Q: Is it theatre when it's on TV?
When I took Theatre 101 during the first semester of my freshman year at Hunter College, the first things I learned were what specifically separated theatre from other art-forms. What was theatre?
I thought I knew at the time, and so did a lot of my classmates. Eager to put our confidence to the test, my professor encouraged all of us to shout out what we thought was necessary in order for theatre to be theatre. As we called out our answers, the words were written down on the board at the front of the room: actors, script, plot, audience, venue, lighting, costumes, producer, crew, music, tickets, seating, concessions, programs, etc.
Ultimately, we learned that we had gotten a bit overenthusiastic with our list... and were taught the actual requirements for theatre, which were very few.
For one, theatre had to be live- it simply had to be. Theatre was meant to be ephemeral in nature, with no two performances ever being exactly the same, like snowflakes or fingerprints. Secondly, there needed to be the presence of both a performer (at least one) and of an audience (at least one audience member).
That was it.
Anything else that was added to the mix was entirely optional.
Sooo, I'll admit that when NBC released The Sound of Music Live!, the first of what would be a string of live televised musicals, I was skeptical. The Sound of Music is one of my favorite musicals of all time, and it was hard for me to imagine anyone other than Julie Andrews playing Maria, much less Carrie Underwood, a person without musical theatre training (I assumed). I tuned in to watch the live televised event, and was, truthfully, not blown away by much of what I saw and heard (save for Audra McDonald, as Mother Abbess). However, ratings showed that numerous people (18.62 million viewers!) made an effort to watch, and there was something wonderful about musicals like The Sound of Music getting so much attention from the media. Many live televised musicals would follow, and each of them, like the one before, was performed in front of a live audience and then simply streamed in real time to reach other, virtual audiences. I decided that it was nice that people who may not have otherwise had exposure to live theatre were given that exposure in some way, shape, or form.
But on the other hand, I could see why some people (theatre purists?) were bothered by these televised musicals. Was it really theatre if it was on TV? I didn't think so, not exactly. The content was being broadcasted, albeit broadcasted live, and there were commercials breaking up the scenes. I found something so unique about attending a performance and knowing that I could only ever relive exactly what happened on stage on that particular date in my memory. With televised performances, I had the options to pause, fast-forward, and rewind to my heart's content.
Watching a musical through the lens of a television screen didn't equate to theatre in my mind, but it was kind of like the next best thing. And perhaps even a gentle, live-tweet-worthy, introduction to theatre for the newbies out there. And, truth be told, even the most dedicated theatregoers were all newbies at one time.
My own introduction to theatre, and specifically to musicals, was made via film, and there was nothing live about the particular films I was watching: Cats, The Sound of Music, Chicago, even Anastasia. I know that it was seeing those movies that drew me to the arts, and eventually to LaGuardia High School, where I would study voice, and Hunter College, where I would end up graduating with a BA in Theatre.
In... conclusion? Theatre, like everything else in the world, exists on a spectrum, and I personally think that there's more than enough room on the theatrical spectrum for more live televised works of art.