In 2008, Lisa Burger—then the finance director at London’s National Theatre—saw a live broadcast of a performance from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and a light bulb went off. If the Met could live-broadcast massive productions half a world away, couldn’t the National do the same?
The following year, the London institution launched National Theatre Live, responsible for broadcasting select titles around the U.K. and the world. Now, it celebrates its 10th anniversary, a milestone that renders NT Live an institution in its own right.
In its pilot season, NT Live broadcast four productions in 270 cinemas across 19 countries. Today, it captures roughly 10 productions each season and reaches close to 3,000 movie theatres in approximately 50 countries all via distributor BY Experience.
In the Beginning
From the start, NT Live was an initiative built to increase access. “Primarily, we were focused on [the fact that] we are a public institution who receives part of our funding from the public,” says David Sabel, who was on the NT Live founding team and became the first head of broadcast. “Yet the National produces something like 25 productions a year, and only so many of them do go on tour regionally around the U.K. And actually, there’s lots of places that don’t have a big enough theatre for the National’s shows, or don’t have live theatre at all.”
Not to mention the economic limitations of their public; not everyone can afford a train to London, a hotel stay, and a theatre ticket, but as a government-funded organization, the National felt it was falling short if it only reached Londoners.
“It was less about saying, ‘How do we make the audience younger and more diverse?’ It was really about geographical access,” at least at first, says Sabel, “but, of course, what came to that also was a whole range of other opportunities and audiences engaging around the world.”
NT Live launched with a production of Phèdre starring Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper, which was instrumental in putting the new platform on the map. “One of the key factors in its success in launching,” says Sabel, “[was] getting Helen on board for that first production. She took an incredible risk.”
That first season, NT Live began with four productions: Phèdre, All’s Well That Ends Well directed by Marianne Elliott, the family show Nation, and a new Alan Bennett play. Diversity in programming remains a guiding principle to this day. “The National exists, in part, to put on productions that might not go on the West End,” says Sabel. “Although it has huge profile and scale and prestige, it also is a real bastion of both classical and contemporary writing that ranges greatly, and we wanted to showcase that range.”
Putting the Live in NT Live
In addition to its reach and deliverance, NT Live emphasizes the caliber and maintenance of the live aspect, which remains priority number one. “We had a lot of skepticism around the very idea,” says Sabel of the early planning days in 2008. “I thought, ‘Oh, filmed theatre, it’s so static. It’s so deafening to the art form.’ We had all these preconceived notions.” But in fact, these broadcasts became a hybrid of theatre and film.
The vast majority are actual live broadcasts, with cinema audiences watching concurrently with in-house audiences.
“What was exciting was preserving the theatricality of the live experience, so you were watching with an audience; you were reacting with an audience,” Sabel continues. NT Live makes every effort to air the broadcast live in the U.K. and Europe. Other countries, such as the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, may air on a delay because of the time difference. (Many New Yorkers can't leave work for a 3 PM broadcast of a 8 PM London show.) Other countries air on delay to accommodate the addition of subtitles.
No matter what, the capture plays unedited—like a live performance—across the globe.
“It wasn’t like you could pause it on television or scoot along and go make a cup of tea. Anything can happen, and you know that it’s truly live,” says Sabel. “Those factors made NT Live work on the screen because it had some of the DNA of live theatre.”
That aesthetic also boils down to the way in which NT Live films. “I’m not trying to shoot a movie,” says Tony Grech-Smith, who has directed numerous NT Live broadcasts since 2015, beginning with Les Liaisons Dangereuses starring Janet McTeer. “I feel I’ve done my job well if you don’t really notice the camera work at all.”
How It’s Made
From the beginning, Smith—and other directors like him—collaborate with the show’s creative team and company. “We’ve got to do it in such a way that the artists are supported, that they trust it,” says Smith.
Before rehearsals for the full run even begin, Smith, as the camera director, meets with his theatrical counterpart: the show’s director. He’ll sit in on rehearsals or the first few preview performances to get a feel for the dramatic intention and ethos of the show. Based on a scratch tape (a wide-shot view of a performance from start to finish), Smith annotates his script with the list of shots, usually around 1,200 in total. With his camera crew, he watches the scratch tape as the script supervisor calls each shot and each camera person has their shots on note cards. Smith and team do not get any closed rehearsals to practice filming; instead, their first rehearsal is a matinee performance.
“I also meet the cast before the first [camera] rehearsal, and I always tell them to do exactly what you do on anything other night and—as hard as it is—forget the cameras are there,” says Smith. After the filmed run-through, the full team watches the capture, and Smith will take notes about changes from the show’s director. Then, “we usually do one more camera notes day, one more rehearsal, and then we go live,” says Smith.
A broadcast typically uses about six cameras and costs £350,000—though both can vary from production to production.
“We take a bespoke approach to every broadcast,” says Flo Buckeridge, senior producer with NT Live. Over his four years directing for NT Live, Smith has tackled Yerma, Julius Caesar, and, most recently, Small Island, currently slated for encore performances around the world. What’s more, NT Live has broadcast other productions as an addition to the National’s repertoire, filming at venues like the Donmar Warehouse and in the West End.
Currently, productions of King Lear, starring Ian McKellen, The Audience starring Mirren, The Lehman Trilogy, All About Eve starring Lily James and Gillian Anderson, and more will play international encore performances in the coming weeks.
An Unprecedented Endeavor and its Future
NT Live has resonated globally for a decade and gained unprecedented reach in the theatre space. From the first-ever fan letter, which came from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Smith’s recent DM from a fan in Russia. As Smith says, “That alone makes NT Live special.”
“I grew up in the States and was always curious about London theatre,” adds Sabel. “It would have been incredible for the 13-year-old version of me to have had access to this at my local movie theatre.”
The hope that today’s 13-year-olds (and beyond) exhibit the same enthusiasm drives NT Live’s continual expansion. Later this year, NT Live will launch National Theatre Collection, “which is born out of our National Theatre On Demand in schools, a platform that has made a certain number of NT titles free for U.K. primary and secondary schools,” Buckeridge explains. The collection expands to offer the same titles to universities and to international clients for a fee. What’s more, NT Live is about to broadcast its first non-theatrical event: a conversation with The Handmaid’s Tale scribe Margaret Atwood with reading of excerpts from her work come September.
Ticket sales suggest the fan base for NT Live has increased the appeal of the National Theatre itself. “These events really acted as marketing for the theatre,” says Sabel, who notes “a higher proportion of bookers at the theatre from zip codes and areas where cinemas had shown NT Live.
“Nothing takes away from wanting to see truly live theatre in the flesh, no differently than a music gig or a sporting event,” Sabel continues. “It’s always great to be at the match, but if you can’t, that doesn’t mean you don’t want to watch the Wimbledon finals.”
Attending an NT Live in person is its own draw, as well. “We’re very careful with sightlines and trying to be as unobtrusive as possible,” says Smith. “A live night is a special night;you feel a buzz about the place.”
Aside from translating to live ticket sales, NT Live has cultivated an entirely new market. “There are some people, obviously, who will come and see a particular show [on NT Live], but we also have the loyal audience who will come and see broadcasts because that’s what they do,” says Buckeridge. “Seeing a certain number of NT Lives across the year is part of how they experience culture.”
This new tradition is a welcome surprise outcome. “We always went into it saying, ‘If this doesn’t work, we’ll just stop doing it,’” says Sabel. There’s no stopping them now.