Guest writer and theatre geek Helen Pain is on a mission to find the best way to see theatre for under £20 – and the answer is closer to home.
If you ever happen to find a spare £20 in your pocket (or, if you’re like me, stashed in a handbag you haven’t used since the early noughties), you might think of spending it on new clothes or games. Maybe you’ll consider dining out instead of having a home-cooked meal? £20 is a decent bottle of vodka – just saying. Whatever your vice, however, I can guarantee that you will NOT think to purchase a theatre ticket.
Let’s be honest, theatre is not the pursuit of the average Joe (at least not anymore – we’ve moved on since the raucous 1800’s). Due to the expense of their creation and delivery, many West End shows now charge roughly £100 per person. Even amateur performances are over a tenner these days. The average cost of a ticket outside of London three years ago was £23.77 – too much for your new-found £20 note to cover.
What if I told you… There exists a medium that gives you the best seat in the house and will only cost you £15, leaving you ample change for popcorn.
I’m talking of course about digital theatre.
Thanks largely to advances in technology, and the understanding of theatre directors that they need to extend their reach, live screening plays and musicals to cinemas across the UK makes cultural entertainment more accessible. National Theatre Live launched in June 2009 with a broadcast of the National Theatre production of Phèdre with Helen Mirren, and since then other companies such as the Royal Opera House and More2Screen have distributed live music and ballet to audiences all around the world. National Theatre Live alone has live screened performances to 2,500 cinemas in 65 countries.
What are the advantages of digital theatre?
You don’t miss out.
In 2014, my friend Tracy and I were a bit obsessed with Tom Hiddleston, having fallen in love with him as the sexy Norse god of mischief, Loki, in the Thor films. He was performing in Coriolanus as the eponymous roman general and we decided to try and get tickets. Unfortunately for us, the Donmar Warehouse where the play was staged was only a 250 seater, and there were others who were as equally infatuated with him as we were. As a consequence, the performance was sold out before I’d even finished logging in my details to the website, leaving our passion for Mr Hiddleston unfulfilled and both of us in a bad mood.
I wondered, post ticket fail, if Coriolanus might eventually find its way to Empire cinema, Swindon. After all, my first live screening experience (where I became hooked) was Frankenstein, way back in 2011, when Benedict Cumberbatch was on a high from Sherlock and digital theatre was the only way to watch him on stage. Hiddleston was certainly as big a draw as Cumberbatch and, as luck would have it, a few weeks after Coriolanus started in London a poster appeared at the cinema, advertising its live screening. Tracy and I eagerly attended and got to see our Loki in all his glory: bloodied, bruised and emotional. We loved every minute.
More recently, I went to a live screening of King Lear starring the award-winning Sir Ian McKellen. Tickets at the Duke of York theatre in London are like gold dust, and rightly so; Ian McKellen is a Shakespearian idol. Knowing this, I opted on this occasion for digital theatre to save myself a few pennies, and guarantee myself a seat to watch a master at work. It might not allow you to be in the same room as the actors, but it does give you a second chance at viewing instead of standing outside the venue and shouting ‘tickets…annnnyyyy spare tickets?’ That’s just embarrassing.
Up close and personal
As I mentioned previously, there really is nothing like the buzz you get from sitting in the same room as professional actors, sometimes mere metres away from your celebrity favourites. That’s one of the main reasons that I endure waiting in an online queue for hours. That being said, when you opt for a cheaper theatre seat you run the risk of staring at a pillar in the restricted viewing zone, or so high in the upper circle that your head practically touches the ceiling. It makes for a long evening of eye strain and leaning awkwardly into punters laps. Not fun.
Digital theatre can give the cinema audience better, more intimate imagery. There is no barrier between viewer and actor: cameras provide a range of shots, from wide pans of the entire stage to close-ups on actor’s faces, capturing every expression. In Coriolanus, we saw tears running down Tom Hiddleston’s face. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the camera gave resonance to the relationship between John and Gwendolen by choosing to linger on the discreet touching of their fingertips over the lid of a piano. Had you sat in the gods, you would have missed these subtle gestures entirely.
Nor are the cameras only for the actors, oh no. Before, during and after the performance, we can spy on the audience as they take their seats, chatting, laughing, guzzling wine. It may be a tiny pleasure, but it makes you feel as if you’re there in the theatre with them. And it allows you to be nosey without being caught!
A shared experience
Following on from the point about people-watching, the set-up of the live screening is very different to watching a film. Upon arrival, the usher presents you with a programme depicting the characters, synopsis and information regarding other live screening events. There is an interval at the mid-way point, and an opportunity to buy ice-cream (always worth checking with the cinema before purchasing as not all of them will provide this).
Another clever addition is the use of social media. Digital theatre is keen for feedback, especially positive feedback, to justify funding it, and it only takes seconds to send a tweet or post an image. Every programme contains links to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, inviting audiences to express their opinions about the shows they’ve watched. It also helps to connect with younger audiences, to encourage them to consider seeing the real thing.
Any disadvantages of digital theatre?
With any digital medium there are bound to be a few teething problems, the biggest being interrupted signal, a mistimed line delivery, or delays to the theatre performance impacting on cinema schedules. Consider, however, that this has also happened at least once during a film screening, whether through film reels jamming or combusting, or fire alarms going off mid-way through a feature. Suddenly, a few blips with a live screening aren’t too severe a problem and, as with films, you can always ask for a refund if you’re not happy.
There is also an argument that digital theatre will stop people going to the actual theatre. Perhaps, but this may be more evident in areas where theatre isn’t as prolific. Major cities will continue to see tourists flocking to live performances, especially in London. In 2016, the Independent wrote ‘…the fear that streaming plays in cinemas would cannibalise theatre sales has largely been disproven’ and that National Theatre Live had ‘…boosted local theatre attendance in neighbourhoods most exposed to the live broadcasting programme’. It seems that digital theatre is merely an alternative to the real thing instead of the successor.
There are a few ways you can find out more about digital theatre. The first is to go online and search for ‘live screening’, or find your local cinema and look at their ‘what’s on’ page – most establishments will advertise a live screening a month or two in advance of the show date. Finally, take your newly acquired £20 and treat yourself to a night of art and culture, knowing that you’re going to get a better view than the person who paid twice as much as you. Enjoy!
Helen Pain – an emotional theatre geek with a crush on Tom Hiddleston