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Video Saved the Theater Star: How a Digital Capture Boom Is Bolstering Pandemic-Era Broadway

The Hollywood Reporter went behind-the-curtain of the filming of Tony-nominated musical 'Girl From the North Country' to uncover why (and how) shows are bringing their stage experiences to the screen.

It’s a Wednesday evening in April, and Girl From the North Country director Conor McPherson is taking part of his break in an empty seat on the Belasco Theatre’s mezzanine.

Before this, the playwright had spent much of the day fixed in various parts of the W. 44th Street venue’s orchestra amid a mass of glowing monitors, long-legged cameras and a towering crane. Down there, in the tangle of cords and crew, the Tony-nominated director was acquiring the final shots for the third day of shooting for the Broadway show’s filmed version, officially known as a digital capture, alongside Totally Theatre Productions’ executive producer Gavin Kalin and director Tim van Someren.

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“It’s a different kind of watching. There’s no question. It’s not the same as being in a theater,” McPherson told The Hollywood Reporter about producing the show for a live audience versus filming over a week. “But the wonderful joy of filmmaking is that you can put the viewer in first class.”

The digital capture will feature the Broadway show’s original cast and utilize four days’ worth of footage, including complete runs of both acts, single shots and a live performance recording to deliver the show’s 20 reimagined Bob Dylan tunes in a slightly different way for the screen — and for the director.

“I’m seeing it in a whole new way,” he said. “The detail that you see in the acting — when you’re in the rehearsal room, you see it, but the more you get into the theater, you’re at that distance where you’re trying to force this story through the fourth wall. Now it’s right in with these great actors.”

McPherson admits that plays don’t always translate well to film, but this show has a “kind of alchemy” onstage and on camera that’s surprised even him.

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‘Girl From the North Country’ digital capture filming day three. Abbey White

“There’s a moment I love when you’re with a company who has been making a play for weeks, months, or years live on stage, then we arrive with all of our gear and cameras, set it all up, and it’s all a bit in the way,” the director said. “But then we turn the cameras on, and they see their actors in place for the first time? They’re always like, ‘Oh, wow, I’ve seen this play for three years, but I’ve never seen that before.'”

The way the presence of cameras breaks up the comfortable rhythm of live performance is almost sacrilege. At the top of each shot, the voice of the musical’s production stage manager Jeff Brancato crackles across the theater’s sound system, guiding a flurry of bodies as they adjust the shininess of wigs, reset props for continuity and locate their marks to begin a number anew.

In the beginning, the process was difficult “because it’s not the way we normally work,” McPherson said.

“Inherently, TV and film scripts are written in smaller segments, plus you reset all the time for different camera angles. Theater is not made like that. Theater is made to run its course,” Brancato explained. “Maybe the actors would say it’s almost more distracting to stop and have to get back into the work, but there is definitely an element of ‘hold’ and then be swarmed that they’re used to. A thing that’s unique about this company is a lot of them are TV actors — at least three-quarters of them have done TV and film before.”

The different approach gave the cast and creative team a chance to zoom in and address details “an audience member probably wouldn’t notice that a designer or actor might,” Brancato said, while also not completely disregarding the natural flow of stage performance.

“Once we got everything in that stop-and-start way, Tim said, ‘OK, I think you should just let them run it. Even if there’s mistakes or any problem, we’re just going to keep going,'” McPherson said. “So those two full takes of those two acts really are the canvas that we will work from because that energy is irreplaceable.”

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From left: ‘Girl From the North Country’ stars Tom Nelis, Mare Winningham, Jeannette Bayardelle and Jay O. Sanders. Abbey White

The cast’s energy is only matched by the film and stage crew, who work in tandem at the direction of “the hub of the wheel,” Brancato. “I’ll usually be running the tech, scheduling and coordinating with the other department heads, production manager, the director, choreographer, music director,” he said of his typical stage work. “For this, there’s double the number of people, of department heads — there’s a second director, another stage manager who I’m working with to communicate everything.”

According to Austin Shaw, producer of the West End’s Anything Goes digital capture, which aired as part of PBS’ Great Performances lineup in May, “you try to make that as seamless a link as possible.” He achieves this in his productions by not bringing in assistant directors or floor managers while integrating the separate teams’ comms. It’s trusting “the stage management team to act as that link between film and stage,” he said.

That kind of integration was happening back at the Belasco Theater, where van Someren was perched, alongside McPherson and Kalin, behind a series of monitors at a temporary set up within the orchestra seating.

From there, the film director led the team in “capturing what already exists.” Using the power of his multi-camera setup — which Shaw said can include “big moving cameras, a Steadicam on the stage or a jib arm on a big platform out front” — he and the team get as much of the show from as many angles as possible.

“When you come and see a play in person, you’re watching it, choosing the story,” van Someren said. “When you watch it on screen, you’re led through the story. You’re so emotionally close up. It’s a different arsenal.”

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Director Conor McPherson during the digital capture of ”Girl From the North Country.’ Abbey White

During both the filming and editing stages, the lead creative team will engage in a “refinement process” with McPherson “helping me with that sense of story, whether you need to look at this person at this point, if we want to be more open with the frame, or be closer on this bit of action,” van Someren said.

Shaw said digital captures can have an extensive post-production process similar to a feature film, where the team recolors, brightens and sharpens pictures or spends a lot of time on, mixing the show “as if it’s a full feature film on a big soundstage.” But it’s still more “filmic,” he added, with his team never “pretending that we’re making a movie.” In the digital capture process, teams are generally not “changing the creative design of the production,” according to Kalin.

Multiple sources agreed that only one department — lighting — has to consistently make noticeable changes when preparing the stage show to be filmed. Girl From the North Country‘s lead and associate light designers worked with the film crew’s director of photography to adjust it more for the camera’s eye than a human one.

“All the work that the creators for any production put into their shows is for the consumer who’s within that theater, so they’re not thinking about designing it for a TV camera,” Kalin told THR about the lighting, wigs, makeup, costumes and set approach. “All we’re doing is tweaking, so when we’re putting it on camera, it’s that exact same experience, just in a way that you can digest it outside of the building.”

But not all producers and production companies take the same way in to delivering a filmed performance. New York-based RadicalMedia — the team behind Disney+’s Hamilton and HBO Max’s filmed Spring Awakening original Broadway cast reunion, Those You’ve Known — deploys “some of the essence of cinema,” according to president, entertainment David Sirulnick.

“When you listen to any Broadway musical soundtrack, you’re not in the theater, right?” Sirulnick said. “With these, you’re getting a different sense. It can occupy its own lane and live adjacent to the musical or the play.”

The company, which also has experience with documentary, has dubbed its style “cinematic interpretations.” The film crew may modify elements of the set design, as they did in American Utopia with the chain link fence the band performs in. The film team may also do more screen-specific camera and effects work.

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From left: Leslie Odum Jr., Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones. Courtesy of Disney+

Cameras are hidden around the stage, and the crew grabs specific shots, like over actors’ shoulders, to put “the viewer in places that no audience member could ever be,” Sirulnick said. Sometimes RadicalMedia is embedded with the show from the conception and writing process but mostly gets involved four to eight months in advance, with five to six days in the theater itself, before they head in to edit for a “significant period.”

Girl From the North Country’s four-day effort was also months in the making, with a digital capture initially broached by the musical’s producers when it reopened on Broadway in October 2021 following the industry’s 18-month shutdown. It will preserve the magic of the musical and its original cast forever following Broadway’s most challenging season.

But its existence is also an indicator of a new mindset on the Great White Way. “There’s an argument now, which is that because people know it’s a theater experience, theatergoers may watch it, but then that might make them want to go see it,” McPherson said about one potential motivation to do the capture.

That belief has grown in recent years. Shaw said producers are now thinking about filmed versions of their shows as early as they begin development on the live production. That’s a notable shift from how the industry once saw things. “Back then, creators of Broadway shows and the Broadway community — even the unions and the guilds — were not comfortable with the filming of their show,” RadicalMedia CEO Jon Kamen said. “It was always feared as a cannibalization of live theater.”

But amid a mix of pandemic-related struggles, the growing prominence of streaming and shifting opinions on protecting the live performance experience (as well as the Broadway box office) in the face of bootlegging, creative teams have pivoted from the idea that filmed productions are a threat to their shows.

“Now, actually filming the show is, one, possibly the best piece of marketing you’ll ever do for the show, and secondly, once the show does close, it can provide an ongoing income revenue stream to invest in the future and development of new work,” Shaw said.

The growing stance that a filmed performance or digital capture can serve as a marketing tool or ancillary funding for the show has resulted in an upswing of digital captures — all part of a swinging pendulum of industry interest, Great Performances executive producer David Horn said — that began mainly in the ’90s.

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‘Girl From the North Country’ star Mare Winningham. Abbey White

“The best commercial is a well-done digital capture,” Bonnie Comley, producer and co-founder of BroadwayHD, said.” And what we’re seeing is that as the captures become more standard operating procedure, for some shows, the bootleg is dropping away. Nobody cares about a bootleg of Hamilton anymore because you can see the original cast on Disney+.”

The pandemic would halt many of them as stages went dark before it eventually presented new opportunities for filming. As the shutdown dragged on, many historical hurdles to producing digital captures dissipated and the time to film them abounded. With neither ticket sales to prioritize nor a live experience that a camera could disrupt, some producers — now with better capturing tech at their fingertips, more production style options available and the appeal of lucrative distribution deals similar to Hamilton — began to invest.

“When the opportunity came that we were going to reopen, I think the idea was that this is an ideal time because we’d be back in the theater and in the week or two before an audience comes in, we can film it,” McPherson recalled.

Some producers even bypassed existing deal and production infrastructure established by digital capture experts like PBS and BroadwayHD to produce their filmed shows. “A lot of the Broadway producers, because they’d lost so much money, were self-investing in captures and trying to make a bigger commercial streaming sale,” according to Horn.

Unfortunately, some of those deals would end up being “not that favorable,” he said, including those for theaters that have since retrofitted their venues as part of a larger investment in live streaming.

“There was no relief in sight, so people were just trying everything they can,” Anne del Castillo, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, explained of the small streaming boom during the pandemic. “The problem with [live] streaming is that it doesn’t recoup the costs that are necessary to keep Broadway and live performance running. For the most part, it’s a way to keep audiences engaged.”

That was enough for some live theater lovers and their subscription-based nonprofit venues for a while because “we were in this perfect period where people got used to remote viewing, whether it’s Zoom calls or streaming, and where those technologies became more reliable and better quality,” van Someren said.

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Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in ‘Spring Awakening’ reunion concert. Courtesy of HBO

But Comley, whose company launched with a focus on live streaming Broadway shows before pivoting to serving primarily as a streaming home for digital captures, says the way you shoot and watch it is less dynamic than a filmed version. There’s also the issue of whether it’s actually “live.”

“With a live stream, you pay a premium, but then you are maybe on this three-hour or an eight-hour delay, so it’s not really live,” Comley said. “Or you see their encore performance three days later, but it’s not discounted. You’re still paying for that live price. There’s inconsistencies in that.”

So digital captures remained a more dominant choice for theaters, one bolstered by a distribution model that also got a pandemic boost: streaming.

Filmed versions were previously supported through TV broadcasts like PBS’ long-running Great Performances, exclusively in theaters through event screenings like Fathom and at-home releases beginning with the days of the VHS. But streaming’s arrival in the late 2000s saw it quickly dubbed “the future” for digital captures, Comley said. It’s now become a guaranteed stop in the distribution pipeline, whether a digital capture debuts in a theater, on TV or is released on DVD or Blu-ray.

“One of the key things is not only in how new audiences are watching their entertainment, but how this is a way of getting Broadway and live entertainment to be affordable and accessible to a much larger fan base,” BroadwayHD co-founder and producer Stewart Lane said of streaming’s distribution dominance.

The pandemic industry climate, which included Hollywood production halts and content holes, coupled with a shifting distribution landscape, leaving Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+ and others “craving” more programming to continue providing original, brand-distinct content to their subscribers, Totally Theatre’s Kalin said.

With linear TV offering no new content and people unable to go to movie theaters, Shaw said, “streaming revenues from what we had filmed in the past more than doubled.” Specific productions like Hamilton even netted significant deals. THR previously reported that Disney paid $75 million to distribute the filmed performance (a planned theatrical debut was scrapped for streaming on Disney+ because of the pandemic).

But multiple sources familiar with digital capture deals told THR those kinds of million-dollar licensing and distribution agreements remain outliers, with streamer relationships still largely one-offs. That’s left some uncertainty around how long this pandemic digital capture boom will last.

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Sutton Foster in ‘Anything Goes’ at Barbican Theatre. Courtesy of Tristram Kenton

Horn, whose work on Great Performances spans decades and has kept PBS the most consistent supporter of Broadway onscreen, said the network “doesn’t have a lot of room for this activity” but will continue supporting theater documentaries and digital captures. “As long as it’s quality and artistically sound, it works for us,” he told THR.

But beyond the public broadcaster’s enduring commitment to providing access to great theater, he’s “not sure where we are in the cycle” of interest for filmed shows after the pandemic as well as the mixed results of bigger distribution deals for filmed versions like Come From Away amid the critical failure of others like Diana: The Musical. “I’ve seen people lose interest and find out there’s not a financial goldmine,” he said.

Still, BroadwayHD’s Comley says no matter where the pendulum swings post-pandemic, the key is to keep “seeing it for what it is, which is a marketing asset.”

A version of this story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.