Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Since stage plays seem to look better on film, I sometimes wonder if I'm going to see the end of live theater in my lifetime. Film has so many assets that theater doesn't have: terrific sound and lighting, and the ability to enhance the story with cuts, tracking shots and close-ups. Live theater just can't compete. It's sad to think that even stories that were written exclusively for the stage seem to play better on the screen.

Here's (above) a scene from the film version of Sherwood Anderson's play, "The Bad Seed." Below is a clip from the same part of the play, filmed off the live stage. See which you prefer.

Boy, there's no comparison is there? Even making allowance for the difference in actors and the too sensitive camcorder mics, the theater version (above) just can't keep up. The sound on a live stage is too scattered, too full of echos to compete with film sound. And modern stages are often too wide. Maybe that allows the theater to put in more seats, but it sure hurts the play. The actors feel they have to use the space since it's there, and doing that forces them to take long hikes from one side of the stage to the other. It's so unnatural.

So what can be done? The space problem is easy to solve: build smaller stages. Have fewer seats in the auditorium. Make the theater experience more intimate. Architects will hate this, because long, sweeping stages are a treat for the eye, but they hinder what's playing on the stage, so they really need to go.

The sound problem is more difficult. Obviously electronic enhancement is a good idea if it's understated, but how to you compete with film where the sound is positively beautiful sometimes? Good acoustics help, but only high-end theaters can afford it. What's the answer? Can live theater ever compete with film? I don't know, but I'll take a stab at an answer.

Let's look at what live theater does better. If you've ever watched live ballet from good seats you know that live classical dance beats film dance hands down. The thumps on the floorboards, the sweat on the dancers, etc. actually gives the dancers more presence. There's a heightened sense of vulnerability and risk that you don't get in film. Magic looks a hundred times better live, and so does burlesque. I've only seen one classic burlesque show in my whole life, but it was unforgettable. Based on the imitation live performance in the beginning of Olivier's Henry V, I imagine that Shakespeare can work as good live if you have the right actors. 

Not only that, but no film projection theater I've ever seen can match the beauty of the stage theater. You don't have to go to the Paris Opera to see beautiful stage settings, even a tiny stage theater like the one in the Golden Horseshoe Saloon in Disneyland L.A. beats most of what you're likely to see in movie houses, even in the best restored theaters.

One of the best times I've ever had in live theater occurred in a tiny, cheapo lunch theater in Soho in London. I sat there in a cramped space among other tables eating a cheap bangers and mash lunch, and I wondered where the stage was. Suddenly the lights dimmed and from behind a curtain came an earnest-looking actor shouting lines from Pinter or someone like that. It was a one act, one-man play, and he pulled it off beautifully, even though he had to brush the tables to do it. He didn't seem to mind if we ate while he was talking. It was magical! Only a few movie experiences I've had could match it, and I don't even like Pinter.

I'll bet someone more familiar with live theater than I am could inventory a lot of theater effects that could beat the same thing on film. In my opinion theater needs to concentrate on areas where it can emphasize its strengths. I don't mean theater should feature only dancing magic burlesque shows that you can watch while eating fries...I had in mind something more like...well, you know what I mean.


I should end here, but I can't resist a quick digression to other topics:

Thanks to Gabe Swaar, ace artist and creator of Dumm Comics, for this Claymation short by Will Vinton. Gabe says Will makes the kind of expressions I make, only he makes them in clay. He says the bell with all the weird expressions even looks like me! It's a co-incidence I'm sure, but one worth seeing if you're familiar with the kind of stuff I do. Check it out!

I'll also mention that Charles Brubaker just posted an interview with me on his "Baker's Baked" blog. Charles has lots of interviews with print cartoonists on there, and he manages to ask interesting questions. He got me to talk about outsourcing and what it was like to be in the studio when Nick took Ren & Stimpy away. Take a look!


Anonymous said...

As long as there are pretentious movie stars trying to prove that they're "serrius acturrs" there will be live theatre.

The only thing left is to name this syndrome after someone. I nominate Madonna. Or maybe "Bill Murray Syndrome".

deniseletter said...

Hi Eddie,I read your interesting intervew.I'm identified with: "Unfortunately I'm one of those people who are shattered by rejection. You need a thick skin to prevail in this business."

Krishva said...

The thing about live theater is that videotaped/filmed live theater always looks like crap. It's a different experience to see a performance live versus seeing the same performance on tape--you can't really compare the taped performance to a film version of the same story.

Live theater ALL feels to me like you describe the ballet or the little one-man show you mentioned. Intimate, and you can feel all the little thumps and rushes of air. In many ways it is a lot more real than a film could ever be.

And if you think of certain kinds of stage theater -- particularly musicals -- film will never really compare to seeing those live. They will always be around for that reason.

Lester Hunt said...

One of the first plays I can remember seeing was Uncle Vanya. At one point early in Act I, the title character lit a cigar. Immediately, I could smell it. Wow, I thought, this is not a movie. That was cool.

Hans Flagon said...

What Kris said.

A video from the seats is always going to pale, even with the best mic stage and dead room.

I have always wanted to open a club (and it could be theatre) that is set up somewhat like Austin City Limits, that is there are seats for live audience, but it is also built for taping audio and video. I would do the simple desilu 3 camera set up, one for entire set, two shot, and close up, then mix down the shots later. It could even be done with out camera men being in the way, with static cameras even, and a remote for the close up.

Simlarly wedding videos should be shot with three cameras, two static and one moving discreetly in the corners.e And you could mix in video from the audience.

If George Hamilton is in a dinner theatre production, do the rest of the cast have to use more greasepaint?

Jennifer said...

Nice post, Uncle Eddie!

When the live theater show is too large, I think that something gets lost in the show. To me, it's too cavernous. The dialog seems to "echo". The only type of performance that I think does well with a large theater is a musical.

When the live theater show is small and intimate, it's more enjoyable. I feel like I'm "there" at the location where the play takes place. You don't really get those nuances in a film, even if the film was shot in HD.

I am with you on some aspects of where film is better than theater. You can do "more" with film than you can do with a play.

I like Jorge's theory about theater, too! Isn't that the truth?

Trevor Thompson said...

The reason why film, supposedly, does a better job than theatre is because it gives everyone in the auditorium a good seat and good sound.

I've been to several plays, and honestly, the only ones I remember are the ones where the seats were good and I could hear what the actors are saying.

And honestly, this idea that mic-ing your actors takes away from the theatre experience is bullocks. They would've done it in Shakespeare's day had Sure and Tandy been around.

The only thing theatre has over film is the word 'live'. It can't be re-done, and only the best actors can exist in that scenario, especially since, if something goes wrong, you have to get out of it without 'losing the moment'.


- trevor.

Caleb said...

I don't think film will ever be able to capture the atmosphere of theater (or live music). But theater should embrace newer technology a little to create a more hybrid medium, instead of there always being purists for one or the other. I saw Mr. Show live at UCLA, and they incorporated filmed skits with the live performances. This allowed them to keep a nice roll of laughter going while they're changing costumes, etc. We are now able to see films even more conveniently than before, something theater cannot compete with; so they should try something new. For example, get people hooked into the story with videos on a website and then only perform the ending on stage.

I agree that the stages have gotten too big and make for awkward performances (does the director know that they don't have to use the whole thing?). That, and the theater-voices the actors use are typically very forced and too over the top to take seriously. Great post, they said newspapers were supposed to die too but I still see them. The best plays I've ever seen were in Ashland, Oregon.

Caleb said...

Holy crap, Eddie! I've never seen "Tales of Worm Paranoia" before ...encore!!

The worm was a perfect choice for a doormat character, and even the editing is funny.

Hans Flagon said...

I don't think I would count the dinner theatre I've seen as pretentious movie stars trying to prove they're 'serrius acturrs'. More often it is a classic sitcom star trying to make ends meet. And in a way, it may be easier work, as the play often stays the same and there are less new lines to continuously learn.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

"Or maybe "Bill Murray Syndrome".

Thank you ! I am sorry but LOST IN TRANSLATION was the most boring movie I ever seen in my entire life. I mostly blame that hack Sofia Coppola's direction and her screenplay which was little more then an outline.

Brubaker said...

Thanks for linking to my blog, Eddie. I hope you guys like it.

And I'm looking forward to your entry on Art Leonardi. This should be interesting.

Julian said...

I think theatre has the advantage of feeling like a more special experience, because in smaller theatres like the one in Soho you mentioned, the actors are performing so close that you can get a really strong connection to the characters and story. There are no artificial barriers because this is a flesh and blood person communicating directly to an audience.

Anonymous said...

The film version of "The Bad Seed" is actually extremely theatrical for a movie. It maintained most of the same cast as the stage version, including Nancy Kelly, who was a terrific actress.

Watching the movie today, it seems silly how dramatic they were all acting and I think it makes the film very unique. It seemed like the director, Mervyn LeRoy, tried to capture as much of the stage production as he could.

I have nothing against live theater. I love it.

The movie is just one of my all time favorites. :D

pappy d said...

It must be great for an actor to have feedback in real time from a live audience, especially comic actors.

Mr. Trombley said...

Dear Sir, I hate to continuously be Johnny-Left-Fielder but I saw this and I immeadiately wondered what you would think.

You've probably seen it before, it's an interview of Larry Fine. He's just had a stroke and the process is crude and unedited, but it becomes a little more comprehensible if you wait a bit.




Anonymous said...

Theater has a physical presence and an immediacy that can never be captured in a film. years ago my daughter's high school drama club did WAIT UNTIL DARK in a small, intimate setting. As you know, the play involves a blind woman being stalked in her own apartment by drug dealers. The movie version was okay but the high school version I saw had an entirely new level of menace to it as the audience could sense characters moving about on the dark stage without actually seeing them (and fanning fumes from a gasoline soaked rag into the theater at the appropriate moment was a nice touch, too).

It's like comparing a well produced recording with a live performance. There's an immediacy that can never be captured but can only be experienced.

John A said...

Theatre and Movies are as good as the elements that go into it. I've seen amazing live productions that had the benefit of a great cast supported by some first rate technical behind the scenes work, and I've seen some really lousy movie versions of what were originally award winning Broadway plays.You need a really good director to pull off a good stage to screen translation. The Bad Seed is a good example of a stage play on film (even though they were forced to dilute the ending)Some things are just better live. If you've ever seen a good stage production of Wait until Dark, you'd think the Audrey Hepburn version was only so-so. Nothing can match the tension that you feel during a live performance. Comedy is better performed live, both for the audience and the actor performing. I've notce that even during the golden era of film, some comedy actors with really good reputations for performing live, like Red Skelton or Sid Ceaser turned in only average movie performances.Clearly comedy is hard to pull off in the silence of a soundstage, and it really makes me appreciciate the comics that are able to do it so effeortlessly.

Now,Musicals, which I've noticed most people of a certain age seem to despise, are always better live. Almost any attempt to revive the musical on film for the past 30 years has been a failure(with maybe a few execeptions)I blame naturalism, even though don't dislike naturalism, for killing off the musical. Musicals are artifical and work better on a soundstage or a theatre. I don't mind musical numbers in old movies but I cringe when I see a modern actor attempt to carry a tune in a modern film.(I'd rather have all my teeth drilled simultaniously than ever have to sit through Sweeny Todd again) It worked in another era, but people just express themselves differently today. My theory is that musicals died out in the late sixties because there was no point in singing about love when you could actually show sex on the screen, or rather, musicals are based more on repression and artiface and sticking it in a modern setting just makes it look ridiculous.

The Jerk said...

i think that the answer to the question "can theater compete with film" is that it shouldn't have to try. Theater is such a different medium of expression from film- generally speaking, film's strength tends to be in its ability to provide an immersive visual and auditory experience for the audience, whereas theater presents a different kind of reality, emphasizing the immediacy of the actor's performance, and allowing the audience's imagination to fill in the periferal details for themselves.

When theater tries to emulate film, it often fails due to limitations of space and time; but film is similarly hindered when it tries to emulate aspects of a theatrical experience by leaving elements of scenery to the imagination. Film viewers are taken out of the story when they see the edges of the set or the shadow of a boom mic, because they have come expecting to be trasported completely.
Each will continue to thrive if they pursue their own unique strengths.
This is not to suggest that there will not be blending of these media, nor am i saying that incorporation of stage elements into a film or use of video and audio elements in a staged production will be ineffective.
I simply proffer the theory that they need not and ought not be thought of as competetors.

Kirk Nachman said...

I must say, in favor of theatre, witnessing actors performing their craft in the moment is quite something, if the theatre is somewhat intimate. There is something to that presense.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

The Bad Seed" drives me out of my mind. THAT LITTLE GIRL !!!!!!! ARGH!!!!!!!!!! What almost ruins it for me is the silly cast presentations at the end and the girl being spanked.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

"(I'd rather have all my teeth drilled simultaniously than ever have to sit through Sweeny Todd again)"

Care to elaborate ? I LOOOOOVE that movie, possibly Burton's best film.

_ said...

yeah i kinda get/agree with yr argument on film vs theatre. i feel the same way. especially how important the placement of camera can be, the way it can get real close into an actor, or low or high angles, or...anything really.

last play i saw was tracy letts' 'august: osage county' - i think it was called. try & find some photos from the play, if you haven't seen it. check out the stage & set! it was real great. it was a cross section of a double story house, with a large family, and you can just choose what to look at - the different rooms, the different chracters, the scenes with/without dialogue. real interesting.

pappy d said...

Most of the live theater I've seen has involved actors I know socially. it happens in tiny theaters in Hollywood. Improv is my favorite. It's so dangerous! Especially to someone who spends his days in a dark room squeezing out a frame at a time in peaceful contemplation & perfect privacy.

It adds a certain sense of immediate drama to know the cast, too. There's a whole subtext of who's trying to crack who up or who's getting on whose nerves.

To be fair, I couldn't bear to watch enough of "Lost in Translation" to form an opinion of the whole movie.


Do you suppose the Hays Commission demanded corporal punishment?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Mr. T: Thanks! I'll check them out!

John A: I'd love to know why Broadway died. Maybe sex killed it, like you said. Maybe rock & roll and drugs killed it. The hippies were stupid for letting it slip through their fingers.

Caleb: Thanks!

Hans: Fascinating! That's the best description of the Desilu method that I've ever read!

Roseanne: I love theatrical staging in a film!

Caleb, jerk: Interesting theories!

Jack: I'll look it up!

Anonymous said...

On Mad Men, a beatnik was criticizing Broadway in a dingy little jazz cafe. Another beat was reading wedding announcements from the newspaper on stage as performance art.

The Beatnik looked suave 50s adman Don Draper straight in the eye, and said "Broadway is the birthplace of mediocrity."

Then Don looked him straight in the eye, took a drag of his cigarette, glanced at the performance artist, and replied "It may be born in Broadway, but it's conceived here."

So suck on that, Hippies.

John A said...

PC, I saw the Original Sweeny Todd on Broadway years ago, and the movie doesn't even come close. I couldn't stand hearing those Opperettic songs whispered by wimpy little Johnny Depp and Tim Burton's goth girlfriend. Production values were nice , but shouldn't they be, when you're spending tens of millions on a film?

John A said...

PC again: the silly "curtain call" with the mother spanking the little girl is straight out of the stage play. That's how most productions choose to end the play. It doesn't really work as well in a movie. In the play,it's supposed to leave the audience on an upbeat note, especially after the downer ending (different from the film) I have my own theories about death in movies as opposed to death on film: In a movie, when someone dies, that's it, he's gone and it's final. You can get away with some really great death scenes on stage because the audience knows that the actor is coming back to take a bow at the end of the show. In the old days, some stage plays had to tack a happy ending onto the movie version just to satisfy the audience.

John A said...

And for the last time, can we stop blaming the goddamned hippies for everything? Most of the things we love were killed by lawyers and Armchair Psychologists.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

John A: Whimpy ? He was a vicious SOB in that movie. That the most un-sympathetic character he has ever portrayed. His vengence caused him to kill everyone, even the girlfriend he thought was dead. Nope, I can't agree with you on that. The comparison of the original I can't defend since I have never seen it. As for The Bad Seed, I remember the studio demanded that the girl had to be killed at the end.

"Most of the things we love were killed by lawyers and Armchair Psychologists."

And College Professors. They were all hippies in the 60's.

Fuzzy Duck said...

Holy crap! I haven't seen that Will Vinton short in ages.

I see film and theater as being very different mediums. They are created in different ways, performed and released differently, and give off different feelings.

I remember seeing a staged version of "Pacific Overtures" a few years ago. There was this thrilling combat scene, and I thought to myself, "this wouldn't have been nearly as breathtaking on film, with distracting editing and eye candy."