The abundance of online offerings made available by the theatre community in the wake of the pandemic shutdown is awe inspiring.
Indeed, some people on social media have commented recently about being overwhelmed, especially when one-time-only events directly compete with one another. It’s fair to say that while none of this is a true substitute for live theatre, the amount of performance and theatre-adjacent content (interviews, panels, live readings) available is remarkable.
With the West End currently shut down until at least the end of June and Broadway on hold until September, this manner of content may prove hard to sustain, but at present, it thankfully shows no sign of abating. However, it raises an important question at a time when the entire industry is sidelined and out of work: should this online content be paid for?
This question is not meant to diminish the generosity and creativity that has been offered to so many people in the first two months of shelter-in-place orders, or to suggest that it should cease. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for theatreworkers to generate income while still facing steady expenses.
Could artists develop their nascent efforts into material that would warrant the equivalent of a nominal ticket price to help them sustain themselves at a difficult time? There are some out there already doing this, but might it be a path for more as the crisis wears on?
To be sure, individual efforts at a dollar or a pound will never achieve the kind of scale that will allow people to see the Hamilton original cast film on Disney+ for only $6.99 or £5.99 along with copious other content. But any income would flow directly to those who create it, if they are shrewd enough to devise intriguing work and capably promote it.
Will all theatremakers have to consider a more capitalistic approach in the competition for eyes and ears?
Right now, many of the US efforts are streamed with a request to donate to theatrical charities – predominantly the Actors Fund and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS – and their superb ongoing efforts should be sustained and supported. But as we last out this difficult period – which shows every sign of lasting into 2021 – will all theatremakers have to consider a more capitalistic approach, which might also turn somewhat Darwinian in the competition for eyes and ears?
Might that also drive innovations in concepts, writing, lighting, editing and so on, as the theatre/video hybrid form that has emerged will be forced to inevitably evolve if driven in part by marketplace considerations? Even not-for-profit organisations have always functioned in a marketplace.
US television audiences have watched in real time as programmes have sought to adapt, most notably in the increasingly sophisticated efforts of Saturday Night Live. Is it now incumbent upon theatre artists to move to their next stage while this crisis shows no sign of abating?
Theatre companies are offering talks and panels as a way of maintaining relationships with their audiences – as well as ransacking their archives – so they are better positioned to build on those connections when live performances begin once again. But if ever there was a time that called for the self-created, self-produced work that fuels fringe festivals and new theatre companies, this may well be it in order for artists to pay their bills.
Again, none of this should undermine the many good works on offer and the charities and organisations they support. But while we resist the idea that this is a new normal – and to quote Avenue Q – “only for now” theatre has to move beyond the shock that came mid-March and capture the moment in a way it has perhaps been unable to do since the advent of movies – followed by radio, TV, home video, cable TV, and the Internet – some 100 years ago.
Sports can’t be played right now and commercial television and film is at a disadvantage. While it won’t exactly be theatre that’s created, theatre artists can and should capture the spotlight, both for financial sustenance, and to build interest in the form that can be retained when it’s safe for everyone to gather once again.