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Broadcasting Theater Complements Live Performances, Says Producer Louis Spisto

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Louis Spisto has spent his career producing and managing live performances, while also building larger audiences for the performing arts and theater throughout the country. “You have be part of the live experience” is his mantra. Why then was Lou pleased when he heard that NBC decided to broadcast the stage version of The Sound of Music? Many other industry experts were not as confident with the network’s decision. Would a television audience tune in to see a production meant to be seen in person? And, if successful, would more broadcasts be just another obstacle to the interest in attending live theater?

Numbers Tell the Story According to Louis Spisto

Louis Spisto feels that lives broadcasts will have a positive effect on theater, and the potential for reaching wider audiences is enormous. Lou has seen many attempts at trying to reach younger audiences and believes this could prove to be one more step in making theater accessible to a new generation, and capturing an audience for the live experience. Currently a Broadway Producer and former head of the Old Globe Theater in California, Lou believes that people will always be drawn to the power of storytelling and that live broadcasts will be another medium to utilize and expose this kind of live storytelling that theater represents. Lou Spisto said, “I’m personally delighted with the prospect of live theater performances distributed via television and the Internet—it’s going to help our cause and provide some wonderful entertainment for a new audience.”

The reviews for The Sound of Music Live! were mixed, and it looked like naysayers might have been right when they disapproved of the broadcasting. But then the ratings numbers rolled in. To the astonishment of many, and the delight of NBC executives, a whopping 18.5 million Americans watched the Broadway show broadcast. Against ratings powerhouse like the hit comedy television show The Big Bang Theory, The Sound of Music proved to be the bigger bang, easily outranking the perennial number one show.

Now that live broadcasts may have been proven to work, what is next? How will this affect attendance at live theaters?

Lou Spisto said, “It’s still theatre even though it is distributed electronically. As was the case from the earliest theater broadcasts in the 50’s, there’s no mistaking this presentation for the film or television format…it’s a theatre set, and lights, and actors performing the material as if they would on a stage in a theater, and while you’re not getting the same visceral experience, it’s a close recreation… Most importantly to me—it may just get people to buy a ticket and attend a performance at a theater where they live. I think all those kids who tuned in to see Carrie Underwood, now know something about The Sound of Music, Rogers and Hammerstein, and theater…and many of them might have been bitten by the theatre bug.”

Live in HD

The Sound of Music broadcast certainly is not the first theater production to make its way into people’s homes. Many professional theater productions have been recorded and released on DVD or shown in movie theaters across the world. Broadway productions have included popular hits such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Miserables, and Cabaret. A complete list of the productions available on DVD is posted on Broadwayworld.com.

London’s National Theater’s live broadcast of the Manchester International Festival’s production of Macbeth, starring Kenneth Branagh as the Scottish king, was a box office success for the theater. A report issued by the Arts Marketing Association of England addressed the production by saying, “Nearly half the cost of a NT Live broadcast is in the kit, and sharing resources will increase revenues and reduce budgets.”

In Canada, the Stratford Festival is aiming to film three or four productions in the coming 2014 season.

“We’ve spent this year working to achieve some financial stability for the organization,” said the Executive Director of the Festival. “But we’ve always had [videotaping] on our radar, and we’re determined to do this for 2014.”

Closer to home, The Metropolitan Opera regularly records and rebroadcasts its productions to theaters across the country as part of its Live in HD series. Still, some opera managers across the country criticize these broadcasts for stealing some of the thunder from the live productions in their cities.

Louis Spisto is not saying watching a recording of a production is the same as being at the theater, but he recognizes it as an opportunity.

Louis notes: “Not only do I believe additional media platforms are good thing for building younger and wider audiences, there are very specific reasons that capturing certain live events make artistic and economic sense. Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchet, whose recent stage performances were captured via broadcast, would not have been able to tour in these roles, and these important performances are worth capturing and sharing with audiences who would not have had the chance to see them. And in some cases, such as with Maria Friedman’s recent West End production of Merrily We Roll Along, the camera work actually added to the quality of the story telling and made the broadcast it’s own artistic expression. After seeing the production live I attended the broadcast when it came over - it was astonishingly well done. It became it’s own unique experience and in some ways I enjoyed it as much or more.”

Opponents of the live broadcasting of a stage production point out that attending audience members are often the ones paying the price both literally and figuratively. Patrons who buy the tickets for the experience of a live stage play are being asked to deal with the additional technical demands that accompany a simulcast of the production. Proponents, however, point out that most of the filmed shows are performed in front of special audiences that are comprised of patrons who are not paying or special charitable groups.

Change is Part of Life

“The use of live broadcasts or other platforms for distribution will not hurt theater,” Louis Spisto said. “Technology is always evolving, and this is another mechanism to serve the art form. There was a time in the early years of TV when theater producers were worried that no one would ever go to see a live show again. Obviously, this didn’t happen, and for some very important must-see productions, live broadcasts will offer opportunities for additional artistic expression, as well as another avenue to profitably.”

The debate is bound to remain heated, but there is no denying the financial benefits of rebroadcasting stage productions. As the quality of video production improves, and the staging of big budget shows gets even more expensive, it is clear, according to Spisto, that more theater producers will look to other platforms on the path to recoupment.

Purists may bemoan the change to the traditional way to view theater, but it is impossible to ignore the improvements in technology and desire of fans to see the best performances of live stage in HD. Louis Spisto is confident that these broadcasts will not threaten, but strengthen, theater.

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