Features Published 11 May 2021

What’s next for online theatre?

Theatres in England reopen in less than a week. Will the past year’s online experiments be forgotten? Fergus Morgan argues that they shouldn’t be.

Fergus Morgan

Locked Down, an online production by Morpheus

May 17. Magic Monday. The day that theatres in England – but not yet in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – can open their dusty doors again. The day the paying public will flock back to the country’s audience-starved auditoria in their social-distanced droves. The day you will once again be free to feel the thrill of vertigo from the balcony of the Barbican. Or to browse big books you will never buy in the NT foyer. Or to take out a mortgage for a ticket to both halves of the Harry Potter play. Whatever floats your boat.

It is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, but it’s also a moment for mourning. A return to normality will herald an end to what has been an extraordinary year-and-a-bit for digital theatre. For years, the weird world of podcast-plays, of audio experiences, of NTLive and other performance-captures, was the attention-starved sibling of the arts world, an afterthought for both theatre organisations and editors alike. Then, almost overnight, it started receiving the kind of consideration it had craved for years – the kind of investment and column inches it needed to truly establish itself, with a critical corpus, with a following and a fanbase, and an ecosystem all its own.

It seems unlikely that conversation will continue with the same concentration post-pandemic – I know, because editors have started telling me that they don’t want articles about digital theatre anymore – and that seems a shame. Online performance has made a decade’s worth of progress in a short space of time. Artforms have been invented, virtual theatres founded, boundaries broken. There is a real danger that with the evaporation of investment and attention, that development will be lost.

What follows, then, is an attempt – rooted in my own audience experiences over the last year – to keep that conversation going.

Lament for Sheku Bayoh, streamed online via Traverse Theatre

Which new forms of theatre have worked?

This question is a bit of a wasps’ nest, because it prompts a whole host of others. What does it even mean for a show to “work”? Work for who? Critics? Creatives? Investors? Audience members? The Arts Council? And surely whether a show “works” depends on the parameters within which it was made, which have been particularly constraining recently?
Parking all that, and speaking from a critical perspective, whether something “works” is not just a question of whether I enjoyed experiencing it, but also a question of whether I experienced it in the most immediate, most exhilarating, and most intimate way possible.

So, while I have enjoyed lots of filmed performances from actual theatres over the last year, whether they have been of past productions – the National Theatre broadcasts of This House and Les Blancs, for example – or of entirely new shows, like Hymn at the Almeida Theatre or Lament For Sheku Bayoh at the Edinburgh Lyceum, I know those shows would be infinitely more powerful if I had seen them live, in-person, in a theatre. The same goes for plays adapted for Zoom, and for film-theatre hybrids: I’ve enjoyed them, but not as much as I would have had I seen them in a traditional theatre setting, programme in one hand, pint in the other.

The most exciting forms of digital theatre that have been developed during the pandemic, then – the stuff that “works” best – are the ones that can only be experienced digitally. The art that has incorporated digital technology into its very fabric, and that could not exist without it.

Several examples spring to mind. The trilogy of interactive, immersive shows produced by Morpheus, which require audiences to meet up virtually, blindfold themselves, and spend 90 minutes exploring a world built entirely in their imagination. Or the series of online escape rooms developed by Swamp Motel. Or Fix&Foxy’s Avatar Me, through which I stepped into the body of a South African candlemaker for 45 minutes. Or – taking another tone entirely – the stuff made specifically for Zoom, set during the pandemic, acknowledging the real-world situation in which it was written. Like Richard Nelson’s Incidental Moments of the Day. Heck, even BBC Two’s Staged.

Can I imagine myself choosing this stuff over a night at the theatre? Or even I night at the pub? With the exception of the last two examples, because their relevance dissolves somewhat as the world in which they are set fades from view, yes, I can. I really can. And I did not think I would be saying that at the start of the pandemic.

‘Wise Children’ at the Old Vic, which streamed on BBC last year. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Which forms of theatre will keep going, post-pandemic?

It’s tough to say. Many theatres and theatre companies have announced their intention to maintain a digital offering post-pandemic, including Young Vic and Wise Children.  but, given that finances are going to be extremely tight for the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely this will ultimately amount to much more than filmed stage productions being made available to watch online – and we will get to the issues therein in a bit.

The simplest answer is the short one: the forms of digital theatre that will keep going post-pandemic will be the ones that are financially viable post-pandemic. Theatres and theatremakers have prioritised making online work over the last year because it has been the only way they could reach audiences – the only way they could fulfil their raison d’etre – but precious few have made any money while doing so. Most have only been able to make digital work because of emergency government grants. The vast majority have made a loss.

So, although there are some positive signs – the Barn Theatre’s creation of a position specifically focussed on online work, Battersea Arts Centre’s plan to support five companies to adapt existing shows into 360-degree virtual reality experiences, Swamp Motel’s Room 21 scheme for emerging artists to develop original ideas for online entertainment – it is difficult to imagine that there will be much appetite for continued investment in digital theatre, just as its real-life alternative is revving up again – and eating up all the resources.

Funding opportunities for online work will be few and far between, so the forms of digital theatre that continue to be produced post-pandemic will be those that find a viable economic model that does not rely on subsidy of some sort. That is my suspicion, anyway. And my consequent worry is that, without subsidy, a viable economic model will inevitably mean sky-high ticket prices, and exclusivity entering the equation. That quality digital theatre – online experiences that really “work” – will become the virtual equivalent of the West End.

Lucian Msamati as Salieri in Amadeus at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Lucian Msamati as Salieri in Amadeus at the National Theatre, available on NT at Home. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Get back to filmed theatre productions, please. They are a good thing, right?
Well, yes. The filming of stage productions has allowed theatres to keep reaching audiences despite their auditoria being empty – and, as been endlessly observed, it has also allowed them to reach audiences that they would never have reached otherwise. And that is a good thing. Streaming services like NT At Home should – and probably will – continue. Heck, NT At Home should have been created a decade ago and be celebrating its tenth birthday now. It’s commercial competitors – stream.theatre, DigitalTheatre.com and the like – are yet to catch fire, but they might if they manage to keep uploading new productions, the same way Disney Plus drew in subscribers with its filmed version of Hamilton.
But the fact that filmed theatre productions improve accessibility from a geographic perspective is not the whole picture. Firstly, there is an issue of quality: the question is not “is a performance being filmed and released online?”, it is “how is a performance being filmed and released online?” Sophisticated, multi-camera films can be a decent alternative to in-person experiences. Patchy, pixelated production-captures are not – but the latter is affordable, and the former is expensive.

Secondly, there is the worrying possibility that making a production available to watch online will replace regional touring. Call me old-fashioned, but I think our biggest and best theatres have a responsibility to take their work on tour so that as many people can see it in as many places as possible, nationally and internationally. Too often, in the past, this has been seen as a drag rather than a duty – a box that the option of filming a production and sticking it on online has made it substantially easier and cheaper to tick, particularly in a world of coronavirus-caused restrictions.

That cannot be allowed to happen. So, in short, yes, filmed theatre productions are a good thing – but they should not be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card to escape the headache of driving a show beyond the M25.

What is “digital touring” – and is it going to be a thing?
Digital touring, if you haven’t heard about it, is the concept of performing a show live online from the same space, night after night, but partnering with a different regional theatre for each performance. The regional theatre “hosts” the show, sells the tickets, and gets a cut of the box office – but the show never actually appears on its stage. It is something Emma Rice’s Wise Children have experimented with already and have said they are investigating for future productions. Paul Taylor-Mills’ MTFest2021 – opening at the Turbine Theatre on magic Monday – is doing it, too.

Does the idea have legs? Maybe, in the short term, while it can be used as an instrument to spread profit around the industry as it recovers from the past year. In the long term, adding “digital dates” onto the end of an actual, in-person tour could be a way of extending a show’s reach even further. My concern over the concept is the same as my concern over filmed stage productions in general – that it cannot be construed of as an acceptable alternative to performing a show, on a stage, in front of a live audience. Everyone needs live performance in their life – whether they live in London, Liverpool, or Lapland.

How to Save a Rock by Pigfoot Theatre. Photo: Jonathan Turner

All this digital theatre is more environmentally sustainable, right?
Well, making work online is certainly better for the environment in some ways – particularly if it is made remotely, does not require a set, and eliminates the need for an audience to travel – but it is important to remember that digital theatre will have a digital carbon footprint, just like everything else we do online.

Bea Udale-Smith, of carbon-neutral Pigfoot Theatre, recently told me that one person streaming the company’s hour-long show How To Save A Rock online resulted in six grams of carbon emissions entering the atmosphere. Pigfoot – because they are legends – have committed to off-setting all those emissions. It would be amazing if more performing arts organisations did the same – it would be amazing if more performing arts organisations off-set all their emissions, to be honest, but that is another article – and recognised that online does not necessarily equal eco-friendly.

Are we going to keep talking about digital theatre? How?
I have written dozens of articles about digital theatre over the last year, but this could well be my last. After May 17, the news, the reviews, and the features pages of theatre publications and arts sections alike will almost certainly be preoccupied with coverage of live, in-person theatre. Which is a good thing because live, in-person theatre is going to need all the help it can get over the coming months.

It would be disappointing, though, if the attention digital theatre has received during the pandemic disappeared entirely. There have been some extraordinary shows created over the last twelve months, and I will cherish some of the theatrical memories I have made during that time for the rest of my life. The sector has issues to address – some of which have been discussed here – but it needs the protection and provocation of the entire industry to do so.

Is there even still an audience for digital theatre?
In short, yes. Even when the traditional industry is back to full health, millions of people do not live within easy travelling distance of more than a few theatres. Millions of people cannot afford to go to the theatre anyway, particularly now. And millions of people will still feel anxious about entering an auditorium for a long time. I know I will.

On top of this, there is the question of access. Again, while the provision of digital theatre should not be seen as an alternative to improving access to in-person theatre, it does mean that audience members who find the practicalities of theatre-going tricky – whether that is related to disability, or care-giving, or work-hours, or parenting responsibilities, or whatever – do not have to miss out on seeing shows. Digital offerings – whatever they look like – can be more flexible and more accommodating than in-person theatre. They can be made available for longer. They can be paused. They can be captioned easily.

And, on top of this, will someone please think of the theatre nerds?! One of the shiniest silver linings of the pandemic is that it was suddenly possible to consume culture not just from my local area, but from across the country, and across the world – because it was made available online. I have watched live streams from the Netherlands, from Denmark, from South Africa, and from Belarus. I have visited exhibitions in America. I have seen magic shows performed in Columbia.

Other theatre fans – and theatre-makers, more significantly – have done, too, and this is surely a motivation for maintaining digital theatre? The international cross-fertilisation of theatrical ideas feels important, particularly at a time when we cannot physically travel to other countries. Who knows what exciting collaborations it could lead to?

There is undoubtedly an audience for digital theatre, then, and it is the responsibility of everyone involved in theatre – from artistic directors to investors, from critics and commentators to actors and activists – to make sure that this audience and the artform they have come to rely upon are not forgotten.

For more on digital theatre, read Alice Saville’s piece on liveness in online work


Fergus Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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