Story by Bob Abelman

A behind-the-scenes look at the NT Live Production of “The Madness of King George III.” | Tom Wren / NT Live

The notion that art imitates life – that creative work reflects and refracts the world around us – is as old as Aristotle’s “Poetics” (c. 335 B.C.), the earliest surviving treatise on the imaginative process.

A less romantic observation, but one that is just as true, is that art often imitates art, where the original imaginative idea of one person is emulated reverentially, borrowed unceremoniously or pilfered outright by someone else. While this practice is no doubt as old as Aristotle, it is most famously traced to William Shakespeare, who turned the pages of others’ literary works into bits and pieces of his own. 

It’s well known that Shakespeare took from Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmond Spenser and Arthur Brooke, among other poets. And recently, a long-forgotten, handwritten document from 1576 by one George North has been found to be the likely source for more than 20 monologues and key passages from Shakespeare’s plays, including “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Henry VI” and the “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy from “Richard III.”

Ironically, IMDb – an online database of films, television programs, home videos, video games and internet streams – lists 1,095 entries that emulate, borrow from or pilfer in some form the works of Shakespeare. This number is steadily increasing thanks to the National Theatre in London which, in June will celebrate its 10th year of adapting theatrical productions for the big screen – an endeavor that has included much of Shakespeare’s canon.

“Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal, bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different,” noted author T. S. Eliot, who is known to have borrowed an occasional phrase, line or reference himself.

From stage to screen

Films rooted in works from the page and the stage have attracted film audiences for decades and account for nearly two-thirds of Oscar Best Picture winners. Some plays turned into movies – including “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944), “Dial M For Murder” (1954) and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) – have become film classics.

But stage-to-screen adaptations have not escaped the watchful eye of theater critics who argue that the effusion of drama and sense of spontaneity that sweeps across the stage during a live performance is lost on film. And rich dialogue – the bread and butter of stage plays – easily morphs into dull moments in this more visually demanding medium. 

A behind-the-scenes look at the NT Live Production of “Hamlet.” | Ludovic Des Cognets / NT Live

Stage-to-screen storytelling has also been harshly criticized for turning the playwright’s work into a product that best defines the vision of its Hollywood director. Even the films just cited are more often recognized as the works of Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock and Mike Nichols than that of Joseph Kesselring, Frederick Knott and Edward Albee, respectively. Author Virginia Woolf deplored the oversimplification of literary work in its transposition to film, calling the upstart movie industry a “parasite,” literature its “prey” and stage productions its “victim” in a 1926 article in The New Republic.  

The transference of musical theater to the big screen seems to have fared better, but even the highly successful 2012 film version of the Broadway musical “Les Misérables” – which earned $148 million domestic and $283 million worldwide – was met by disparaging reviews regarding its cinematic storytelling. The New York Times called out the overt intrusion of the camera, noting the film’s “inability to leave any lily ungilded” and the failure to “direct a scene without tilting or hurtling or throwing the camera around.” New York magazine called its production values a “tasteless bombardment” and The Hollywood Reporter referred to the film’s visual approach as “laboriously repetitive.”

Critics haven’t been any kinder to recent efforts to bring live musical theater to the small screen, including NBC’s broadcasts of “The Sound of Music” (“As lifeless as those alpine backdrops,” Variety), “Peter Pan” (“Fails to take flight,” NY Daily News) and “The Wiz” (“A hot mess,” The Daily Beast). The highly promoted $10 million production of “Hairspray Live!” in 2016 employed 13 digital cameras, a cast and crew of 700, and the massive soundstages of Universal Studios in California. And yet, with only 8.9 million viewers, it was the lowest rated of all the live broadcast musicals to date.  

That is, until Fox’s presentation of “Rent” this past January, which attracted only 3.1 million viewers. Fraught with what Time magazine referred to as “dizzying camera angles,” “hyperactive editing (that) rarely allowed for a moment’s pause for reaction shots or to let songs sink in,” and “a swooping Steadicam (that) killed the emotional impact of the show,” the production led to NBC pulling the live-TV treatment of “Hair” from its upcoming spring schedule.

Clearly, art imitating art isn’t always an equitable exchange.

The advent of Electronovision

An early and monumentally unsuccessful effort to bridge the chasm in stage and screen storytelling modalities took the form of a production process called Electronovision. In 1964, producer/entrepreneur H. William “Bill” Sargent Jr. sought to capture live stage performance using multiple orthicon video cameras that recorded on tape 800 lines of resolution, with the high-definition images then transferred to film and distributed to cinemas. 

One of just a few stage-to-tape-to-film projects completed by Sargent captured a Broadway production of “Hamlet” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, which featured Richard Burton in the title role under John Gielgud’s direction. The event was labeled “theatrofilm” in a promotional blurb in which Burton also claimed the Electronovision technology was creating the “theater of the future.” 

Unfortunately, a critic at Film Quarterly referred to the “Hamlet” production as “the worse movie of the year” due largely to the film’s “bad lighting,” “raucous sound” and an  inherent flaw in the black and white orthicon video cameras called “blooming,” where black objects had a white aura around them and white objects had a corresponding black aura. Also, the videotape editing of the period was very primitive, resulting in some epic hit-and-miss moments in the recorded production.

After one year, three films and $30 million in law suits over patent infringement, Electronovision Inc. closed its offices and the technology went the way of the Phantoscope, Silvatone and Kinescope.

A behind-the-scenes look at the NT Live Production of “The Tragedy of King Richard the Second.” | Marc Brenner / NT Live

NT Live and Cleveland Cinemas

More recently, the National Theatre in London attempted to overcome the complexities of live theater by taking a different approach to adapting them for the big screen, called NT Live. And Cleveland Cinemas, which is owned by Jon Forman of JRF Management in Cleveland Heights and operates a total of 46 screens at seven locations in Northeast Ohio, has been one of its local beneficiaries.

Inspired by the Metropolitan Opera, which had pioneered the concept in 2006, the National Theatre launched a live broadcast of its 2009 production of Jean Racine’s tragedy “Phèdre” to local cinemas. It did so with the intention of capturing the integrity of the stage work and replicate, as much as possible, the experience of actually sitting in the theater watching a live performance. The NT Live broadcast was seen by more than 50,000 people, which doubled in one night the audience for the play’s entire three-month run.  

“I recall watching that show myself,” says Dave Huffman, Cleveland Cinemas’ director of marketing. “There was a decent crowd for it and we felt like we were off to a good start.”

Since then, NT Live has broadcast live more than 40 productions while being performed in front of an in-house audience at the National Theatre, and on occasion, other theaters in the UK, the U.S. and elsewhere. To date, its broadcasts have been experienced by nearly 9 million people in more than 2,500 venues around the world, including the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights and Chagrin Cinemas in Chagrin Falls.

Marketing researchers have found that, far from cannibalizing audiences of local professional theater, NT Live has on average grown audiences for local theaters in London and reported a 6.4 percent increase in local theater attendance in areas nearest an NT Live screening in the year following the broadcasts.

Art imitating art, it seems, can be synergistic. 

“And we find that they can attract people to our (independent and foreign film) theater that may not otherwise come to us,” Huffman says. “While most of the NT Live films skew a bit older, reflective of the theater-going crowd, when we’ve shown things like Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’ (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller), we definitely see a younger crowd.”

Benedict Cumberbatch in “Hamlet” | NT Live

Method behind the madness

Five to eight high-definition digital cameras, including one that offers gentle tracking shots, are strategically positioned throughout the National Theatre so as to be unobtrusive in their presence and relatively inconspicuous in their coverage. Shots from various camera positions are subtly cut live into a single feed by a camera director, giving the cinema audience access to the best seat in the house at all times.  

For these productions, the theater itself is transformed into something of a live TV studio, and while adjustments are made for lighting, sound and makeup, few changes are made in staging in order to preserve the integrity of the original theatrical design and transpose the stage picture to the screen as effectively as possible. At most, the camera offers heightened intimacy and accentuates the nuances of the actors’ performances and the stage director’s vision. And the actors are always reminded that they are doing a stage performance, not making a movie.

Satellites allow the productions to be filmed live and simulcast across the UK and Europe. In the U.S. and Canada, the majority of venues show it on the same day as the live filming while others in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, India, Russia, Japan, China, Sweden and South America show it on a delayed basis within a few weeks of the original broadcast. NT Live productions are seen in 65 countries.

The National Theatre produces about 25 new productions each year, which vary from Shakespeare and classics to new plays, so the goal of NT Live is to offer a microcosm of its repertoire and showcase the diversity of what the theater can do.

“We used to think the ultimate success was someone seeing an NT Live, then coming to the theater,” says executive producer David Sabel on the NT Live website. “Now we see it as a success in its own right. Our audience isn’t just about the bricks and mortar. It’s much, much bigger than that.”

Early on, NT Live encountered skepticism about how the live broadcast would work.

“Most people, and I mean myself included,” adds Sabel, “believed that theater when it’s filmed becomes very static, very deadening and it’s so the antithesis of the art form.”  

Not anymore. C

On Screen

NT Live in Northeast Ohio

Upcoming NT Live broadcasts and the Cleveland-area cinemas showing them:

“All About Eve”

7 p.m. May 7 and 11 a.m. May 12 at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

“All About Eve,” the stage adaptation of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning 1950 backstage film classic, touches on celebrity, gossip, roaring ego, ambition, vanity and insecurity. It tells the story of Margo Channing, a legendary star of the theater, and her biggest fan, the young and beautiful Eve.

“The Audience”

  • 7 p.m. June 3 at Cinemark Tinseltown USA and XD in North Canton, Cinemark at Valley View and XD in Valley View, Atlas Cinemas Great Lakes Stadium 16 in Mentor, Regal Cinemas Crocker Park Stadium 16 & IMAX in Westlake, Regal Hudson Cinema 10 in Hudson, Regal Richmond Town Square Stadium 20 in Richmond Heights and Silverspot Cinema Orange Village in Orange
  • 7 p.m. June 4 at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights and Chagrin Cinemas in Chagrin Falls

For 60 years, the queen has met with each of her 12 prime ministers in a private weekly meeting. This meeting is known as The Audience. Through these private audiences, we see glimpses of the woman behind the crown and witness the moments that shaped a monarch. Academy Award winner Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth II. 


  • 7 p.m. July 8 at Cinemark Tinseltown USA and XD in North Canton, Cinemark at Valley View and XD in Valley View, Atlas Cinemas Great Lakes Stadium 16 in Mentor, Regal Cinemas Crocker Park Stadium 16 & IMAX in Westlake, Regal Hudson Cinema 10 in Hudson, Regal Richmond Town Square Stadium 20 in Richmond Heights and Silverspot Cinema Orange Village in Orange
  • 7 p.m. July 9 and 11 a.m. July 14 at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights and Chagrin Cinemas in Chagrin Falls

Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title role in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. As a country arms itself for war, a family tears itself apart. Forced to avenge his father’s death but paralyzed by the task ahead, Hamlet rages against the impossibility of his predicament, threatening both his sanity and the security of the state.

“The Lehman Trilogy”

11 a.m. Aug. 18 and 7 p.m. Aug. 21 at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights

According to the critic at the National Review: “The entire library of American cinema and theater contains few works that set out to celebrate or even dispassionately to chronicle, rather than savage or satirize, the details of how great businesses were made and the wonders they wrought. That’s why the three-hour staging of the history of Lehman Brothers is such a surprising – no, staggering – achievement. Housed in the suitably august Park Avenue Armory in New York City, ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ is one of the finest plays I’ve ever seen.”

“One Man, Two Guvnors”

7 p.m. Oct. 1 and 11 a.m. Oct. 6 at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights

In this fast-paced, hilarious farce, the down on his luck and permanently hungry Francis Henshall finds himself employed by two bosses who must never meet. Francis enlists the aid of willing and unwilling audience members in his quest to serve two masters and finally get a good meal. The play, starring James Corden, premiered at the National Theatre in 2011, with a subsequent Broadway production in 2012.