If there’s one positive to find among the destruction of the coronavirus outbreak, it is the way in which previously private or obscure recordings of theatre productions have begun to reach the public.
In the absence of live theatre, journalists and fans have been ransacking online resources, as theatre companies have opened up their collections in new ways – union regulations permitting.
The appetite for this material is evident, as shown by the more than 2.5 million people who have checked out some or all of the National Theatre’s One Man Two Guvnors during its week on YouTube.
While NT Live made recordings of stage productions available in movie theatres for a wider audience, these new releases have the opportunity to go even wider, because they can be seen at home and they are free.
In the US, a quick burst of current shows recorded before people were told to self-quarantine allowed audiences to see shows that would have otherwise disappeared without a trace. But that’s not something that can be repeated now that all productions have ceased. It is the pre-existing material that dominates in these early weeks of what will likely still be a long haul.
As I wrote here when the streaming service BroadwayHD launched, I will always advocate for the live experience. But my access has been a privilege. While theatre is only in its true form when experienced in person, recordings of shows create opportunities to reach vastly more people, especially when they are shared without cost.
Theatres that invested in quality archival recordings, or were fortunate enough to strike broadcast deals, are now filling a gap during a crisis that few could have imagined, and we are all richer for it at an awful time. We’re also seeing non-union shows, less restricted or expensive to record, surfacing in the absence of other fresh material.
When the world returns to normalcy and theatres once again produce live work, there is an argument for every theatre company to budget for quality recordings.
While the New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape Collection has preserved decades of Broadway for scholars, it represents only the tip of the iceberg of theatrical production. Even for an art form as intentionally transitory as theatre, there is enormous value in saving more than programmes and t-shirts. That’s not because there may be another mass cessation of activity, but because the existence of recordings has now proven to be of value not just to researchers, but to all theatre aficionados.
Just as the establishment of TOFT by the indefatigable Betty Corwin required sweet talking and arm-twisting of the many stakeholders on Broadway, that same coalition now must come together to establish new guidelines so that our shared theatrical legacy can survive.
Now is not only the moment that demonstrates the value of recorded theatre, but it’s also a time when, as we pick up the pieces of the field, everyone involved has learned why it needs to be the new normal.
While theatres may have to shoulder the expense of recording their own shows, there should be a way to preserve and access this material that doesn’t undermine or diminish financial potential for all concerned. But perhaps after a viewing moratorium of five or 10 years from the close of a production, legitimate archives could share this work for free, for the greater good of the field.
Because some theatres have made recordings themselves, but without the ability to share them due to contractual limitations, such an agreement might reveal even more theatrical riches. Instead of starting accessible archives from 2020, we just might find some amazing work that could be shown sooner, even when we’re free to go to the theatre again.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/