I get nervous whenever I hear the buzzwords ‘creative solutions’, especially from the government when talking about the arts.
It often means there is no money forthcoming and is followed by a call to think differently. But when it comes to those of us working in the theatre, we are bona fide masters of the ‘creative solution’ – centuries of our work reflects this. We are at our best when told: “You can’t do that” as we tend to find a way to get on with it and get things done.
But this ingenuity, ambition, drive, belief and determination could work against us. A politician who doesn’t understand how the industry operates might query why government needs to fund a workforce that has the apparent capability and willpower to find a way. They may well fail to recognise that, on many occasions, our decision-making comes not through choice but necessity.
Coronavirus is the first global pandemic to have significantly played out across social media. Theatre was quick to respond. Following lockdown, many artists and companies created or expanded their online presence through going digital.
In recent years, award-winning films such as the terrific 2015 indie movie Tangerine, or 2018 thriller Unsane, both shot entirely on iPhones, have demonstrated that content can be well made without the need for expensive studio production.
Digital has afforded our industry a vital lifeline during this dark time, and it will continue to remain important. But, while digital is a valuable component to the arts, it won’t be its saviour.
For a government looking at creative solutions to the question of cuts, digital may be an alarmingly attractive option. Will it be seen as mitigating closures and cuts to live theatre venues?
Could pay-to-view live performances online be viewed as a money-saving option, as it can cut operation costs at a number of live performance venues and still extend outreach?
It is right that theatre has turned to digital arts platforms, particularly over this period of lockdown – it has always been the strength of our industry to engage with exciting new ideas and artistic forms.
However, there is a nagging sense that we have been over-generous in making much of our digital content available for free. How do you get an audience to start paying for digital shows without losing the excellent work these free streamed performances do of building interest in theatre and making it more accessible?
There is a nagging sense that we have been over-generous in making much of our digital content available for free
The enthusiasm with which digital has been embraced reminds me of the industry excitement when the internet became mainstream. Particularly that it offered a successful platform for discounted theatre tickets.
However, audiences started to expect and hold-out for those cheaper tickets, feeling less of a driving need to book in advance at full price. Today, or at least before lockdown, the result was often nervous weeks for a producer’s advance box office.
Both the opportunity and fix that online discounting had originally afforded theatre productions has resulted in a long-term problem that has significantly changed audience booking habits.
In a similar way for digital work after lockdown, to support the industry, public perceptions must change to a place where audiences expect to pay to watch theatre online. The forthcoming Old Vic performances of Lungs could be an example of how to do this, with the play being performed on its stage before an empty auditorium, with up to 1,000 viewers paying to watch live online.
The production boasts the star power of Claire Foy and Matt Smith which, in turn, has seen the cost of access to these live performances online range from £10 to £65, mirroring the same pricing when it played a short season at the Old Vic in London last year. Foy and Smith will certainly provide the ‘event’ factor and will likely bring in some urgently needed income for the venue.
In the future, though, care must be taken not to create an audience mindset that seeing live pay-per-view digital shows is only worth spending money on if it is an ‘event’. For digital to really provide much-needed revenue and cover production costs, then – while theatres remain closed – there is a collective need for the industry and practitioners of all levels to work together to encourage audiences to pay for work by young or emerging companies just as they would for established stars.
The other unknown is how often viewers would commit to spending £65 a time to watch live pay-per-view theatre from their sofa and in the numbers needed, when there’s competition from a large range of different at-home entertainment choices.
With its enviable reach, digital offers exciting opportunities to theatre, but we need to get the balance and pace of this right. Particularly when remembering how, from the late 1950s, the growth of TV arguably contributed towards the closure of many live music halls and theatres, reducing with it the industry footprint.
We need to be particularly mindful of this, especially coming at the time when our government is all about finding creative solutions.