Why and when did the National Theatre begin this initiative?
We began National Theatre Live as a way to increase access to our work for those audiences who might not otherwise have the opportunity to see it. While this was initially and primarily conceived for audiences across the UK, as part of the National Theatre’s public remit, we were also excited by the opportunity to take the National’s work to a global audience and have been thrilled by the hugely enthusiastic response we have received. The history of filmed theatre doesn’t have a great track record, so we went into the series as something of an experiment, but feel we have very successfully captured the productions, honouring the integrity of the work created for our stages.
What particularly excited us about this concept was the fact that it was captured and broadcast live, and the shared experience of watching with an audience on a big screen. Whilst we could never replicate the experience of actually sitting in the theatre, the broadcasts retain something of the feeling of live performance and there is a real sense of event, with so many people around the world connected and sharing in the experience. The response has been almost universally positive from both artists working with us and audiences around the world. Our first broadcast of Phèdre in June 2009 was seen by over 50,000 people; our biggest single broadcast to date is Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch which has been seen by more than 690,000 people. As of February 2017 the worldwide audience for National Theatre Live has reached almost 6.5 million people.
Are the broadcasts truly ‘live’?
The performances are filmed live and broadcast simultaneously, across the UK and Europe. In the US and Canada, the majority of venues show it on the same day as the live filming but delayed according to time zones. There are some venues in the US that show it on a delayed basis within a few weeks of the date of the live broadcast. The same is true for Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, India, Russia, Japan, China and South America. We don’t edit the footage, even for the delayed time zones, so they enjoy exactly the same broadcast as the regions that get the simulcast. We have also occasionally screened ‘Encore’ presentations of our most popular broadcasts; for example, to celebrate the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary, we presented encore screenings of Hamlet, Frankenstein and The Habit of Art. More recently we have had Encore screenings of Coriolanus, The Audience, A View from the Bridge and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Do any other theatre companies broadcast their shows live?
We were very much inspired by the Metropolitan Opera who pioneered this concept in 2006; however, we were the first theatre company to do it. Whilst opera has a much longer tradition of being captured and transmitted in a recorded medium, theatre has tended to fare less successfully. One of the big challenges in launching this series was finding a way to successfully capture the nuances and challenges of theatre on camera in a way that was dynamic and honoured the integrity of the stage production. We also collaborate with other theatre companies to broadcast their productions under the National Theatre Live banner. These have included Complicite’s A Disappearing Number; King Lear with Derek Jacobi, Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston and Les Liaisons Dangeuses with Dominic West, Janet McTeer and Elaine Cassidy from the Donmar Warehouse; Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh from Manchester International Festival; A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson and A View from the Bridge with Mark Strong from the Young Vic; Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch from the Barbican Theatre and, from the West End, The Audience with Helen Mirren, Skylight with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy and most recently No Man’s Land with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart and the Royal Court’s production of Hangmen. In 2014, National Theatre Live recorded its first production on Broadway, Of Mice and Men with James Franco and Chris O’Dowd was captured at the Longacre Theatre. The Royal Opera House also broadcasts live performances, and the RSC and ENO have begun to do so; there are also companies who distribute recorded performances online.
How is NT Live funded?
Our pilot season was made possible by seed funding from Arts Council England and NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), and subsequently through a mix of National Theatre investment and sponsorship. The programme is now a sustainable venture.
How many venues are currently showing the broadcasts and in how many countries?
We launched in 280 venues across 19 countries and have now grown to more than 2,500 venues in 60 different countries (including the UK, Europe, the USA, Canada, Mexico, India, Japan, Australia, South Africa, South East Asia, South America and Russia). In Sweden we have started broadcasting live with Swedish subtitles. We work with a range of art house and independent cinemas, as well as major chains, but also community centres, cultural venues and theatres (such as Warwick Arts Centre in the UK or the Guthrie and Shakespeare Theaters in the US). In the UK, we distribute the programme ourselves, working directly with the cinemas and now reach over 680 screens. This is 90% of all cinemas in the UK. Outside the UK, we work with our distribution partner, BY Experience, who also distribute the Met Opera and Bolshoi Ballet broadcasts globally and a wide range of alternative arts content.
How do you pick which plays will be aired? How many plays are broadcast per season?
We aim to select the plays that we feel will translate best to a wide audience on cinema screens worldwide. The National Theatre produces around 25 new productions a year which vary from Shakespeare and classics to new plays, so we aim to programme National Theatre Live as a microcosm of the repertoire, showcasing the diversity of what we do and of the wider ecology of British theatre. Currently we broadcast 8–12 plays a year.
What is your approach to filming National Theatre Live productions?
The approach to filming National Theatre Live broadcasts is to prioritise the audience in cinemas for that night. The camera director is given complete flexibility in choosing camera positions, so that the performance can be captured from the best seats in the house and with a sophisticated camera setup, involving tracking shots and, for example, when appropriate, a crane. The audience in the National Theatre are aware that cameras will be present, so the theatre is transformed into something of a live studio. Two full camera rehearsals take place before each broadcast, with time in-between for the stage director and camera director to work together to discuss how best to capture the production. Adjustments are made for lighting, sound and make-up; however this is all with the aim of preserving the integrity of the original design and transposing the stage picture to work on camera as effectively as possible. The camera choices and set-up vary according to production, usually ranging from five to eight cameras, which are cut live into a single feed.
National Theatre Live is not about turning a stage play into a film. Rather, the intent is to faithfully capture the live performance. The use of high-definition cameras and the scale of the big screen allow the aesthetic to remain theatrical and offer audiences a dynamic full stage picture. This is matched with the intimacy the camera can offer, taking the audience to the heart of the emotion and the nuances of the actors’ performances. The broadcasts also feature live interviews (usually with members of the creative team) and, sometimes, a pre-show film which offers a look behind the scenes or greater insight into the production.
How long are the behind-the-scenes interview segments? Are they aired before or after the play?
The presentation elements will vary according to the production. We generally show a live introduction to convey the immediacy of the live event and the presence of the audience here in London, and then a brief introduction to the play, which might be a short documentary film or a live interview with the director. This usually lasts 5–10 minutes, but we sometimes also feature behind-the-scenes extras in the interval or a post-show Q&A.
Do you produce DVDs of National Theatre Live productions?
We only offer the broadcasts through the screenings in partner venues for a limited time frame. We are passionate about preserving the live, communal experience and the sense of event through these big screen exhibitions. We may consider a further offer of these productions in the future, by way of DVD or online download, but we have no immediate plans to do so.
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