Technology remakes how we see the ancient art of theater

Technology remakes how we see the ancient art of theater

Technology remakes how we see the ancient art of theater

These days, you can watch a Broadway musical from a subway train seat. You can get your stage fix at your local movie theater or hear a play while jogging. Theater just isn't what it used to be.

Media companies armed with the latest in technology like Fathom Events, Audible Inc. and BroadwayHD are reshaping the experience, evolving it past the quaint notion of patrons filing into an arena, turning off their phones and sitting quietly in the dark.

Kicking yourself that you never saw the musical "Kinky Boots" or the play "Fleabag"? Relax. Cinema distributor Fathom has you covered. Can't wait for the live-action "Cats" movie? Then watch a stage version while cuddling your own cat on the couch, thanks to digital theater streaming network BroadwayHD. Or, if you're in a more serious mood, put on your headphones and listen to the play "True West," co-starring Kit Harrington, via Audible.

"We're really going into a place where I hope people look at what theater is differently," said Kate Navin, who leads the theater initiative at Audible, the world's largest producer of audiobooks and spoken-word entertainment.

The prices can't be beat: A Fathom screening will cost you $20, a monthly subscription to BroadwayHD runs $8.99 and an audio play costs $7.95 - all a fraction of a Broadway ticket, which can run you hundreds of dollars.

Broadcasting Broadway shows on TV is nothing new, of course. PBS's "Great Performances" has been doing it for 40 years. But BroadwayHD argues they're using the latest technology to make their shows pop.

These media companies are also changing what success means in the theater world, which usually means total tickets sold. Carey Mulligan's short run of "Girls & Boys" at the small Minetta Lane Theater in 2018 was well-received but its subsequent reach was much wider than what was captured at the box office.

The Audible audio version of her play has sold the equivalent of 26 sold-out weeks at Broadway's Booth Theater, which seats 770. Audible has made a strong push into theater, not only recording dozens of in-studio plays but also commissioning writers and staging works at its off-Broadway venue, the 400-seat Minetta Lane Theater. It is perfecting a form of theater without visuals.

Not everything on stage can work as an audio download. Plays with big visual effects are hard. So are farces.

"But really because theater is the art of language, a lot of it works," said Navin. "We're not trying to replace the live experience. What we really think this will do is expand the audience."

If Audible skips the optics in favor of a private sonic drama, Fathom embraces the visual and communal parts of theater. It distributes big Broadway musicals like "Bandstand" and "Newsies" and often partners with the United Kingdom's National Theater Live to put shows on 40-foot movie theater screens.

Fathom, which is owned by the cinema chains AMC, Cinemark and Regal, offers fans a place to gather and celebrate, whether it's coming dressed as zombies to watch a season ending episode of "The Walking Dead," getting romantic watching the latest British royal wedding live (with tea and crumpets served) or cheering diversity at a screening of "Kinky Boots."

"To see people sitting there applauding at the end of an act or at the end of a song as if they were there in that Broadway theater, that is just an awesome experience that you can't replicate at home," said Ray Nutt, CEO of Fathom.

BroadwayHD is hoping it that it can, in fact, replicate exactly that - streaming full-length plays and musicals like "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables" to your laptop, TV, phone or tablet. The company was the first to live broadcast a Broadway show - "She Loves Me" with Laura Benanti - and recently captured a big and bold production of "42nd Street" from London.

BroadwayHD, which has some 300 shows, is for subscribers who can't fly to New York, can't afford pricey tickets or simply don't want to navigate Times Square. It offers closed-captioning for the hearing impaired and a chance for theater lovers across the world to see a treasured title come to life.

Some Broadway producers love the idea and some are colder. Many are in the middle, like Mike Bosner, who has produced "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" and the recent revival of "Sunset Boulevard" with Glenn Close.

All these companies are helping remake one of the most ancient of art forms, redefining it by playing with its elements - visual, communal and live. The result is something more democratic - and evolving.