NATIONWIDE: Jonathan Bank, the Mint Theater‘s artistic director, was on vacation in Florida during his kids’ spring break when he received a message that Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of New York’s public television station WNET, wanted to talk to him about putting a Mint production on the air.
“I never though to ask him, ‘Hey, who saw the show? Where did this come from?’ ” Bank recalls. “I just said I was interested.”
While PBS’ Great Performances and Live From Lincoln Center often broadcast large-scale plays and musicals nationwide, Shapiro’s idea was to highlight intimate Off-Broadway productions for New York-area viewers. And that’s how the Mint’s production of John Van Druten’s 1931 play London Wall came to be the kick-off production for WNET’s “Theatre Close-Up,” with an airing tonight at 9 pm EDT.
WNET recorded London Wall—an English drama about women in the workplace that the Mint gave its belated American premiere last February—on a two-performance day for invited audiences. “It was a five-camera shoot with a crew of 20 people who were at my theatre from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m. the next day,” Bank remembers. “I heard someone joking that they were making ‘second home overtime.'”
The issue of compensation for cast and crew, which can often be a sticking point when TV cameras start rolling, was handled with a partnership in which WNET covered the crew costs and the Mint helped shoulder a bump in pay for its Equity actors. Another key: agreeing to some fairly rigid viewing restrictions.
“There’s a five-year window, and only four airings,” says Bank of the agreement with WNET. “And it’s all local—even the online streaming is ‘geofiltered,’ so you can’t stream this in Chicago.”
It’s not just the onstage talent that has to be considered, Banks points out, but the playwright or—as if more often the case at the Mint, whose mission is to revive vintage, often under-appreciated works—the playwright’s estate. “The question is, Does a writer have to worry that a broadcast of live productions will hurt chances of it being done elsewhere?”
The program’s first season features eight more broadcasts, including Brian Richard Mori’s Hellman v. McCarthy, performed at the Abingdon Theatre Company (airing Oct. 9); Richard Nelson’s four-play cycle The Apple Family Plays, performed at the Public Theater (That Hopey Changey Thing on Oct. 16, Sweet and Sad on Oct. 23, Sorry on Oct. 30, Regular Singing on Nov. 6); Hamish Linklater’s The Vandal, performed at the Flea Theater (Nov. 13); Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s An Iliad, performed at New York Theatre Workshop (Nov. 20); and an encore presentation of the Flea’s Looking at Christmas (Nov. 27).
Bank says he think WNET plans do another season, and hopes to be a part of it.
“Our production, which is so naturalistic and is staged in a 100-seat theatre, looks like a teleplay, like it could have been shot in a studio,” Bank says. “The loss of theatricality punishes London Wall less.”
WNET-13 will air “Theatre Close-Up” on Thursday nights and re-broadcast on Sunday nights after “Masterpiece,” while sister station WLIW21 will air it on Monday nights at 10:30 p.m.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!