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Summary:

Whether you spell it “theatre” or “theater,” any fan of classic or contemporary theatrical works ought to check out the full-length productions available through VOD site Digital Theatre. Though, while the pricing is equivalent to iTunes, the user experience is not.

david tennant much ado digital theatre

It’s YouTube’s fault, the $7.99 I just sent to England. There I was, minding my own business, just looking for a clip from Doctor Who to send to a friend, when I noticed the sponsored video results at the top of the search page:

The reason that top result popped up on my Doctor Who search is that the named Much Ado stars, David Tennant and Catherine Tate, had previously worked together on Who. As a fan of both actors, I’d heard about the production, but as I tragically do not live in London, I didn’t think I’d ever get to see it. That was because, until this week, I had never heard of Digital Theatre, which makes “the best of British theatre” (according to its tagline) available to the rest of the world for digital rental or download.

Founded in 2009, Digital Theatre currently hosts 13 full-length filmed productions (plus educational resources) that represent a range of contemporary and classic works, including Into the Woods, The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Comedy of Errors, and The Container, a play performed inside a shipping container .

The default pricing is for British pounds, though a pull-down menu switches that to American dollars or Euros; streaming rental prices range from $3.49 to $7.99, while HD downloads are available for $10-$17.99 — essentially comparable to the same rates Apple charges for films on iTunes.

(Pro-tip: Even if you’re in the UK, try to buy with American dollars — for some reason the British pricing, by current conversion rates, is a bit more expensive.)

Once I’d signed up for a Digital Theatre account, paying for a 48-hour rental of Much Ado was relatively simple, though the actual technology was rather disappointing: The stream was only available via a crude browser-based Flash player, meaning that I couldn’t stream using iPad or iPhone, and the Adobe Air desktop player was a clunky experience, especially when trying to skip forward or backwards. This is what happens when you spend Apple-level dollars — you expect an Apple-level experience.

David Tennant and Catherine Tate in “Much Ado About Nothing,” via the Digital Theatre Player.

Of course, perspective here is key. While the experience could be improved, I still got to watch a lively (albeit slightly campy) Shakespeare production from the other side of the world, one that I’d thought I’d never get a chance to see. Streaming a video of a theatrical performance in a sweaty apartment in Los Angeles is of course no comparison to really taking in a show — but for teachers, theater fans, and anyone who’s ever cursed the ephemeral nature of live performance, sites like Digital Theatre still feel a bit like a miracle.

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  1. To stay with the SF theme…

    Hamlet staring Dr Who and Jean Luc Picard is excellent

    1. That version of Hamlet is available free on the pbs.org website albeit in a same kind of experience. It’s also available on DVD. For those who like to take in films and performances abroad a region free dvd player is a must.

    2. It’s the only Hamlet that has ever left me in tears…. All that “madness” makes perfect sense. All the spying, the lying, the speeches made solely for the benefit of the spies (or the spy cameras), it all makes perfect sense. Buy the DVD. The extras are really valuable, and you’ll watch it repeatedly.

      With a digital purchase like this, if the company folds, I assume my “purchase” would evaporate with it, right? I love the idea of being able to see real theatre out here in the boonies, but I’m wary of “buying” things that I don’t subsequently own. Still, it’s only 18 bucks, and I REALLY want to see this production. Those two are hilarious together.

  2. I live in Wisconsin and I did get to go see it in London (three times in a week!) but i bought the DT download and have rewatched it numerous times. I work with a university theatre department and we are planning to get an institutional subscription because there are some truly remarkable performances and behind the scenes video. I’m still waiting for their ipad app though… Seconding the other comment about DT’s Hamlet, too. You can stream that from the PBS site if you are in the US… Or you canbuy a DVD.

  3. How do they get around Copyright issues – the rights holders only authorise a show for performance in a geographic location, loading it up to the web counts under US and Australian Copyright law as re-broadcasting, which they shouldnt have the right to do. This cant actually be legal. Just a thought.

    1. They have worked out the legal aspects with the producers and actors to provide access worldwide. It is completely legal. It is stream-only for the 48 hour rental and if you purchase the download you must use their proprietary video player that reauthenticates your computer over the Internet each time you watch it, so it can not be traded through file sharing. Go to their website and read about it.

    2. One added note… The Digital Theatre people did the actual filming for the video in conjunction with the production team, so they negotiated for world wide access before they even went into the theatre to film the live productions and own the video themselves.

  4. Richard,

    As Bex points out we haven’t “got around” the copyright issues – we work with the theatres and creatives directly to secure licences for all the productions that we capture. In the case of Much Ado the script is obviously public domain buy we’ve worked with Equity and the Musicians Union for three years to establish agreements which make sure that everyone involved is properly rewarded. We’ve captured all of the productions on the site ourselves and have the ability to distribute them around the world.

    Andrew

  5. Richard.

    I’ve just watched your most recent episode of The Theatre Show. It’s great to see what you’re doing with theatre video in Australia. We could do with more video like that in the West End.

    Andrew

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