Is this enough for Charleston theater? 

Local and Live

Last week saw the opening of Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet's satire on the nature of show business, the first production of the Village Playhouse's 2008-2009 season (see a review on page 45). In New York, a revival of the same comedy is set to open at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Oct. 3 starring Entourage's Jeremy Piven.

What do these have to do with each other? Nothing.

Not yet, anyway. But that may change. Not soon, but eventually.

Why? Because of a historic convergence.

This decade has seen huge strides made in the quality of home entertainment systems, digital movie projectors, and satellite data transmissions. It has also seen the fall of the American cineplex and a scramble among corporations, like Regal and AMC, to create new products and services that entice people to come back.

The result is the beginning, just the beginning, of a reinvented cineplex. With these changes, local theater companies, perhaps, should be worried. There's already too much to worry about, I know, but consider the following.

One innovation that marries high-tech advancements and business strategy is Hot Ticket. The company is owned by the Sony Corporation. It plans to "cinecast," or broadcast in high-definition, the final performance of Rent, the long-running Broadway musical by Jonathan Larson, to select movie theaters around the country (like Azalea Square Stadium 16 in Summerville on Sept. 24).

Hot Ticket is following a pioneering and potentially lucrative trail blazed by the Metropolitan Opera. The Met began in 2006 sending high-definition signals into movie theaters around the U.S. and abroad. Some 920,000 people paid to see the live Saturday afternoon broadcasts last season. It grossed $18.3 million.

What does this mean? Well, maybe nothing. There will always be an audience for live and local theater just as there will always be people who don't care about theater or any of the arts. Yet I wonder if local theater companies ought to consider the challenge posed by a newly reinvented American cineplex.

In the past, what happened on Broadway meant little, in terms of marketplace competition, to local stages. Rent, however, is only the first of its kind. There will be more, because the supply of high-definition broadcasts of Broadway shows is likely to fuel demand.

While there's a danger in overstating the negative impact of such technologies — we thought TV would kill off Hollywood; we thought the same of VCRs and DVDs — this time, the quality of the technology makes a historic difference.

Why? Because it seems to call into question a fundamental tenet of live theater — that it's live.

Ever since talkies, theater has been able to say it's better, because it's live. But given the incredible quality of these high-definition broadcasts, that claim already sounds somewhat quaint. I've been to the Met in New York and I've been to the Azalea Square Stadium 16 in Summerville. At one of them, I could see the singers' faces, their lush costumes, the incredible stage design. Everything was more vivid. The sound was stellar. My seat was comfortable. I could enjoy the beauty mark on the soprano's upper lip. I could eat popcorn, too. And it cost me all of $22.

At the other one, I couldn't experience any of this. Plus it cost a fortune. Which would I choose now? The better one.

And it was live, too.

Charleston's new season is full of old Broadway chestnuts: West Side Story, Crazy for You, Puttin' on the Ritz, and Speed-the-Plow. How will local theaters compete with the quality of these high-def broadcasts? How will they attract younger audiences, for whom the line between live and virtual is already blurred?

Some will argue that a flat screen is never the same as a real person — and they're right. But this new technology isn't as flat as you think it is. It isn't TV. It's a completely new kind of "performance."

It's thrilling and dynamic, and it's only beginning.


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