Lean Forward! Grease Live Brings The Theater On Film Debate To A Close

First off, lets be clear. I’m no  lover of Grease, but, as my entire professional life has been dedicated to live performance, especially live-streamed performance, last Sunday night I dragged myself to Fox to watch Grease Live. The  NBC live musicals have been so flat and patronizing, my plan was 20 minutes of Grease Live due diligence, then catch up on American Crime – but from the moment I turned on the show at 7:20- !!!! I couldn’t tear myself away, (nor could my musical hating husband) I clapped…I cried (come on, Freddy My Love!) I laughed, I grinned, right thru to the dynamic, golf cart laden, ferris wheel spinning finale.

Twitter was in love- ratings were fantastic – and with good reason.

Grease Live’s Freddy My Love utilized the magic of theater and the magic of film to create a show stopping number specific to the live broadcast experience

Since the launch of the first live platforms in 2007 at VATV we’ve been talking about the opportunities that technology creates for the performing arts – especially when streamed live. No, theater shot with a few cameras in a slow flat way doesn’t work, because film shot with a few cameras in slow flat way doesn’t work. But when you use cameras and a live audience to  create an entirely new experience  – one that is part film, part theater, part social media and part live event, theater soars across televisions, computers, Twitter and Facebook, creating new fans and new audiences and reinventing the definition of live performance for a digital age.

The Grease Live budget was 16 million and they had 22 sets – but we can boil the essence of Grease Live’s success down two words,  Lean Forward.

Grease Live used Facebook live to give the audience realtime access to everything that was happening off camera, adding another live element to the event, creating more views, more conversations, and more excitement around the broadcast

Grease Live used Facebook live to give the audience realtime access to everything that was happening off camera, adding another live element to the event, creating more views, more conversations, and more excitement around the broadcast

Lean Forward is an online content creators term which refers to fact that our online audience is literally leaning forward towards their computer, seeking a deeper engagement with the content they are consuming. Lean Forward is also a warning that as soon as there is a lull, the viewer will click away to another piece of content that will better engage them, therefor online content has to be created so that it grabs and holds the lean forward audience’s attention.

But for me, Lean Forward has always been a theater term as well, instilled in me by Ann Woodworth, my acting teacher at Northwestern. During scene work Anne would often watch the class rather than the actors on stage, because she knew that the moment the class stopped leaning forward was the moment the actors on stage had lost a crucial  connection to the work.

Since Ann’s class I watch everything, film, tv, theater, with a literal consciousness of my body. Am I leaning forward? Did I just lean back? Why? What just happened on stage, in the film, in the video, that deflated my attention?

When you  use cameras and live technology to combine an artists definition of Lean Forward  with a content creators definition of Lean Forward, you end up with a spectacular 21st century theatrical event.

Do we need 16 million dollars and 22 sets to create a fabulous, live theatrical event? Absolutely not. Technology has created so many ways to create compelling, lean forward events on budgets that are less than .1% of the Grease Live budget.( At VATV we use a Newtek Tricaster, affordable cameras, tons of passion, creativity and a thorough shooting script to create thrilling, affordable live-streamed events.)

As long as you keep Lean Forward in mind and make your creative and technology choices accordingly, all you have to do is:

  • Remember how visually sophisticated our audiences are. Use as many cameras as you can afford and cut as fast as the storyline allows for (you can mix in cheaper go-pros for some shots and get great visual story-telling bang for your buck)
  • Find ways to give your live audience an experience they could never have in the theater– show them angles and events that could only be experienced on film (Freddy My Love!)
  • Hire a production crew that is as passionate about your work as you are.
    • I would expect your filming director to be as involved in the creative process of the play as possible, and to know the show almost as well as you theater director
    • If there’s no shooting script in the budget, find another production company
    • Expect surprising camera set-ups.  You don’t want generic”coverage”, you want a camera plot designed to create the most dynamic viewing experience on the smallest screen
    • We see so many people hire production companies whose prep consists of scouting the location and then showing up on the day of the shoot to set up and stream. That might be a fine way to shoot a conference, but the show you’ve spent so many years developing? You may as well hire a choreographer whose heard the music once and never read the script.
  • Remember that today’s audience longs to feel ownership over the entertainment they consume. Find a way to include and acknowledge your audience. You will have fans for life.
There's a great video of the Grease Live AD calling cameras. But you don't have to have a truck... here's a gif of VATV doing the same thing on .1% of the budget.

There’s a great video out there of the Grease Live AD calling cameras. But you don’t need 16mil and a truck to get the same result for your show. Above is a gif of VATV calling cameras from the shooting script of a live-streamed show with about  .1% of the Grease Live budget.


As we’ve said for years  live-streaming (or in this case live-broadcasts) is not going to replace the traditional theater experience. Live streamed events are an AND to traditional theater, an AND that has the potential to speak to new audiences, invent entirely new models of what live performance can be, and to create new theater lovers from a generation with a very weak theater going record.

Grease Live was a thrill because everyone on the production team, from the actors to the choreographers, to the camera crew, to the social media department to the directors created a filmed live experience that was designed to conform to the expectations of today’s interactive lean forward  audience, and because just as sets, and costumes are integral to story telling, the cameras were treated as an irreplaceable component to the audience experience.

It’s time to end the debate about whether or not theater can be filmed. As we’ve said for years the issue is in HOW you film it. Grease Live showed millions of viewers how great theater can be… on film.  The door is open for every theater company, for every show, on every budget to follow in the Grease Live footsteps.  What a bright and shining and creative future awaits!


1 comment…
  • Karen February 10, 2016, 8:19 am

    I definitely was Leaning Forward during the telecast of Grease Live. It was thrilling to see the power and excitement of this live broadcast.


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