It’s a Play! It’s Live Internet TV! It’s Both, and it Opens in Los Angeles on Friday

The Noir Series - Bad Medicine - H 2014
Turner Munch

The Noir Series - Bad Medicine - H 2014

‘The Noir Series’ harkens back to the days of live TV but presents a thoroughly modern challenge to entertainment unions

Somewhat like Shimmer, Saturday Night Live’s mysterious concoction that was both a floor wax and a dessert topping, a production called The Noir Series that runs this weekend in Los Angeles manages to be both a stage play and live Internet TV. You can buy “studio audience tickets” to see the show in person at the Schkapf Theatre or purchase online viewing tickets. The producers – who describe the show as a 90 minute omnibus comprised of “four plays inspired by the dark and pulpy noir of Hollywood’s past, filmed and streamed with an eye towards Hollywood’s future” – will be happy either way.

But will Actors’ Equity, the union that governs live theatre? Produced under the banner of theatre company Heretick Theatre Lab, The Noir Series seems to challenge Equity’s long-held determination to disallow recording or streaming of plays in order to preserve the primacy of the live performance.

Seemingly, the solution adopted by Heretick’s artistic director Jennifer Cotteleer is simple: the production went with a SAG-AFTRA new media contract rather than an Equity agreement, even though Cotteleer acknowledged that the production “is a play.”

She and her diverse fellow creators – who include screenwriter Stephen McFeely (Captain America, Thor and the upcoming ABC series Agent Carter), directors John Hindman and Nancy Keystone, comic book writer Ed Brubaker and theatre troupe The Burglars of Hamm – have high hopes for the show, which has already sold out its Friday performance, the first of four.

But the SAG-AFTRA solution hasn’t always worked as well in New York. Kathryn Jones, founder and CEO of Virtual Arts TV, pioneered live streaming of stage plays in 2010 with an AFTRA-contracted production called Better Left Unsaid, but found that some things were indeed better left unsaid: weeks after the show closed, the actors received letters from Equity warning of possible disciplinary charges for participating in an unauthorized play, Jones told The Hollywood Reporter.

“There’s tremendous resistance” at Equity towards live streaming, said Jones, who financed the play through Kickstarter.

Ultimately, Equity backed off, but in the years since, Jones said, the union has repeatedly vetoed live streaming even where AFTRA or SAG-AFTRA has approved: the latter two unions have offered contracts, according to Jones, only to subsequently withdraw their permission after contacting Equity for its consent.

Yet on other occasions, Jones said, Equity has granted permission for live streaming. She declined to speculate on the reason for the union’s varying responses.

“I’m not sure they know where they stand,” Jones remarked.

Equity did not respond to several requests for comment and a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson said that its new media personnel were unavailable due to ongoing negotiations on a key television contract.

It’s not just small producers who are experimenting with live streaming. Broadway too has taken notice, with companies such as BroadwayHD and Broadway Near You bringing such fare as the  Orlando Bloom Romeo and Juliet and Driving Miss Daisy to movie theaters screens around the world – but not on the Internet – much as the Metropolitan Opera has been making its productions available to cinema audiences. Meanwhile, the Broadway show Memphis was filmed and shown three months later in cinemas under the moniker Memphis: Direct from Broadway, then made available on Netflix.

“We would prefer theatre goers see our shows in person,” said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, the organization that represents Broadway theatre owners and producers. That said, she added, the organization is “supportive of live streaming.”

“If you can’t have live, this is a wonderful alternative,” said St. Martin. “It’s not mainstream yet, (but) there are four or five companies that have put their big toe in the water.” St. Martin, whose organization represents management in its negotiations with Equity, declined to discuss the union’s position on streaming.

Internationally, London’s National Theatre’s National Theatre Live initiative streams live and recorded theatre to cinemas around the world. Perhaps easing matters there, a single union, also called Equity, represents actors in both live stage and motion picture / television work. Elsewhere, small producers are experimenting with plays staged in multiple locations connected via Skype or Google Hangouts.

Back in Los Angeles, a Wednesday night rehearsal attended by THR was a beehive of activity. Molls, femmes fatale, hard-bitten shamuses, a tough guy and a pretty boy were among the noir tropes who put on a fun show even with the inevitable pauses as lighting, sound and video cues were worked out.

That much is typical theatre craft, but the presence of videographers and Cotteleer’s admonition to her cast that they not play to the cameras were a reminder that something unusual was indeed afoot. Meanwhile, in a room off the lobby, the heart of the streaming operation was a video village operated by Adrenaline Garage, a Colorado-based company whose usual work is live streaming of sports events. Also key to the Internet component is streaming provider DaCast.

“Noir is about desperate characters in desperate situations trying to do that one last thing that is going to put them over the top and fix their problems, and inevitably – it doesn’t,” McFeeley said. But this production is more about disparate, rather than desperate, creators and technologists coming together, and barring any union hitches they hope to reboot live theatre in a uniquely Internet-based way. Their experiment will be on view this weekend.

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Twitter: @jhandel