Reaching, inspiring new audiences
Catching up on the theatre phenomenon that is National Theatre Live (broadcast locally at Cinema Nouveau around the country), Diane de Beer speaks to executive producer David Sabel about their early and future dreams.
HOW DID someone who trained as an actor and a chef and then managed to squeeze in an MBA land up as the NT Live executive producer?
David Sabel says it’s all serendipitous. He trained as an actor initially at Northwestern in Chicago, worked in the US for a while, studied in Paris at Le Coq, but then moved to London because theatre there interested him more.
Writing to people like Nick Hytner (director of the National Theatre), he had no joy and finally left for Paris to be a sous chef at the Rose Bakery. That’s what you do.
Because he felt there was a gap in his education even though he wanted to stick to the arts, he followed this with an MBA at Cambridge. Later he did a workshop with Hytner’s brother at Saatchi and Saatchi who saw his resume featuring Jacques le Coq and an MBA and suggested he contact his brother at the National Theatre.
That’s what he always wanted, so with that introduction, the doors opened. But Nick had nothing, even though the resume was impressive.
Two hours later, he called Sabel to tell him that the chief operating officer of the National Theatre had just asked him if he was aware of what the Met was doing with opera. Sabel’s credentials in the arts and business would enable him to do a feasibility study and the ball was set in motion for one of the most obvious yet innovative international theatre inventions.
Take South Africa, for example. We have been hearing about plays around the world for years. The distance and often the exchange rate is prohibitive and the live theatre broadcasts (even if delayed) are just amazing. Having now witnessed some live performances and then viewing the screening, I am even more excited.
There’s nothing that beats a live performance, but you gain so much with the experience the film crews have amassed these past years. When, for example, there’s a performance that’s captivating, it’s heightened because you don’t miss any detail. It’s extraordinary, as in the case of Gillian Anderson in the production of Streetcar Named Desire.
It also enhances local theatre and allows theatre enthusiasts, artists or scholars to keep track of what is happening on international stages. Reviving the classics like Streetcar is also happening locally, like the Aardklop production of Seagull ( Seemeeu) and The Market’s future run of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead. It simply broadens the scope to see how others approach it, too.
Taking theatre to the international stage was about longevity and allowing more people (first only in Britain) to see a production. Many productions like Helen Mirren’s Phèdre were not going to be able to tour. Productions that have celebrity casts are quickly sold out, so even Londoners benefit from NT Live, as I experienced when seeing David Hare’s Skylight in London (with Carrey Mulligan and Bill Nighy) with a second season of the live play running at the same time, but already sold out.
So what started as an internship quickly developed into a very personal project and an enormous one at that. Very early on they realised they would have to expand internationally because of affordability. They were also lucky to have the Met operas and their experience with the filming and the broadcasts as a learning tool.
“We found that inspiring,” Sabel says.
It’s a very precise process from the choosing of the productions to the filming: “It’s not about turning a stage play into film. The intent is to faithfully capture the live performance.”
It’s almost as if the director and camera crew have the best seats in the house, which is what makes this such rewarding for the long-distance viewer.
Initially they launched in 280 venues across 109 countries, but this has grown to more than a 1 000 venues over 40 countries and they broadcast between eight and 10 plays a season. To date, they don’t yet offer DVD sales of the broadcasts which is something many viewers who can’t always make the short runs complain about.
“We are simply passionate about preserving the live, communal experience and the sense of event through the big screen exhibitions,” says Sabel, but we all know money talks and this will change – down the line. It’s also about giving consumers what they want, and as with most things, they want convenience.
It is that belief that these screenings present a sense of occasion as you share with a global audience, plus the fact that you are together in a theatre with local, and even if removed, international audiences, that’s holding them back.
But there’s much they’re looking at. As they have brought shows of other theatres like Complicité and The Young Vic to the NT Live broadcasts, so they are also looking at different countries. Filming productions in New York, for example. Once they figured out that theatre from specific regions which they thought might be seen as particularly peculiar to a specific country relates well in the rest of the world, they knew that much more would be available in the future.
We all know that the digital world and the availability of shows and culture on demand has changed viewing patterns and choices dramatically and forever. We are moving into a revolutionary time for the consumer with entertainment. The National Theatre with the insight of Hytner and the savvy of Sabel are hooked into that cycle.
“We’re pretty bullish about the live screenings,” notes Sabel. He knows the world’s his oyster. “It can only grow.”
Who knows how long it will be before something like Ubu and the Truth Commission (National Arts) or The Coloured Museum (The Market) will be broadcast to the rest of the world and the country. It would solve the problem of different local theatre groups being totally unaware of others depending on where they work and it will mean further income for the director and actors while audiences are given a choice that’s as wide as the world.
Everybody wins and that’s what theatre needs desperately.
Skylight from National Theatre Live has three more screenings, tomorrow and Thursday at 7.30pm at Cinema Nouveau theatres in Joburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town and at The Fugard Bioscope for one screening only on Sunday, December 7 at 11am. The running time is two hours and 45 minutes, including a 20-minute interval. And make a note of DV8 Physical Theatre’s John on January 10.
SOLD OUT: Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight, currently on circuit.
Two of the most popular productions both of which had rerun screenings: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Middle of the Night (main picture) and The Audience, starring Helen Mirren, above, as Queen Elizabeth.