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Digital Theatre could be an iTunes for live performance, from the Globe to the pub theatre

Roger Allam as Falstaff in the Shakespeare's Globe's production of Henry IV Part 1. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The news that Digital Theatre, which has been recording high-profile stage productions to watch online or to download for three years now, is to act as a distributor for other theatre content is welcome indeed.

The new Digital Theatre Collections are kicking off with four productions from Shakespeare’s Globe’s 2010 season, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry VIII. These productions, themselves filmed for cinema and DVD release, will be available for streamed or downloaded viewing for the first time.

It’s been an active few months for Digital Theatre: from making their content available in living rooms via Samsung Smart TVs, to establishing the Routledge Performance Archive, the company is growing both commercially and as an education resource. Over 50,000 people a month visit the site to stream or download content, and the company’s education arm has sold packages to schools all over the world.

The new distribution venture creates a platform which has the potential to become, I suppose, analogous to that of an iTunes for performance: a major destination for those looking to view performances online regardless of its origin. It’s a major change for the DT platform, which up to now has focussed on producing its own films of productions, such as Much Ado About Nothing and Lovesong.

“We wanted to establish the value of our own recorded content,” Digital Theatre CEO Robert Delamere tells me by email. “There was also a belief hurdle in the industry to overcome about the idea of the performing arts being meaningful online.

“In the past three years, we as an industry got beyond the idea of the ‘closed room’, where theatre, the arts, culture, happened in a special place which only people in elitist environments had access to. It’s about people having access to culture regardless of political, geographic, economic or any other barrier – overcoming those things which prevent people from participation, seeing it or experiencing it.”

The benefits of filming productions to play in cinemas overcomes the inherently limiting effect of being able to accommodate only a fixed number of audiencegoers per performance, of course – the numbers of people who experience one coordinated NT Live production in one night will dwarf the numbers who get to see the production from the seats within the Olivier auditorium, for example.

And the DVD market already helps provide a commercial model that’s lucrative enough to help justify the cost: I do not imagine that Phantom of the Opera’s 25th anniversary production in the Royal Albert Hall would have been anywhere near so lavish if it were only to be a one-off spectacle witnessed only by those in Kensington Gore.

[pullquote name=”Robert Delamere”]Every theatre – whether a 50 seat venue or a 2,000 seat one – should be able to have the confidence that the quality of work they’re producing is viable for a worldwide audience[/pullquote]

It is not those large scale productions that Digital Theatre has its eyes on, though – rather, it is more focussed on making filmed theatre and archive sales available to venues and production companies that might otherwise consider it outside their capability.

“One of the reasons that we wanted to establish relationships with smaller producing houses, capture their work and represent it on a global stage, is that it doesn’t matter where the work is created in a British arts environment,” explains Delamere. “The best work sometimes happens in rooms above pubs. I know that as a director.”

For now, though, the team-up with the Globe’s back catalogue makes sense. It moves Digital Theatre into that distribution market with some big-ticket, name-grabbing productions whose success online can help ensure that it remains financially viable to distribute productions without the automatic cachet of a Shakespeare play led by a star cast. I’ve used the iTunes analogy before, but another similarity is Network DVD, which specialises in releasing archive TV programmes on shiny disc. They started by releasing some big name shows – and, as their business expanded, have been able to diversify into corners of the dusty film and TV archives to release material that it previously wouldn’t have been commercially viable to bring to the market.

For Delamere, the prospect of expanding recording of theatre productions beyond the big name venues isn’t just going to be of commercial benefit to his business – he wants it to be able to have a positive effect on practitioners, too. “Every theatre in the UK needs to understand the potential that public access and online access gives to the quality of the work that they are producing,” he says. “Quality always comes to the surface. There should be a vision that every theatre – whether a 50 seat venue or a 2,000 seat one – should be able to have the confidence that the quality of work they’re producing is viable for a worldwide audience.”

And it is those smaller venues – be they converted railways arches, upstairs rooms of pubs, warehouses or even chocolate factories – where just getting a ticket can be a major challenge in itself. For some productions, the only hope you have of seeing it once word gets out that it is good is to cross one’s fingers for a transfer to a larger venue, often with a different cast, redesigned sets for a less intimate, pros arch space and the sundry other tweaks that mean you end up seeing a different production to the one that originally charmed so many.

Funds are always tight in the Off-West End and fringe space – one only has to look at the variety of arguments on all sides of the low pay/no pay debate to see that. But as the costs of digital recording and distribution come down, the prospects increase of further income after the final curtain has come down on a small show. Companies such as Digital Theatre might, just might, help find funding for small, innovative shows that dearly need it.

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