Say what you will about the theater. It's stubbornly old-fashioned. It moves at its own pace. The seats are too small. They cost far too much. A modicum of personal grooming is expected before attending, although unfortunately not required.
What we get in return -- and the bragging right of the theater -- is the live experience. What happens within the tightly shut doors of a playhouse is unique to the moment, shared only by the people in that room. Yes, performers repeat their same lines and make their same moves eight times a week. But because the actors are live, and you are live, and the guy texting down the row is still alive (although you may wish otherwise), this is a one-time-only, special-for-you, disappearing-as-you-see-it event.
Or maybe not.
While theatergoers have been feeding our addiction to the high of the live, a new kind of "live" has been created in the mad laboratories full of digital-marketing test tubes: theater being presented sort-of live -- in strictly limited runs -- in movie houses around the country and the world.
In the five years since the Metropolitan Opera began its popular "Live in HD" cinema simulcasts, theater producers have begun picking up the scent. London's wonderful National Theatre is just finishing its second series of productions beamed by satellite to 400 screens in 20 countries. NT Live is shown in 92 movie houses and arts centers in this country.
Now Broadway is pushing the plays-at-the-movies idea beyond the Met and the National. "Memphis," which won five Tonys, is going onto 530 national movie screens for four performances, April 28 to May 1.
In the mid-'90s, a few other commercial musicals, including "Smokey Joe's Cafe," were taped during performance and shown later in movie houses. But this is the first time that producers of an existing hit will dare to cannibalize Broadway audiences -- not to mention an upcoming national tour -- by practically giving it away for a $20 movie ticket.
Sue Frost, one of the lead producers of "Memphis," admits this is a gamble, but trusts it will be "an amazing marketing tool for a show without a brand title or famous names."
A different sort of gamble is happening at the Roundabout Theatre Company, the first not-for-profit American theater to attempt transmission into movie houses. "The Importance of Being Earnest," directed by and starring Brian Bedford, closes its extended run on Broadway July 3.
But from June 2 to June 30, the live-on-tape replica, "The Importance of Being Earnest: Live in HD," will be shown on various dates in movie theaters and performing arts centers around the country.
Earlier this month, three performances were filmed in their entirety before live audiences, using seven cameras. The director for the screen version sat in a production truck and watched seven monitors to cue live cuts. There was no editing, and only one performance was chosen to be the final document of what deserves to be Bedford's legendary portrayal of Lady Bracknell.
"It's my hope that those who have never set foot inside a Broadway house will have the thrill of seeing a show live on Broadway," says Todd Haimes, Roundabout artistic director.
For reassurance, he need only look as far as the National Theatre, which shares the same distributor, BY Experience. The National is now the gold standard in the evolving experiment and the one that comes closest to the deceptive promise of "live."
At a Manhattan movie house recently, I was able to see the National's current sold-out smash, "Frankenstein," directed by Danny Boyle, hours after actor Benedict Cumberbatch writhed into devastating life as the Creature to Jonny Lee Miller's mad scientist.
For the first few minutes, I was aware that I was watching a play at a distance on a screen. But it wasn't long before I was pulled completely into Nick Dear's visceral and strangely noble adaptation of Mary Shelley's potboiler.
"We film by giving cameras the best seats in the house and film in really sophisticated ways," says David Sabel, producer of NT Live. "Nothing is edited. Audiences suspend disbelief and feel they are sharing the experience with everyone in the theater."