The Cinematic Stage

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Film and video have become standard ways of capturing many artistic experiences, because of how they combine sight, sound, and motion. The Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, and Redford Theatre have all taken advantage of this in their events.

On Oct. 22 and 24, 2009 the DFT will begin a series of filmed operas, starting with Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. On Nov. 6 and 7, the Redford will screen the 1964 movie version of one of Broadway’s most famous musicals, My Fair Lady.

And on Oct. 11, 2009, the Michigan teamed up with the University Musical Society to present a recorded video staging of William Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, from the National Theatre in London.

About 10 minutes before the scheduled beginning of All’s Well that Ends Well, the lights in the main auditorium of the Michigan dimmed to about half intensity, giving the historic theater a focused intimacy that added to our anticipation for the play. We were then transported to the peaceful glow of dusk in London, where National Theatre Director Nicholas Hytner and National Theatre actor Alex Jennings gave us some background on the NT.

We then travelled to the wings of the Olivier Theatre, where play director Marianne Elliot talked about the experience of staging a play that would be broadcast around the world. “I was terrified,” she said. “You worry that you’re not going to come across on the screen, with the camera right in someone’s face.”

But the efforts of Elliott, cast, and crew paid off with a dynamic presentation of a lesser known work by Shakespeare that has been called a “problem play,” because of its mixture of comedy and tragedy. Its plot revolves around an arranged love match between Helena, the orphaned daughter of a famous physician, and Bertram, the son of a countess (who raised Helena).

In its more than 2 1/2-hour running time, we all became very familiar with the personalities of the actors and actresses, including the powerful expressiveness of the lead actress, Michelle Terry, who played Helena. A powerful speech by Terry towards the end of the play took full advantage of a camera closeup, and charged the Michigan with emotion that still resonates with me, several days after seeing the play.

Almost Like Being There

Many things about the event made me feel like I was right there in London, experiencing the play. The reflected light from the screen illuminated enough of the auditorium to allow theater details like arches, grillwork, and crests to enhance what was on the screen. The video had a sharp, dramatic intensity that pulled you right onto the stage.

The laughter and applause of the audiences in both the National Theatre and the Michigan Theater would flow together. Sometimes it was in sync, and sometimes the National lead and the Michigan followed, helping the Ann Arbor viewers to vicariously feel the theater atmosphere in London.

I was amazed at the crispness and clarity of the sound, which added to the immediacy and realism of the play. The music-oriented acoustics of the Michigan sometimes make it hard to pick up the accents of British performers, and I’ve watched several English movies from the very back row of the main floor or the balcony, where there’s less echo. But the voices in All’s Well that End’s Well had none of the heavy coating of bass and reverb that I’ve found in such movies as Atonement and Brideshead Revisited.

When the first act of the play ended, the camera pulled back from the stage, and showed the National Theatre crowd applauding as the intermission began, with the Michigan Theater audience joining in. The screen then filled with 20 minutes worth of people milling about the National Theatre, as the local audience itself settled into some intermission relaxation.

It was fun to enjoy an intermission at the Michigan, and it helped me combine two of my favorite Detroit Movie Palace pleasures. I always look forward to the regular intermissions at the Redford Theatre, where the single afternoon and evening showings allow for this extra activity.

At the Michigan, I felt the same kind of floating, timeless pleasure that I always feel at Redford intermissions. I used that time to walk around the upper and lower levels of the Grand Foyer, and around the balcony. I soaked in the splendor of the theater, on a day when I was vicariously enjoying the grandeur of a theater in London.

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Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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