One of the unexpected pleasures of the pandemic for all of us has been being able to see shows that we would have normally found impossible to access, perhaps because they were geographically distant or maybe because they were sold out. That might have been the NT Live shows, made available for free during the first lockdown (but now available on subscription via NT at Home), or the experiments of small companies like Northern Ireland’s Big Telly.
For artists, the benefit has been having audiences for their work not just from the immediate locale where the show is playing, but from all across the world. Brexit will undoubtedly make international collaboration and touring more difficult and costly for British theatre, but streaming gives it the tools to achieve international reach.
Although as Great Aunt Cecily always says, even if every cloud has a silver lining, it is always wise to take a raincoat just in case. Covid-19 has certainly been raining relentlessly on the parade of all those fearless producers and theatre-makers who have been trying to get shows up and running in almost any part of the UK since the end of the first lockdown, but online streaming offers an alternative way to reach audiences. It seems very unlikely that any of us will be going to a theatre over the next few months, but I’m confident that theatre will continue to be made and that some of it will come to us via screens. The way those screens will be used is likely to be ever more experimental. You can only really have fun driving a car once you’ve learned to master the basics.Theatre has only just begun to explore its digital futures, and as I wrote back in October when someone asked me whether online theatre is really theatre it has always been so much more than sitting in rows in the dark and watching shouty people pretending to be someone else.
So, yes, I agree that streaming is a good thing, and like you I have been particularly pleased to see that so much of the work being created and streamed is being originated outside London. Before Covid-19, largely because of the dominance of NT Live, streaming was largely a one-way street out of London. It was also only been the domain of well-funded companies with access to top of the range kit. The pandemic has shown us that it doesn’t have to be like that. Companies such as the South-West-based Wise Children and venues such as Home in Manchester, or the Midlands’ based China Plate, have proved you can achieve a great deal with very little.
There are issues of course. Theatre has given away so much content for free that it may find it hard to monetise future online offerings in any way that significantly contributes to the bottom line. Although the Old Vic appears to be succeeding, I’d be curious to see the figures around that operation.
And while digital offers wider access to people in different geographical locations, and to people who find it hard to visit a theatre in person for other reasons, such as disability, some audiences live in digital poverty and so are still denied access. There is little point in theatre removing some barriers to access only to erect others.
Time will tell, but I wonder if there might be a danger that if theatre has to remain socially distanced for many months, then ticket prices will rise substantially for the in-person event (I deliberately use the term in person, instead of live because plenty of digital theatre is very live, completely alive and is sometimes also interactive and immersive). That would make the in-person event (already beyond the reach of many) even more exclusive, leaving most of us only able to afford the streamed version. Do we really want a two-tier theatre culture, the equivalent of first class and economy when flying? I hope I am worrying unnecessarily.
There has been a great deal of skilling up and knowledge sharing during the last nine months that will pay dividends long into the future. The uncertainty surrounding how theatre will be able to operate in the future (it seems likely that even after the vaccine has been rolled out, social distancing will be with us for some time to come) means that it is well worth companies investing the time and energy being creative with digital and many show every sign of doing so.
I reckon much will depend on moving beyond straightforward capture or the streaming of a live event like a play, and the ingenuity of theatre-makers in creating events that are genuinely digital first or which operate using a hybrid model: two equal but different versions of the same show.
I suspect that this hybrid model is the future, with companies such as Dante or Die or Darkfield already showing us how this can be done. All power to the experimenters. I’m excited to see what they come up with and how they can expand our notions of theatre.
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Cover image: Filming for Old Vic: In Camera. Photographer: Manuel Harlan