See live theatre from best seats in house... ; the big comfy ones at your local cinemaStage productions filmed and broadcast live to city cinemas are making performing arts inexpensive and very accessible. Gemma Collins reports
There's a buzz in the Phoenix bar; an atmosphere you seldom sense unless you know you're going to experience something special. As flocks of people waft through to the auditorium and take their seats in front of the big screen, the hum gets even louder.
It's relaxed. It's a got-a-glass-of-wine cosy.
Tonight is the encore screening of The Audience, a National Theatre performance, on in the West End and starring Helen Mirren, reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth II.
And it's playing here - at a cinema in Leicester.
Welcome, to Stage on Screen. You may imagine our cinemas are only geared up for mainstream blockbusters, the latest release or replaying of a classic. The very thought you could be watching international theatre, ballet or opera by the world's greatest companies, beamed live - yes, live - from the world's most prestigious venues, at your cinema? Well, who'd have thought it? But you can. And a whole jampacked programme of it.
In Leicester alone, at Phoenix cinema, the Odeon, Showcase Cinema de Lux and Vue Meridian, you can sample delights from the National Theatre, the Royal Ballet, the Royal Opera House, Bolshoi Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In essence, this vein of programming is making performing arts accessible, inexpensive and available.
There's no stigma or snobbery either. Stage on Screen shows have a credibility.
The people who pay to see these performances in Covent Garden, Stratford Upon Avon, New York and the like, are as happy to go to the cinema, when time or circumstances dictate.
Only a few weeks ago, we were at the Royal Shakespeare Company watching the Laura Marling music-infused version of As You Like It and overheard a gaggle of ladies talking about their delightful theatre at the cinema experience. Well, it beats that long drive on a dark evening, said one lady. I can't wait for Othello on the big screen, said another.
In fact, the worldwide audience for National Theatre Live alone has reached more than 1.75 million people since its first broadcast of Phedre in June 2009.
The National Theatre was very much inspired by the Metropolitan Opera, who pioneered this concept in 2006; however, they were the first theatre company to do it.
For the NT, this venture was something of an experiment. The history of filmed theatre doesn't have a great track record.
But what they've done is successfully capture the productions, honouring the integrity of their work created for the stage.
There's nothing better than the real thing, you can never replicate the same experience as sitting in the theatre, but this comes so close.
There is a real feeling of a live performance, a sense of event, with so many people around the world connected and sharing in this experience.
It's incredible to think people in 500 venues across 24 different countries, including those in Europe, the USA, Canada, Mexico, India, Australia, South Africa and Russia, are all watching.
And encore screenings are equally as enjoyable - you're still viewing a live production. The only difference is it's not happening that very moment.
There's no denying Helen Mirren was incredible in The Audience. Her supporting cast included Haydn Gwynne as Margaret Thatcher, Edward Fox as Winston Churchill and the brilliant Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson; but the main focus was on Ms Mirren's Queen.
You'd think, in this scenario, they'd want to hide the aging costume changes, a character constantly on stage; but the intimacy the camera offers takes you to the heart of the emotion and the nuances of the actors' performances.
Sure, you cannot dictate exactly where your eye is, the camera chooses your focus; but more often than not, the whole stage is framed and there's nothing to hide - these screenings are either live or replayed without editing.
The camera director is given complete flexibility in choosing camera positions, so the performance can be captured from the best seats in the house. The theatre is transformed into a live studio.
Phoenix launched its alternative content programme last summer.
It was largely due to demand from customers who saw other independent cinemas doing these live shows and wanted similar in Leicester, explains Jake Harvey, film programme coordinator.
It wasn't all plain sailing to start, with the expense of satellite equipment and the small matter of apartments and workspaces on top of the cinema, making the installation of a satellite cable from the roof to the projection room quite a challenge.
But they got there - in the end - and were ready and running for the encore screenings of Danny Boyle's Frankenstein.
We sold out six screenings in our main screen, says Jake.
Demand for NT Live tickets has remained consistently high with most shows selling out and requiring us to screen several 'encore' performances.
Due to the success of the National Theatre shows, Phoenix decided to expand its content range.
It screened the whole Glyndebourne Opera Festival this summer and will be showing the new Bolshoi Ballet season which runs from October until March.
A trip to the National Theatre or Royal Opera House is a special experience, but the cost of travelling to London and the time required can be prohibitive, says Jake. By putting on these screenings, we hopefully give people the chance to see these productions on a more regular basis, in the comfort of their own cinema.
This includes our regular customers, but also fans of ballet, theatre and the opera, who might not usually go to the cinema.
Since 2009, the Royal Opera House's (ROH) live cinema season has expanded rapidly, with the company's ballet and opera now shown in more than 1,000 cinemas across 40 countries.
Antonio Pappano, director of music at the ROH in Covent Garden, says the company has been on a tremendous journey since the live cinema season launched.
Last season, more than 32,000 people watched The Nutcracker - it was the second highest-grossing film that night, nestled between The Hobbit and Skyfall, he explains.
The cinema experience brings you closer: you see the sweat and expressions on the faces of some of the finest singers and dancers on stage.
Carlos Acosta's hotly-anticipated new production of Don Quixote will be screened live at cinemas - including Leicester - in October.
This will be followed, in November, by Stefan Herheim's new production of Verdi's Les Vepres Siciliennes, featuring a stellar cast that includes Bryan Hymel, Marina Poplavskaya, Erwin Schrott and Michael Volle.
Bryan Hymel will sing the role of Henri.
When performing in a live cinema relay, it is forever in your mind that it's not just the people in the auditorium you are performing for, but some 20,000 to 30,000 people across the globe, says the American operatic tenor. The energy of it being live is just a great experience as you have to be so mindful of the details - the eyes and face.
Showcase Cinema de Lux, in the Highcross, has been screening event cinema performances for five years.
As well as established seasons, the cinema has shown one-off performances, covering events as diverse as the Pompeii Exhibition from The British Museum and Wimbledon in 3D, to Chemical Brothers and Andre Rieu concerts.
We have the flexibility to show this broad range of cultural events to an even broader audience, which the Leicester public have been extremely open to experiencing, says Jon Dixon of Showcase Cinemas.
The cinema-goer really does have the best seat in the house.
For full listings, check out: www.phoenix.org.uk www.showcasecinemas.co.uk www.myvue.com www.odeon.co.uk www.ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk www.roh.org.uk/cinema www.metoperafamily.org www.rsc.org.uk more : Highlights highlights this season include Richard II starring David Tennant; National Theatre Live encore showings of Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art with the late, great Richard Griffiths, Alex Jennings and Frances de la Tour, and a return to the Donmar Warehouse to broadcast Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston.
The Royal Ballet, bring us Verdi's Les Vepres siciliennes and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker; the Metropolitan Opera offer Tosca and Falstaff, among others, while the Bolshoi Ballet perform Spartacus.
The National Theatre's internationally-acclaimed production of War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo's novel, is coming to cinemas in 2014.
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