Back in 2010 I could not get tickets to see the National Theatre’s Hamlet, starring Rory Kinnear, so I watched the NT Live screening. The whole family went to our local cinema to see some of the country’s best actors perform in one of the most famous plays, with the added bonus of not disturbing said actors by munching on popcorn.
Filming stage performances was nothing new when NT Live debuted, but it was a huge step up in quality and reach. A Christmas ballet on the BBC would rarely do better than a static camera focused on the feet and another for a wide view, but this live performance was filmed and edited like a movie. Cinema audiences had the benefit of close-ups that theatre audiences would never see. The tracking shots and wide shots encompassing audience members made the show feel at once filmic and theatrical.
It was a creation of genius – so obvious now, but utterly groundbreaking at the time. Since then, I’ve taken part in two NT Live broadcasts. The buzz and energy backstage is palpable. If a line is fluffed or there’s a mistake backstage, it will be seen by audiences around the country and even the rest of the world.
Despite these challenges, backstage workers bought into the idea immediately. Most of us who work in London are conscious that we’re part of a bubble, and love the idea of expanding our audience beyond regular theatregoers. And though there were questions about how we would be compensated for the extra work involved, we accepted that really this was just one more performance that just happened to have a bigger audience.
When the encore screenings first started to appear, I barely noticed, let alone questioned it. The shared live experience may no longer be true but the recorded live version is still the original show, so what difference does it make?
Backstage theatre professionals, actors and production staff do not earn the same as film workers. Theatre can’t compete with the potential income of movies. We accept this as our lot: a day rate for a member of the costume team on a film is £350, a show call for a costume professional might be just £45.
But, if filmed performances are going to continue life unmoored from the live element and can be shown multiple times with no additional backstage technical costs, that line starts to blur. Is it still fair to pay theatre fees to the technical people who have made this film possible? Equity has been swift to provide new guidelines for their members about contracts for live broadcast theatre productions, but the backstage technical theatre world has been slower to respond.
This is such a new genre still in so many ways, but with Netflix and Amazon showing interest in live recorded theatrical events, with limited-run theatre shows being filmed and then released in cinemas with no simultaneous live experience, and with countless encore screenings, isn’t it time to question the rates paid to technical workers for these theatrical movies? Aren’t they film crew now?