Up Close From A Distance: Cineplex’s Stage Series Returns

Ian McKellen and Danny Webb in King Lear. Photo by Johan Persson.

After six months of lock downs, social distancing, and other measures enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19, restaurants, shopping mall, and other public spaces are welcoming visitors once more. Sadly, theatres in Canada are not planning to open their doors to audiences anytime soon. Theatre-goers must find other ways to experience live performance we so dearly miss.

This fall, Cineplex Events offers audiences an opportunity to relive the theatrical experience by screening performances filmed live from Stratford and London’s West End in their “Stage Series.”  Such critically acclaimed live productions filmed over the past decades starring the crème-de-la-crème of stage and screen—such as Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, King Lear starring Ian McKellen, and Cyrano de Bergerac starring James McAvoy—will return to Cineplex screens across Canada this fall.

The season began on September 21st with Fleabag, captured live on stage from London’s West End in 2019, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the one-woman show that inspired the critically acclaimed hit television program. Following Fleabag, on October 5th and 8th, Sir Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings, X-Men) stars in the titular role of Shakespeare’s masterpiece King Lear in a production filmed in 2018. The “Stage Series” then offers audiences a Halloween treat, screening the West End production of Frankenstein starring Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch (both of Sherlock Holmes fame) and directed by Academy Award-winner Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), originally performed in 2011. Academy Award-winner Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) and Nikki James (The Book of Mormon) star as the dynamic due in Stratford’s 2008 production of Caesar and Cleopatra by political provocateur George Bernard Shaw. McKellen returns with his friend and frequent co-star Sir Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation, X-Men) in Harold Pinter’s classic comedy No Man’s Land, captured live on stage from London’s West End in 2016. The season concludes on December 3rd and 7th with Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers, The Night Manager) as the titular Coriolanus in Shakespeare’s political thriller produced by London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2014. Though some of these performances are over a decade old, the opportunity to see them on the big screen again or for the first time is an opportunity not be missed.

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus. Photo by Johan Persson.

The experience of watching a filmed live performance in the cinema is, of course, not identical to the experience of watching a performance live in a theatre. But Cineplex’s “Stage Series” offers audiences certain features that are almost never a part of a conventional theatrical experience. The fact that the performance itself is filmed allows audiences to watch the accomplished actors starring in these productions up close. The productions are captured by several cameras that allow the audience to see the performance from centre of auditorium—which is similar to watching a live performance from the best seats in the house—but also by cameras that capture the performers faces and bodies close up, giving the audience a more intimate experience of the performance than seeing it live ever could.

Not only is the visual experience different, but the screenings take advantage of the surround sound systems of Cineplex’s state of the art theatres. With these sound effects, audiences feel immersed in the world of the production, adding to the intimacy of the experience. Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle who is mostly known for his films, capitalizes the sound technology Cineplex’s theatres can offer for an especially spectacular theatrical experience.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller in Frankenstein. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

In addition to these extra features that make the performance itself more intimate, each “Stage Series” screening also includes behind-the-scene interviews with directors and cast members. Before many of the performances, audiences witness an interview with the director who offers insight into the design, the process, and the artistic vision for their production. In the intermission (Yes! because these performances were filmed live, the screenings also include an intermission), the “Stage Series” includes interviews with the stars. It is a rare opportunity to be able to get access to the performers in the middle of performance and hear about their experiences rehearsing and performing a live production.

Lastly and most importantly, a visit to the cinema is never complete without treats from the concession. Cineplex has taken extra care to reintroduce their concession offerings as they slowly re-open their cinemas during the pandemic. In any case, unlike at most theatres in the world, Cineplex audiences are invited to eat and drink during the screening, bringing the best of the worlds of cinema and theatre together. The full concession menu is not yet available, but the cinema comfort-food staples—popcorn and a soda—can be enjoyed during the screenings.

The “Stage Series” has a long history as a part of Cineplex’s programming that includes live performances beyond that of the theatre. After the first successful screening of World Wrestling Entertainment events in 2003, Cineplex turned to opera, following the suggestion of Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb, who inaugurated The Met: Live in HD series, which filmed live performances at the Met in New York City and screened them at cinemas globally. These initial WWE screenings proved so popular that Cineplex expanded and began to include live performances of dance and theatre. Audiences are so eager to watch live events on the big screen that Cineplex now offers screenings of concerts (David Bowie), museum exhibits (DaVinci at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum), Kabuki performances, and even Raptors’ play-off games.

Ian McKellen and Anita-Joy Uwajeh in King Lear. Photo by Johan Persson.

Despite public spaces beginning to reopen as mask-wearing and social distancing prove to be effective in slowing the transmission of the virus, many are still justifiably concerned about returning to spaces, such as a cinema, where people congregate together for more than a moment. Cineplex has implemented many procedures and protocols to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of their patrons. The cinemas have implemented a reduced capacity, offering only twenty to forty percent of the audience seating that was available before the pandemic. In order to maintain social distancing between patrons, only every third seat is available for a patron to occupy, every second row is left empty, and reserved seating is implement for all theatres and screenings. Employees are required to wear masks at all times, wash their hands every thirty minutes, and declare they are symptom-free before coming to serve patrons each day.

Though it is not, nor could ever be, the same as watching a performance live in a theatre, Cineplex’s “Stage Series” not only offers audiences a theatrical experience that will remind them of the performances they enjoyed before the pandemic forced theatres to close, but will also offer audiences an experience with close-ups, surround sound, backstage access, interviews, popcorn and soda—an experience that brings the best of the cinema and the best of the theatre together for an evening. And this experience will have to satisfy theatre-files for now, until we can get back to the centuries old ritual that we know and love so dearly.

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Written By

Stephen Low received his PhD from Cornell University in April 2016, where he also received his Masters in Theatre Studies in 2014. He received his first Masters from the University of Texas at Austin in the Performance as Public Practice Program. His scholarly interests include twentieth-century theatre and performance, dance, musicals, queer theory, sex and sexuality, gender, critical race studies, and gay culture. His current book project, Hail Mary: The Theatrical Constitution of Gay Culture, identifies theatricality as the constitutive feature of contemporary gay culture. His essays have been published in Modern Drama, Theatre Research in Canada, Canadian Theatre Review, Queer Theatre in Canada. Critical Perspectives in Canadian Theatre in English Series, Opera Canada, and Intermission.