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Poll: Are blockbuster theatre broadcasts upstaging the real thing?

Bridgnorth | News | Published:

Whether you live in Wem, Ludlow or even Aston-on-Clun, big shows broadcast live from London are now on your doorstep.

The popularity of live screenings from venues such as the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House has exploded in recent years, making big shows more accessible than ever.

The phenomenon is a boon for Shropshire venues – but there are also concerns that, as the trend takes off, it may squeeze out the work of smaller touring companies as they compete for a time slot on theatre venue programmes.

There is no doubt among theatre operators, however, that the new technology is bringing theatre to a wider audience.

Live performances of National Theatre shows such as War Horse and Danny Boyle's production of Frankenstein, with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, have proved hugely successful with audiences more than 150 miles away in Shropshire.

  • Do live screenings of London plays hit regional theatre productions? Vote in our poll and have your say in the comment box below.

Sian Kerry, director of Arts Alive, an organisation that puts on both live events and screenings in Shropshire and Herefordshire, said the screenings were also proving an essential revenue stream for cash-strapped rural theatres.

Arts Alive runs Flicks in the Sticks which shows films and live theatre in places such as the SpArC Theatre in Bishop's Castle, Aston-on-Clun Village Hall, and Ledbury Market Theatre.

Ms Kerry said The Edge Theatre in Much Wenlock and Wem Town Hall are also showing live theatre screenings independently, as is Market Drayton's Festival Drayton Centre.

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"It's massively successful in terms of people attending," she said.

"I think it's having the effect that it is encouraging new people to come, because it is making it more accessible. We put on shows in more rural venues – those people would otherwise have had to go to Shrewsbury to see something like this. It's really important for places like the SpArC, as it generates income. And once you get people through the door, they see what else you're doing."

In more urban parts of the county the London broadcasts are equally popular, with plans in Shrewsbury to put on screenings not just in the Old Market Hall, but also in the larger Theatre Severn.

Marketing officer Pip Bayley said: "Screenings of live shows are always incredibly popular. We are currently looking into the possibility of holding larger screenings at Theatre Severn to cope with demand. And the Old Market Hall screenings often rekindle people's love of the stage."

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Other cinemas showing live theatre broadcasts include Shrewsbury's Cineworld, Telford's Odeon and the Reel Cinema in Bridgnorth, which, among other shows, all have performances from the Bolshoi Ballet streaming live from Moscow at the end of the year.

But Elizabeth Freestone, artistic director of Pentabus Theatre Company, based at Bromfield, near Ludlow, struck a note of caution. She said: "We know, living in a very rural county, that it's very expensive for us to go to London if we want to see one of these big shows to buy tickets for trains or petrol, or even stay over.

"So to be able to go to our local cinema and pay a cinema price just down the road from us, and have access to that kind of culture, is a fantastic opportunity. But I just think we need to be careful that they don't end up replacing the real thing.

"When it started a few years ago it was just the National Theatre doing it, and then the Royal Opera House started doing it. The situation we're about to enter now is that The Globe is doing it, the RSC is doing it . . . and the West End are starting to do it – the big musicals are coming next year as well. The danger is that the calendar is going to get really clogged up.

"All these venues are having local authority cuts and if they can screen a play from London for £100 rather than take in a live piece of touring theatre, which is going to cost them considerably more than that, they'll probably make that choice."

She said a 2D cinema screening was not the same as the "thrilling 3D human connection" of live theatre.

Tony Johnston, marketing officer at Ludlow Assembly Rooms, said: "Customers tell us that they like the convenience of being able to watch these shows right on their doorstep, and for a lower price than it would cost to see them live in London.

"But while streamed events form an important part of our revenue stream, we believe it is also important to maintain a balanced programme and support touring productions and regional theatre groups."

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