Coming to a movie screen near you, the best in theater

Plays from the world's most revered stages are being beamed into multiplexes, bringing theater lovers a chance to see top-class productions at a modest price.

Courtesy of Catherine Ashmore
Helen Mirren as Phedre in the production "Phedre" playing at the National Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Theater lovers rejoice. The world's best stage productions are on their way to a movie house near you. Thanks to the digital revolution, everything from London's acclaimed National Theater production of Racine's masterwork "Phèdre," starring Helen Mirren, to the off-Broadway cult favorite "Forever Plaid," not to mention upcoming top Broadway musicals, are beaming into multiplexes from Reykjavik to Los Angeles – in high-definition and eventually 3-D, to boot.

It's high-tech culture for the low price of a movie matinee and a box of popcorn. And in a sure sign that regional thespians aren't worried about the arrival of their digital counterparts, the premier regional theater in the United States, Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater, will actually screen a delayed transmission of "Phèdre" July 8 and 9 in one of its main stages.

"It's the wave of the future," says Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling. This week alone, in addition to the two-night reprise of the "Phèdre" production, which was beamed live around the world this past Thursday, "Forever Plaid," will go national for a special 20th-anniversary event live from Club Nokia in the heart of Los Angeles July 9.

This wave of global sharing of the world's toniest stage confections in the humblest of Milk-Dud-and-Raisinets venues has been ushered in by the success of New York's Metropolitan Opera's "The Met: Live in HD," which has been beaming matinees around the world for three seasons.

"The whole idea is to engage opera lovers [and] to reach new audiences as well," says the Met's Peter Gelb. Just as sports fans have flocked to live simulcasts of major events, he adds, culture fans have embraced the satellite experiences for what they are.

"This is not a wannabe movie," says Nicholas Hytner, of London's National Theatre. The goal, he says, is to reach a wider audience with a production that would never have that sort of scope, and still preserve "the original theatricality of the show."

The team behind the "Forever Plaid" anniversary bash say they couldn't pass up the opportunity to reach so many fans – affectionately known as "plaidheads," a term reportedly coined by devotee late night host, Jay Leno – in one go. The soiree will include a filmed version of the show combined with a live performance by the cast. And, in what the singers say excites them most, the world's first live singalong, linking 375 theaters in four-part harmony at once.

"It's a hybrid of many elements," says producer Suren Seron. "But the important thing that ties it together and makes it singular is that it is live."

Recognizing the power of the $20 ticket to lure theater lovers and neophytes alike to the cinema, entrepreneur Dale Smith is in the early stages of perhaps the most ambitious application of the new technology – a commitment to bring the best musicals of every Broadway season to worldwide audiences. Fugobi Broadway 3-D, which hopes to bring no fewer than five musicals to global audiences within the next year and a half, was formed to address what Mr. Smith calls a crisis in the current Broadway model. While there were a record number of musicals in New York this season, he says, fewer people saw these shows, many of which took years and millions of dollars to develop, than watch an average episode of television.

"It's time for a new paradigm," says Smith. Under his proposed model, shows will be shot on soundstages in high-definition and 3-D creating a digital record of a theatrical experience that can then be used to create a menu of additional promotional offerings – everything from webisodes to preshow trailers. The full show will be used to create an appetite for upcoming Manhattan shows, to "prep" local audiences for a touring production of a successful show, and to promote foreign imports.

"There is so much good material all over the world," says Smith, adding that what's missing is a viable means of aggregating sufficient audience numbers to support the investment required to bring these shows from their home countries.

While critics fret that turning theater into just another movie will undermine appreciation for the real thing, history has proved otherwise, says Smith. Just look at what the film "Mamma Mia" did for touring productions of the original show. "Awareness of the kind that only movie distribution can provide gave that show a whole new life," he says. "This is the beginning of a whole new life for live theater everywhere."

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