Lyn Gardner’s opinion piece on theatre online poses an ultimatum: when theatre considers its presence in the digital sphere, particularly in the coronavirus economy, should we be prioritising quantity or quality? Should our conversations with audiences be writ large in broad pixels of neon acrylic paint, or intricately woven, organic and personalised? Which approach is going to prove most fruitful in the long term when it comes to cultivating new and engaged audiences via digital channels? And might the current global lockdown be the catalyst for this conversation.
The flurry of filmed theatre broadcasts and cast live streams over the past few weeks certainly reads like a panicked attempt by the industry to remain seen and relevant. I get the distinct impression Gardner, and those cited in her piece, think of this collective response as a failing.
But I ask, why shouldn’t theatre spray paint itself across every digital platform available, especially at this time of theatrical famine? When we have a captive global audience, a means of getting a free or low-cost sample of product to them (albeit a “reheated” one), why wouldn’t we? Does generating a wide-as-possible audience catchment today compromise a segmented, bespoke approach tomorrow? Why can’t digital tools be employed on both a micro and macro level in our efforts to lead audiences to loving live theatre?
My own love affair with theatre began when I was a child, with a cassette cast recording of The Phantom of the Opera. I was enraptured by it. I soon discovered there were other Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, and even other musical theatre composers. My rapture grew. Eventually, I stumbled upon myriad other forms of theatre – plays, opera, dance, immersive, experimental, static, conceptual and otherwise indefinable. I loved all of it so much I opted for a career that ensured I could help to make all this theatre happen, even in a small way. But in doing so I found that many industry people look on any mass-audience theatre effort with a kind of puritanical disdain. So often the underlying assumption of a conversation – or of an entire working environment – boils down to a genuine public versus commercial, us versus them, mentality.
As someone who was given a single seed of mass-distributed theatrical engagement 30 years ago – a seed that took root and bore fruit on both a personal and professional level – I would urge those of us looking to cultivate genuine audience growth: let’s continue to be innovative in the digital sphere and every channel available. Let’s continue to engage in complex conversations with audiences and explore the subtle dynamics of our communities. Let’s continue to sensitively cultivate those relationships in whatever ways work best for them.
But also, please don’t let’s confine our vision to the minutiae of our own walled gardens when there’s a vast Eden at our collective fingertips.
I think the other side of this is that digital theatre presents an answer to the accessibility issue theatre has had for a long time. Many people for example, who could not afford tickets to see hit productions at London’s National Theatre are getting to see productions they never could have dreamed of seeing otherwise.
Furthermore, an accusation that is often flung at the National is that it is not a truly national theatre – by beaming out theatre across the country people can see theatre in Scotland for example, that they never would have been able to see otherwise. It is easy to see the flaws in simply streaming past productions, but for many people, for many reasons such as geography and finances, digital theatre is providing a lifeline through lockdown.
Via the stage.co.uk
I’m worried about the arts during this epidemic, particularly the theatre.
In the spirit of “a problem shared is a problem halved”, I propose theatres and cinemas should collaborate. Theatre productions could be filmed in front of live audiences that are socially distanced (so only a quarter full) the performances could be then be broadcast to cinema theatres around the country that are also socially distanced (quarter full) and then both the theatres and the cinemas come to an agreement about the sharing of box-office takings. Just a thought.
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Seating in the auditorium is only part of the problem that needs to be solved. How audiences enter and stay socially distant while queuing for the house to open, visiting the toilets, the cloakrooms, bars and restaurants, provides another set of issues for crowd management.
What happens at the interval rush for toilets, drinks and ice creams? How do the audience members exit the theatre? By rows, marshalled by an usher? Should audiences wear face coverings while queuing to enter and while in the theatre?
So far we seem to be considering only issues concerned with seating an audience and the knock-on impacts on capacity and revenue. However, the logistics of getting an audience in and out of their seats and managing their presence while entering, exiting and existing in the building seem, to me, to be a bigger challenge. Like the proverbial onion, there are many more layers than at first appear. I am concerned that there is a level of wishful thinking taking place across all sections of society, when what is required is a dose of forensic analysis, radical rethinking and common-sense planning for how post-lockdown Britain functions.
All the Tiggers should take a seat and let the Eeyores handle this one.
There are also management issues to bringing theatres out of lockdown. At a high level there is the issue of whether say a volunteer board of trustees operating under limited liability would be prepared/able to implement a programme of activity that does not leave them exposed. And there will also be the view of insurers to consider – if there is no public liability cover then the doors shouldn’t open, regardless of how much people may wish them to.
Then there is duty of care towards employees and guaranteeing a safe working environment. The reality for many subsidised venues is that they are generally operating on limited resources – the costs of simply upgrading cleaning before during and after events may prove too difficult. Not to mention the increased costs of managing patrons – does one take temperature checks? Does one ask people to make a declaration? Does one have to ID all people entering?
It is clear from scientific reports that attending an event in a confined space has a high level of risk attached to it and I’m not sure there will be much appetite from insurers to underpin anything but the highest standards