‘Let’s invest in tech and work with those native to that space’
Like a lot of theatre creatives and fans, I’ve found the amount of work that I can access online really helpful, and actually productive. As well as discovering new work and artists, I’ve been able to catch up on some of the big shows at places including the National and the Schaubühne that I missed first time around.
But I’m a fairly fanatical follower of contemporary theatre and, it seems to me, there are two big questions for when the pandemic is over: how can digital technology help us reimagine what is possible theatrically and how can it help us reimagine what role theatre and theatremakers can play in the post- lockdown world?
Currently, theatre has broadly one of two relationships to digital technology. In the first case, digital technology can be used to distribute. This is probably the kind of work that bigger and more traditional venues and companies have got out first.
The lockdown has meant hundreds of thousands have seen some of the National’s biggest shows of recent years. But it has also helped smaller-scale companies reach a wider audience, such as with Breach Theatre’s incredible It’s True, It’s True, It’s True.
But these streams have reproduced two related and existing institutional problems around diversity and financial resilience. Bigger, better-off, largely white-led organisations are more likely to have had the resources to make the high-quality archive recording that could be distributed in this way.
‘Our industry remains largely wedded to one, increasingly outdated model’
Second, the data suggests that, the audience for captured work is primarily made up of our most regular theatregoers. This is not a coincidence. The work is often distributed and talked about in ways that makes our industry the most comfortable. Which involves finding the audience the industry knows the best. And for this audience, streamed work is only ever going to be ersatz; which is why streaming work is an economic and financial bubble – it will never really make money for us as a community.
To build an audience for a digital work takes the same care that it does for work in a physical theatre. It can be a hard graft to build it – but through digital, it’s possible to reach the world.
This reality is part of the fabric of how the internet works. You can find a committed community for something, no matter how small or how far apart. You can find new ways to connect with audiences, new ways to co-produce and new ways to get your audience to support you.
Theatre needs to listen to these newer forms, and work with the artists who are pioneering roots into them. Podcast producers, for instance, know that even 1,000 listeners put you into the top bracket of the form, and makes your work financially viable. It’s at this stage, for instance, that advertisers and sponsorship will often appear, and that listeners become happy to pay for the work. A podcast audience commits to a much more personal and active relationship than a regular theatre or broadcast audience.
But to do this, we have to start thinking about using technology and the internet as the material of our work; artistically and institutionally.
My own recent work, The Believers Are But Brothers and Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, is indebted to a whole host of artists who have been pioneering this, but remain outside of the mainstream, in different ways. I think of David Best, Coney or Hazel Grian – their work making opera, games and theatre respectively wouldn’t be possible without thinking like games designers or coders. And I also think about the audiences they have reached that other companies and venues have not.
Theatremakers should invest in better technology infrastructure; not because a digital experience can ever replace a physical theatrical one, but because the artistic and social questions raised by the internet, and our reliance on digital devices, are so profoundly theatrical.
In a recent survey, only 9% of the population of this country wanted to ‘go back to normal’ after the lockdown. I suppose our normal might be a return to problems like the largely broken system of subsidised national touring, increasingly conservative programming, a non-existent audience and unsustainable creative careers.
But this is precisely why we should be thinking about investing in tech, and starting to collaborate with people who are native to that space. To go back to the example of touring, whether in the divide between the coastal cities and the American Bible Belt, or the Remain-voting diverse cities and the Leave-voting towns, national conversations are more and more broken. Why should work made in a young, poor and diverse city like Bradford or Liverpool not instinctively look for close collaboration in Mannheim, Gothenburg or Detroit? Or that from in Manchester in Barcelona or Aarhus?
Tech has disrupted the relationship between consumption and creation
Our industry remains largely wedded to one, increasingly outdated model: all work orbits around ‘main house’ productions that have to run for a certain length to a certain audience to break even or spin a profit.
Artists like those above have already started to make work that explores how you can make digital (not digitally distributed) theatre. Their work considers how things can happen ‘live’ but on social media. How you can ‘play’ instead of ‘watch’ a story.
But more fundamentally still, tech has disrupted the relationship between consumption and creation. Gamers make levels for games they love. Our equivalent of that might be moving large-scale contemporary community work on to our main stages and finding co-creators in the communities who are most connected to what we do.
On sites such as Twitch, the gap between fan, critic and maker is abolished and a new artistic and critical vocabulary has been developed. We could be creating these kinds of communities, locally and internationally, if we invest in the infrastructure, skills and work that make that possible.
Internet culture has changed how art works. The gap between community and professional practice, audience development and performance, critic and fan has become much closer. Right now, when we ask more than ever what theatre can do to address historic injustice, support communities and transform the relationship between the central and the supposedly ‘peripheral’, this is the answer: in its own way, a genuinely contemporary theatre must do the same.
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.