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Theatre’s digital future finds a £50m home at Riverside Studios

Artist's impression of the new Riverside Studios
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When Riverside Studios reopens its west London base in two years’ time, following an extensive redevelopment costing up to £50 million, it will aspire to be the country’s first arts centre devoted entirely to the concept of digital communication.

It will be geared up to transmit anything that’s produced there live to any digital platform in the world and, likewise, to receive incoming live streams from other global and UK outlets.

“The opportunities to use Riverside as a technology and communication centre are limitless,” says artistic director William Burdett-Coutts, quickly adding that the new-look Riverside, double the size of the old model, will also continue to be a cutting-edge centre for live theatre, comedy and music.

Burdett-Coutts, who ran the Assembly Rooms fringe venue at the Edinburgh festivals for 30 years, set out his digital stall in August at the first Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival, aimed at introducing visitors to the latest entertainment technology being developed by companies such as Microsoft, Google and Minecraft.

“The idea was to spark a discussion on how the arts world can engage with technology,” he says. “Digital is one of those strange words. It is something everybody wants to engage with, yet very few people know what to do with it. We wanted to look at where the industry is now and think about where it might be going in the future.

“There are innovations coming thick and fast, but they will never cancel out live performance. We just need to think about how the technology will best serve the creative process. We tend to think of new technology as a flat screen or an iPad, but there are now myriad ways in which new technology can be applied.”

Burdett-Coutts believes the primary benefit of digital to the performing arts is to make them more accessible to a wider constituency by live-streaming, not to mention cheaper.

“In this country we create some of the best theatre and performance in the world, but it exists for a short period of time, then it’s gone forever. The idea of being able to prolong its use-by date is important and appealing.”

William Burdett-Coutts at the Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival. Photo: Lloyd Smith
William Burdett-Coutts at the Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival. Photo: Lloyd Smith

As well as live-streaming, the digital innovations that may change the way we consume our entertainment include virtual reality, for which you need a rather cumbersome clip-on headset, affording the sensation of 360-degree vision, and augmented reality, which blurs the line between what’s real and what’s computer-generated by enhancing what we see, hear, feel and smell. In the future, these enhancements will be refreshed continually to reflect the movements of your head.

Though the sales suggest a lot of people are eager to try them, there is something about the VR headsets that smacks of short-term gimmickry. Unlike live performance, which is a shared experience, the VR concept is private and antisocial, as well as being, by some accounts, disorientating and scary.

Clearly it has useful applications for health, social care and education – and of course computer games – but the idea of sitting opposite a row of commuters on the London Underground, all wearing these contraptions, is weird in the extreme.

The applications of augmented reality, already in evidence in some mobile phone apps, seem more user-friendly and far-reaching, both for the individual user and in the wider arena of performance-related usage.

“The more I read about it, the more I sense that augmented reality and mixed reality will be the things that really engage people,” says Burdett-Coutts.

“At the moment, there is a gap between what’s available technically and what’s available in terms of content and story-telling – the latter has to catch up with the former.”

Occupying the ground floor and parts of the basement area, the new Riverside Studios will have much-improved facilities, including three studio theatres (with capacities of 180, 380 and 444 seats), a 200-seat cinema and screening room, a community and rehearsal area, a local events space and a number of restaurants and bars. The foyer will look out on to the river, and the river walkway will be opened up for the first time, allowing visitors to walk beside the river all the way from Barnes Bridge to Craven Cottage.

The remainder of the six-storey building will be given over to residential apartments, developed by Mount Anvil and A2Dominion.

While the bulk of the cost is covered, there is still another £8 million to be raised to complete the job. “I’m confident we will find the rest of the money,” says Burdett-Coutts.

It is 40 years since the former TV studios opened its doors as a multifunctional arts centre, under the directorship of Peter Gill. Burdett-Coutts has been artistic director since 1993.

Riverside Studios is due to reopen in 2018

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