Coronavirus has forced venues across the UK to close their doors, with a resultant surge of interest in live-streamed theatre. Katie Hawthorne examines whether these broadcasts could be a solution to the economic fallout
There isn’t a theatre in the country still open. All touring has ceased. For an art form so intertwined with social gathering, the UK theatre industry has never faced a threat quite like the coronavirus pandemic. Even Peter Brook’s famous definition of an act of theatre – a man walking across an empty space while someone else watches – would breach Boris Johnson’s social-distancing policies. And as venues across the nation lock their doors, discussions of live-streaming as a possible solution to the economic fallout have spread, first across Twitter and then into the mainstream.
Major performing arts institutions, from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Metropolitan Opera, are streaming performances live and from their archives, free to watch for viewers across the world. The uptake in the UK among our major theatre houses has been slower – perhaps because the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre already have lucrative live-streaming infrastructure in place. Here, the surge towards live streaming is largely being led by smaller venues and theatre companies looking for creative and financial solutions to the immediate collapse of their livelihoods.
It has been fascinating to watch this surge of interest in live-streaming unfold. Since 2016, I have been researching a PhD thesis on how digital tools are changing and expanding definitions of ‘liveness’ in the theatre, at the University of Edinburgh. Although we know it when we feel it – that rush in the air, the sense of being in the middle of something – defining what exactly ‘liveness’ is can be a complicated and controversial exercise.
‘Liveness’ is commonly considered to be the opposite of a recording. In 1993, performance philosopher Peggy Phelan said: “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented […] once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.” However, six years later, media scholar Philip Auslander retorted that “the magic of live theatre” is just a simple cliché – and that ‘liveness’ is always context-specific.
Liveness isn’t magic dust, although it often feels like it; it is a set of choices. Theatremakers conjure liveness in hundreds of different ways. Over the past three years, I have analysed digitally aided theatre in Berlin and Edinburgh – from live-streamed performances to virtual-reality experiences, and even a play performed by a robot – to discover that liveness is also economically driven, culturally specific and tied to existing infrastructure.
Today our daily lives are filled with more different ways of creating and experiencing liveness than either Auslander or Phelan could ever have predicted. Liveness works differently on Instagram than on Facebook, for instance, due to the architecture and algorithms on those sites. This rapid, ongoing expansion of what liveness is and how we experience it can only be a boon for theatremakers – it is as an additional set of tools for those who are already expert in framing an audience’s experience.
But is live-streaming the solution to the current crisis faced by the industry? In short, no. There is no real precedent for the economic success of pay-to-access, digitally distributed theatre on an independent or smaller-scale basis. In a 2015 Arts Council England report, the National Theatre estimated that each broadcast into the UK’s cinemas cost a minimum of £250,000, and that most broadcasts made a profit. This scale is clearly not feasible for most theatre companies in the country. Innovators such as Forced Entertainment and Complicité have had great success in live-streaming their work via YouTube or their websites, but this has been on a free-to-access basis.
That said, live-streaming can certainly play a positive, but nuanced, role in the response of the theatre industry to this crisis. For those interested in the potential of live-streaming, here are three initial suggestions:
Rethink. Consider if there are other aspects to your work that might lend themselves more easily, or more successfully, to being shared online. Could a workshop or behind-the-scenes insights be more appropriate? Would it be simpler to spend a day filming and editing your work, and sharing a recording rather than a live stream? You can still make a recording feel live, without it being a literal, simultaneous broadcast.
Choose carefully. It is important to match the live-streaming format to your work. There are myriad live-streaming tools available to you, from the familiar faces of YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to conferencing tools such as Zoom or Crowdcast – which even has a built-in ticketing function. Each of these platforms has very different means of engagement for your audience, so treat this decision as an artistic one, as well as a practical one.
Hospitality, hospitality, hospitality. Communicate clearly with your audience about where and when they should be online. Think about your demographics, and the technology they likely have on hand: your stream may look incredible on a large screen, but what might it look like on an iPhone? Don’t sacrifice accessibility, either: consider live captioning and audio description.
Lastly, ensure that you welcome your audience into this digital space. For example, if you’re hoping that your audience will make use of your platform’s chat function, consider leading by example and kick-starting that discussion yourself.
Over the past week, theatre company YesYesNoNo has made valiant attempts to keep its show on the road. The Accident Did Not Take Place was due to tour for a month this spring, with a different guest performer each night, and artist Sam Ward always intended for the play to have a live-stream component. Presciently, Accident is an exploration of what it means to watch, and understand, major events that are abstracted online. Much of its action is already mediated through a camera placed on the stage.
When it became clear that the situation was serious, the company planned to encourage unwell audience members to stay home and access a multi-camera live stream of the show for free. Just days later, the full tour was cancelled. Next, the company decided to live-stream a single performance from the Bunker Theatre in London, without an audience present, and to charge all viewers £6 to watch. On the morning of the performance some 60 people had bought a ticket, but then the Bunker was forced to close entirely.
Ward remains enthusiastic about the artistic merit of the live stream: “Rather than thinking of live-streaming as a way that you can watch the same show the audience in the space is seeing, we wanted to show that the live stream is a unique experience that the theatre audience isn’t getting,” he says. “Whether it’s the theatre show, the live stream, or the book that we’ve published, every iteration of this show is its own unique event.”
This single stream would not have earned enough to replace its lost tour income, but YesYesNoNo is committed to trying to stream again soon, in part to fulfil its commitment to the Arts Council, which funded the tour, and ideally from a venue that has the technological infrastructure to support it. It’s tricky to get good internet access in a bunker.
The coronavirus has exposed the fragility of the UK’s theatre industry and there are lessons that need to be learned from it at every level. That said, it is important not to frame live-streaming as the cure and then blame it for not working; digital tools can and will help to reform the UK’s theatre industry, on a longer-term basis, and particularly in the context of the ongoing climate crisis.
But the future usefulness of live-streaming in theatre depends on improved infrastructure (many of our theatres are architecturally resistant to WiFi), accessible technical training for artists, and digital development and hospitality for our audiences. Last summer, at a performance of Javaad Alipoor’s brilliant play Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, which encourages its audiences to use Instagram and its live-stream function, I heard one attendee say: “I’ve been coming to the theatre for 50 years, I hardly need to start participating now.” Live-streaming can be a thrilling creative tool, but only if you have the time and space to use it and an audience to watch. Like all theatre, really.