Video may have "killed the radio stars" in the words of the song, but it is definitely on the side of the theatre stars.
Heritage Theatre, a relatively new company that was established three years ago but really took off in 2001, specializes in preserving and promoting the best of the West End via video and DVD.
Current tiles include The Mystery of Charles Dickens starring Simon Callow and The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Winter's Tale. Classic productions of The Death of a Salesman (starring Lee J. Cobb) and King Lear (starring James Earl Jones) will be released later this year.
Theatrenow met Managing Director Robert Marshall to find out more. What gave you the idea to set up Heritage Theatre?: "I noticed that there were always a lot of opera and ballet videos available in shops, but hardly any theatre ones, and thought that was something that needed changing. There is so much great theatre that goes on, and people simply can't get to see everything, so a good quality video or DVD would give them the chance to enjoy it after all."
You are producing both videos and DVDs at the moment, but isn't the future in DVDs?: "Absolutely. The quality that you can get on DVDs is now amazing, and eventually we will concentrate on DVDs, but at the moment there is a demand for videos as well. With the new "cinema" TV systems, you really get the feeling you are in a theatre watching a live performance. There are several speakers, and you hear the laughter/applause as if it were coming from behind and around you — just like being in an audience."
What sort of theatre do you record?: We aim to record the best productions, be they classic or contemporary. On 20th and 21st June, we will be recording The Mysteries at Wilton's Music Hall, because it's a fabulous show that has won an international reputation. The cast are in the States at the moment, and we are going to catch them before they disperse for a well-deserved holiday."
Do you focus entirely on London?: "No, we are involved with regional theatre as well. We want to get the best of theatre, wherever it is staged."
There's a lot of theatre out there, however. How many productions can you record each year?: "At the moment we concentrate on five or six, but we hope to increase that over the next few years as we expand."
Heritage Theatre may be expanding, but so are digital television channels. What's to stop them undercutting you by simply broadcasting theatrical productions?: "Firstly, there's a difference between simply pointing a camera at something and broadcasting it, and filming a play with several cameras over a couple of performances and then editing the result into something that's true to the performance while also being watchable in its own right on television. Second, it would be easier for television companies, if they wanted to show theatre, to come to an arrangement with a company like Heritage Theatre that has experience and contacts in this field. Third, the contractual arrangements involved in televising a play are enormously complicated. With a video/DVD they are simpler, but there's also the question of trust. The producers, actors and agents know us, and also know that they are just selling the home video/DVD rights. Anything further than that — if we were approached by a television company for example — we would have to go back and negotiate separately."
So you see a long-term future for this sort of recorded theatrical performance?: "Yes, because it offers people who haven't seen shows the chance to see them, and allows those who have seen them to recall and relive the experience. There's no clash between this and selling tickets to live performances — had there been, then no producers or performers would have been interested. Opera and ballet aren't harmed by opera and ballet videos — quite the contrary — and the same applies to theatre!"
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow