British Equity Backs Co. Selling Downloads of Dramas. Will U.S. Equity Stonewall?

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DigitalTheatreToo busy to get to the theater?

Live in a place without much theater but happen to know of a company doing a play that interests you?

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Whether you’re a teacher wanting to illustrate Hamlet in action, an aspiring high school thespian wanting to nail slick choreographic moves for the spring musical audition, an older aficionado of stage literature unable to pay pricey tickets or an average Joe six-pack bored of the X-box, this week’s article in the U.K. Telegraph touting a new for-profit company and download service called Digital Theatre is, at least potentially, a cultural watershed.

Digital Theatre, which the Telegraph reported has struck deals with the RSC, the Royal Court, the Young Vic and the Almeida, records live theater performances and uses “a large number of cameras to get different angles on the action, ranging from long-shots to close-ups.” The “theatrical nature” of the piece is “captured, but it doesn’t seem excessively stagy, or visually flat.” And for ¬£8.99 per download, roughly equal to $14.85 — barely $3 more than the cost of a typical movie in New York City — you can own it. On a disk. In your library. All yours.

If the idea works — not just commercially but in terms of producers’ and unions’ response to the endeavor — a whole new income stream for all theater artists — could be at hand.

BroadwayWorld.com (not normally known for original reporting) nevertheless put the spotlight on Digital Theatre the other day. The piece states that the recorded performances are in high-def, playable on a “specially developed Theatre Player “compatible with all major browsers and operating systems.” The first two titles being offered are the English Touring Theatre’s Far From The Madding Crowd, adapted from the Thomas Hardy, and Clare Bayley’s The Container, presented by the Young Vic and Amnesty International. No, not exactly Hamlet, but with approximately ¬£1 million invested in the company, you can be sure the heavy-hitters — the stars and powerbrokers — will involved very quickly if the venture proves viable and popular.

So here’s the question: What do the Brits have that the Americans don’t? Well, for one, the apparent blessing of British Equity. Here in America, we might as well be out in the back churning butter and scrubbing our clothes with rocks on washboards because, at least insofar as the low-pay, no-pay, low-income, no-income Off-Off-Broadway scene goes, it is verboten for producers to so much as videotape Equity performers in a show. Producers have to resort, and regularly do resort, to all kinds of not-so-subtle trickery to promote their shows. Or cast nonunion actors. No wonder so many Equity actors have ambivalent feelings toward their union. True, side deals have been negotiated in recent years — the New York Fringe Festival has one. But at base, Actors’ Equity is antagonistic to the filming of its actors. Naturally they want to make sure their constituents get a piece of the action. But everyone in the industry knows full well that the union’s present position is regressive and counterproductive. And there’s hasn’t been much traction evident in recent years in the name of change.

In its reportage, BroadwayWorld.com even included this quote from, golly, British Equity: “We do wish Digital Theatre every success with this undertaking and believe it will benefit the theatre community, extend audiences, and prove a valuable additional income stream for our members.”

Bully for them. Digital Theatre could be a real breakthrough in the decades-long battle between live and taped media. And once again, as validated by British Equity’s statement, there exists the real possibility that this project could grow into a significant income stream for everyone that works in the legitimate theater, from producers to writers to actors to technical staff and designers. Will Actors’ Equity enter the 21st century? Or will the American theater regress into a backwater?

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