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Plays Can Pay, TV Banks on It.

There is a good amount of cross-pollination going on between theater and TV these days. The stage has become a fertile farming ground for some of the small screen's biggest spec tacles. There are a number of ways to accomplish the transition from stage to screen: a theatrical production can be captured live and then aired a la Broadway Television Network's Smokey Joe's Cafe; a show can be adapted and transformed into a TV movie like HBO's Wit or ABC's South Pacific, or a show can be inter-cut with related footage to form a unique special like Thirteen/ WNET's Twilight: Los Angeles.

Two impressive stage-to-screen series debuted last year, one from PBS and the other from the Broadway Television Network (BTN). Channel Thirteen (in New York City) premiered its alternative Stage on Screen series last October with a live broad cast of the Broadway revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Series executive producer Jac Venza explained his philosophy: "We generally showcase nonprofit, as opposed to commercial theater productions. We want to feature drama that is different from what the networks do." Stage on Screen does not stick to one particular format. "Our format keeps changing because every show is different," Venza articulated. "The Man Who Came to Dinner was a perfect show to broadcast live. It's a comedy and when the audience laughed, TV viewers had a real sense of being in the theater." The series' second offering, performance artist Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman master piece Twilight: Los Angeles, concerning the 1992 L.A. riots, was expressly adapted for the screen and juxtaposed Smith's performance with relevant news clips and documentary footage. "Twilight was a meticulous study of actual people and events, and therefore a perfect candidate for a documentary movie adaptation."

"Our upcoming installment, A. R. Gurney's Far East, was a very stylized theatrical piece. There were very few characters, and actors played multiple parts. Since this would not work on camera, we had to write a more conventional treatment.

In conjunction with the series, Thirteen has created the Drama Archive Project and has licensed the rights to air an impressive collection of vintage theatrical recordings featuring early performances by the likes of Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Harvey Keitel. In all, 26 digitally remastered tapes will be available for broadcast. Although the first three installments of Stage on Screen do not currently have international distributors, the Drama Archive Project is distributed by Devillier-Donegan.

While BTN boasts a different kind of product from Thirteen, it has a similar goal. Its inaugural Direct from Broadway offering, a live recording of the closing night of the Broadway revue Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, debuted in September 2000.

In March 2001 BTN's second installment, Jekyll & Hyde, made broadcasting history when it was simultaneously broadcast as a pay-per-view (PPV) special and shown at various digitally-enhanced cinemas around the U.S. BTN founder and CEO Bruce Brandwen raved: "There are two things that set us apart from everyone else. First, we don't adapt, modify or change the productions. Second, we capture shows with state-of-the-art technology. BTN uses more than 11 digital cameras, 46 microphones and 5.1 Surround Sound, then we license the programs to PPV systems and emerging digital cinemas." This fall, the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together will air as the third installment of BTN's five-year plan to bring a dozen Broadway musicals to the global viewing public.

"In the near future, our programs will be available in four formats: high-definition or standard broadcast on TV, high-definition in participating digital cinemas, home video or DVD, and streaming video-on-demand at our website, www.BroadwayOnline. com. The viewer has the best seat in the house - there are close-ups where you can see the performers' freckles, then suddenly you're backstage in the wings. We create a theatrical experience that is unique to television while simultaneously preserving the energy of the live performance. Broadway doesn't have an international campaign, but we do," Brandwen observed. With a few exceptions, i.e., Japan, The Fremantle Corporation distributes BTN products internationally to every window except PPV. Branscome International distributes BTN products internationally for PPV outside of Latin America while BTN distributes its own product within the U.S. and Canada.

In addition to these series, there are also the made-for-TV movie events. Take for example HBO's recently aired TV movie Wit, an adaptation of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, adapted by director Mike Nichols and Academy Award-winner and star of the film, Emma Thompson. Here, the movie's theatrical roots are barely discernible. The sole evidence that Witwas once a play is in the "based on" credits. With a big star and big money far exceeding the constrained theatrical budget the play originally had, it's no wonder that viewers tuned in.

ABC also brings theater to the small screen in your living room. However the network prefers to adapt classic and beloved musicals as opposed to dramas. Its recent adaptations of Annie and South Pacific were ratings winners, and featured a combination of smashing movie talent (Glenn Close, Kathy Bates) and veteran Broadway performers (Alan Cumming, Victor Garber and Audra McDonald).

Lastly, NBC has shown great faith in the power of theater. In an attempt to identify new talent, NBC became the first broadcast network to open and operate an artistic showcase designed to develop and nurture writers, actors and comedic performers. Known as PSNBC, a tiny theater in downtown New York began programming on January 6, 2000 and continues to offer emerging artists direct access to network casting and development executives.

Project producer Lou Viola explained, "Right now there is a sameness on TV, which is part of the reason why TV viewership is down. We need to do less of the same and come up with new ideas. The magic of this program is that we turn on the lights, give the performers a crew, put them on the stage and roll the camera. Every tape is looked at very closely. We want to find new people and new ideas."

How many performers have been signed so far? "One woman, Carmen Pelaez, was picked up for her one-woman autobiographical show and signed to a year holding deal. There are four or five writers we are interested in cultivating when the season swings away from pilots. The fact is, TV has always found incredible talent in theater. If you look at Sports Night or The West Wing or Oz, their creators came from the New York stage. It's where many people have learned their craft," Viola trumpeted.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:television adaptations of works for the theater
Publication:Video Age International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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