Live and Direct – A&L puts theater lovers up close without a plane ticket

A scene from Complicite's production of "A Disappearing Number," conceived and directed by Simon McBurney. Stephanie Berger Photos
A scene from Complicite’s production of “A Disappearing Number,” conceived and directed by Simon McBurney.
Stephanie Berger Photos

When David Sabel was a young man studying theater at Northwestern University, he was far, far away from the theater companies that he studied. It wasn’t until age 19 that he was able to travel to London and check out National Theatre, among others. Today, he is a producer of National Theatre Live, bringing live simulcast plays to any theater with the technology, including UCSB’s Campbell Hall. And nobody has to buy an airplane ticket.

“I would have killed to see these productions when I was studying,” Sabel says. He is, of course, speaking of the six-play season that kicks off Tuesday with “A Disappearing Number,” conceived and directed by Simon McBurney.

The simulcast HD experience took off with great acclaim, at least in Santa Barbara, with the simulcast productions of The Metropolitan Opera screening through Music Academy of the West. While Sabel got his inspiration from this, filming and presenting live theater while maintaining a high-quality performance — particularly associated with such esteem as the National Theatre — presents its own challenges. So many, in fact, that Sabel has taken on two jobs. While he started out as just a producer, he is now also the head of digital media, which includes the entire live series, the Web site and associated documentaries.

“We wanted to make it a collective experience,” Sabel says. “We wanted that same DNA, that same electricity that you get in live performance.”

In the end, Sabel was unsure if the project would avoid the “static and deadening” effects that he says get associated with videotaped theater for television. But The Met inspired him. The secret, he says, is treating the theater like a TV studio. On simulcast nights, the position of the four cameras takes precedence over audience seats, even it that means laying track across the good ones. Audiences pay a reduced ticket price to get in, and so far, the feedback has been positive.

“Audiences love it, we’ve found,” Sabel says. “Because they feel they’re part of a special evening.”

The first HD simulcasts began in 2009 with the French tragedy “Phèdre,” starring Helen Mirren. The actors might alter their stage positions for the camera, but they do not change much else.

“The actors are giving their theatrical performances,” Sabel says. “Helen Mirren is still screaming to the back of the walls. It’s a theatrical performance. But you also get an intimacy with the performers. The experience is cinematic and theatrical at the same time.”

The season opener is a collaboration with Complicite, a well-respected and experimental theater company in Britain. “A Disappearing Number” combines mathematics with dramatic stage, lighting and sound design, with an evening that imparts complicated theory in entertaining and immersive fashion.

December brings the companies fifth production of “Hamlet” (Dec. 14), now starring Rory Kinnear. Bill T. Jones’ production of “Fela!”(Feb. 7) — based on the life and music of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti — will start off 2011. Soon after is Derek Jacobi as the titular character in “King Lear” (Mar. 2).

For fans of cinema, director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) returns to the stage, where he started, for his own adaptation of “Frankenstein” (Apr. 13). Sabel knows only slightly more about it than we do.

“I’ve seen some beginning sketches,” he says.

In the end, Sabel just looks forward to making these live performances a regular National Theatre tradition.

“It’s a kind of hybrid experience,” Sabel says of the first season. “You know you’re watching theater, not a film, but you’re getting all the benefits of a movie.”

‘A DISAPPEARING NUMBER,’ part of UCSB A&L’s NATIONAL THEATRE LIVE series
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: UCSB’s Campbell Hall
Cost: $18 general, $10 UCSB students
Information: (805) 893-3535, www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu

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