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.

The Star Early Edition - - TONIGHT STAGE -

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.


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