Live broadcasts of opera, dance and theatre performances from leading arts venues such as the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, National Theatre, and Royal Shakespeare Company, to numerous cinemas world-wide, have become part of the arts scene since their launch by the MET opera in 2006. At the same time, live streaming to the internet has been developed (for example by the Vienna State Opera), and live broadcasts on television continue, predominantly for sports events. Initially, live casts to cinemas were advertised as the opportunity of seeing live theatre, only not in the theatre, but in the cinema.
Over the years, producers and audiences have realised that the experience of a theatre or dance or opera production live-cast into a cinema is not the same as seeing the production in the theatre or opera house. Nor is it the same as watching a recording of such a live-cast, or the film of a stage production. Live theatre, opera or dance, live-casts to the cinema, screenings of recorded live-casts, filmed stage productions, live-streaming to the internet, and live broadcasts on TV are different from each other. Each form has its own technology, its own contexts of production, and its own aesthetics of reception. The cinema live-cast emphasises the communal aspect—hence the RSC’s explicit decision, for example, to rely on the local cinemas’ public sound systems rather than issuing headsets to each live-cast spectator in the cinemas.
In the theatre, the spectator can decide what to look at, the stage or other spectators, and what on stage to focus on, or not. In film and in a live-cast or live streaming, the decision of focus is made for the spectator by the director.
In live-casts you do get close-ups that are not available in the theatre. I saw the recent National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler both in the theatre (first) and as a live-cast (later). In the theatre, I was impressed by the dynamics of the vast space. That dynamics was nearly completely lost for me in the live-cast, but I was able to combine my memory of that dynamics with the interesting close-ups of the actor’s faces that I had not had in the live performance. Thus, the impressions of live performance and live-cast combined into a new, richer experience that neither the live performance nor the live-cast would have been able to achieve. Research into this might consider the extent to which that combination of experiences is due to my extensive experience in the context of theatre.
A distinct disadvantage of the live-cast format can be for comedy when the live audience is heard laughing about something that is not in view at that moment. Technology itself, or the venue’s equipment, or the venue staff’s ability to use the available equipment appropriately, are still problematic for live-casts as well. I have attended a sizeable number of them, but there has not been one without a temporarily frozen screen. The actor’s words tend echo around the cinema—they do not do that in the theatre—sometimes so much so that the cinema technicians decide to turn off all but the speakers at the front of the cinema. Where live-cast directors choose not to select specific aspects of the stage, but show the entire stage from a certain distance necessary to capture the stage’s width and depth, they sometimes still shift camera focus or angle slightly, very slowly, almost unnoticeably, and for me and several others I talked to, this kind of camera movement caused dizziness, headache and nausea. This medium has potential, but needs to address current shortcomings.