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Thursday, Oct 6, 2022

Broadway Comes to Town Hall Theater

One week ago, I saw the Tony-nominated Broadway production of John Steinbeck’s American classic Of Mice and Men - in Middlebury. Due to technological advancements and a recent partnership between major performance companies and theaters around the world, the financial and geographic barriers to experiencing professional, top-market productions are rapidly vanishing. Following the lead of programs like the Public Broadcasting Series’ Lincoln Center Live, which has brought acclaimed New York theatre, concerts and special events into the homes of millions of Americans for free since 1976, New York City’s Metropolitan Opera began streaming live productions to small theaters and over public radio in 2006, and the National Theatre in London followed suit in 2009, now broadcasting to over 1,400 theaters worldwide.

With production costs for a Met Opera running upwards of $500,000, and tickets for popular Broadway productions selling anywhere from $100 to $400, it is no wonder that live broadcasts, with more reasonable ticket costs of $10 to $30 per person, have been gaining in popularity.

The Town Hall Theater started broadcasting the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series soon after they opened in 2008, purchasing and installing the initial necessary satellite technology that allowed any of the world-renowned opera’s broadcasts to appear before a small-town Vermont audience. When the National Theatre in London started their own HD broadcasting service, the Town Hall Theater already had the correct technology to bring some of the most acclaimed productions in the world to its repertoire.

The latest broadcast, the 2014 Broadway production of Of Mice and Men, was shown at the Town Hall Theater twice on Tuesday, Nov. 11. In an afternoon matinee, a full house of high school students watched the broadcast in conjunction with their study of the play.

“We especially like to carry the plays that we know are on school reading lists, and of course Of Mice and Men is something that every high school kid reads, so we booked it specifically for that reason,” said Town Hall Theater Executive Director Doug Anderson.

Attendance levels have varied widely for the screenings, and the evening showing of Of Mice and Men featured more seats that were empty than filled. The Town Hall Theater does not carry all of the broadcasts offered by National Theatre Live simply because some may be too obscure to market to a local audience.

“It really depends,” Anderson said. “The National does terrific work, but a lot of it is plays that don’t necessarily sell in this country. If they don’t have a major star or title or it’s a brand new play that people don’t know, we tend to sell less. We had Helen Mirren in Phedra in 2009 and it was absolutely packed, because she’s Helen Mirren. There was a National Theatre broadcast of a play called The Audience, which is about Queen Elizabeth meeting every week with the prime minister. [Mirren] played Queen Elizabeth over forty years meeting with 8 different prime ministers, and it was a real tour de force that sold out so much that we showed it again, so you really never know who is going to come to what.”

Of Mice and Men is so definitively an American play, a masterpiece exploration of the struggle to reach the American dream as viewed through the inseparable friendship of two working class men, that it may be surprising that London’s National Theatre picked up the show. Though National Theatre Live had made many attempts to expand its marquee British theatre events to include international offerings, Of Mice and Men was the first Broadway production to be accepted for full production and broadcast by the program. When the production, which is the first Broadway version of the play in over forty years, began its 19-week New York City run at the Longacre Theatre, a filmed broadcast was not even considered, but after the show’s two 2014 Tony Award nominations and the complete recuperation of the show’s $3.8 million capital investment, the National Theatre Live team saw the potential in broadcasting the limited-engagement, star-filled play, even offering to cover the $1 million production and distribution cost to create a broadcast. Touting the Broadway debuts of Oscar award nominated actor-director-author-poet-artist-professor (yes, really) James Franco, Bridesmaids’ Chris O’Dowd and Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester, as well as the directorial talents of Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critic Circles award winner Anna D. Shapiro, the production possessed the unique combination of star power and mainstream appeal ideal for a Broadway broadcast test case.

As for the production itself, filmed live on its closing night, July 27, 2014, reviewing is almost pointless. A richly imagined yet subtle set design, superb acting - especially by O’Dowd, who was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his role as strong simpleton Lennie - and smart directorial choices speak to the production’s multi-million dollar budget and performance in the most prestigious theatre system in America. These literally are the big leagues, and the production did not disappoint.

After investing in the initial satellite technology, projector and screen, The Town Hall Theater does not have to incur any cost per show, allowing an unlimited choice of broadcasts that brings in extra income for the local theater and benefits the original productions.

“We split the ticket costs with the National Theatre or the Metropolitan Opera, so even if its something that I think may only draw 50 or 60 people, I’m still making money on a night I would normally be dark, so I feel I can go ahead and do that obscure 19th century English comedy because it’s just a matter of turning on the equipment,” Anderson said.

Though I was experiencing the theatre through a new fifth wall which takes away the spontaneity and audience-actor participation of the live theatrical experience, the multiple camera angles and beautiful HD rendition of the play allowed me the unique opportunity to process the big picture of the sumptuous set design only seconds before viewing the pained emotions, lines and tears on Franco’s face, which would never be possible from the balcony of a Broadway theater.

“The National Theatre is the greatest theater in the world and the caliber of the work they do is astonishing,” Anderson said. “I used to make special trips to England just to go to the National Theatre and see their work, and the fact that we can get it live, here in the comfort of our little theater in Middlebury, Vermont, is miraculous and not to be missed.”

On the Tuesday of the broadcast, I had a healthy number of papers to write, novels to read and responses to draft, and it was difficult for me to justify making the trip into town for a two and a half hour mid-week play. In reality, I could have chosen no better distraction. Watching this professional execution of Steinbeck’s tale moved me, broke my heart and reignited my love for the theatre, and I only needed to walk down the road. Tickets to National Theatre Live productions are available through the Town Hall Theater Box Office for $10 for students, and information about upcoming broadcasts will be available at go/tht as productions are chosen and announced.