyond-Live-report.pdf. Scary as it is, I recommend you read it.

Bethune website: www.freshwaterseas.com