Shakespeare Theatre offers broadcasts from London's National Theatre

"Fela!" is this season's first broadcast at Sidney Harman Hall of productions from the National Theatre in London.
"Fela!" is this season's first broadcast at Sidney Harman Hall of productions from the National Theatre in London.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 10:31 AM

Twenty bucks can barely get you a movie ticket and a tub of popcorn, but it's all you need for a ticket to the theater - assuming, that is, you're willing to expand your definition of "live theater."

After it offered Helen Mirren fans who might have missed the star's sold-out Washington turn in "Phedre" another chance through screenings of the show at London's National Theatre in 2009, Shakespeare Theatre Company has made movie night at the theater a regular event.

Audiences here have been watching broadcasts of big-time theater staged 3,600 miles away through a partnership with the National Theatre. And so it is that this spring, Washington audiences will get to see "Fela!" and Danny Boyle's take on "Frankenstein" without draining their frequent flier miles.

The screenings, held at Sidney Harman Hall, aren't quite live, because the venue is often staging one of its own productions on the weekends of the simulcasts, but Washington audiences do typically see the shows just a day or two afterward. We asked Chris Jennings, managing director for Shakespeare Theatre, about the series and how it is bringing new theater to new audiences.

T ell us about the shows people can see this season.

The next three are really really exciting: "Fela!," which was a hit musical on Broadway will be screening. . . . Right after that, we're doing two screenings of Derek Jacobi's "King Lear" . . . The one after that is really interesting, because here we are talking about a screening series of live theater, and the next one is actually directed by a film director, Danny Boyle, who's known for "Slumdog Millionaire" and "127 Hours." He's directing a live theater production of "Frankenstein."

What can these screenings do to connect audiences with theater? Are you seeing younger audiences coming through, or are you seeing your regular audience?

I think we're seeing both. One of the great things about these screenings, though it can never replace the actual theater experience - for those opportunities where you can't see the show live, it's the next best thing. It just helps theater overall, certainly extending the life of work that may have a limited audience because it's a live experience for a short time.

And there's the price factor.

I think the low price point, that's more akin to a movie price than ordinary theater prices, is what has widened the audiences and diversified it. I find that we have a lot of young audiences coming in because of the low price.

So, what's it actually like to watch theater on a movie screen?

If you go to the theater, you don't normally get to go backstage, you don't get to hear interviews with some of the key artists, and that is an added experience that is wonderful with these screenings.

It feels akin to the regular theatergoing experience, but it's very surreal, because on the screen as you're coming in are video shots of the live audience that's sitting in London. You're coming into the theater, but you feel like you're part of that live audience.

Monday's broadcast of "Fela!" is sold out; "King Lear" Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; "Frankenstein" March 21 at 7:30 p.m.; and "The Cherry Orchard" July 11 at 7:30 p.m. Screenings are at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, 202-547-1122 or $20.

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