Within 36 hours of the Oct. 26 launch of Digital Theater, the website offering Internet downloads of productions from some of Britain’s leading not-for-profit legit companies, the response already has exceeded expectations.
Users from 52 countries have logged on to the site from as far afield as Croatia, the Cayman Islands, Mexico, Malta and Malawi. English Touring Theater’s dramatization of Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the first title to be made available, has even been downloaded by a user in Azerbaijan.
Following the successful launch of the National Theater’s NT Live program this year, these results may quell skepticism among legit pros whose past experience with filming live theater has been almost universally painful. Traditionally, when TV companies lense clips of plays for news usage, the results are lifeless, conveying neither theatrical atmosphere nor cinematic flair. That’s largely because the actors have no focus, being neither camera-directed, nor playing to a TV audience.
One of the strengths of the Digital Theater project is that this is not technology condescending toward theater. Co-founders Robert Delamere and Tom Shaw have experience that straddles both media.
“Theater personnel have told us it’s a relief we actually understand what a dress rehearsal is,” Delamere says. He certainly does. His directing credits include lauded productions at the Donmar Warehouse, Royal Court and Royal Shakespeare Company.
Ian Rickson, director of the Almeida Theater production of Jez Butterworth’s “Parlour Song,” which is due up on the site shortly, is a fan.
“Capturing the alchemy of live performance is an enormous challenge,” he says. “Digital Theater set about it with a care and sensitivity that produces excellent results, and hopefully can open up the art form to ever increasing audiences.”
That observation is definitely on message for Delamere.
“When (soccer) matches began to be televised, people said it would destroy the game,” he recalls. “It had completely the opposite effect. People have a tendency to ghetto-ize theater; there are terrible boundaries between art forms, but we’re using one grammar on another to see if we can enhance both.”
Digital Theater’s output is thus far restricted to productions outside the commercial sector. The latter would require far more complex and variable financial deals.