The Olivier theatre in the National Theatre. Credit: © Simon Turner / Alamy Stock Photo

What happened to theatre’s digital moment?

Lockdown forced performances to go online in innovative ways. Can they keep going?
December 9, 2021

On 16th March 2020, the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre announced that all theatres would close with immediate effect. For most of the 290,000 people working in theatre, this was a disaster. But some were more hopeful. For years, artists had been experimenting with new forms of digital theatricality—could this be the push the theatre world needed to embrace the internet?

For veteran critic Lyn Gardner, the pandemic offered a chance for companies to break their ties to cumbersome buildings. In an influential piece for the Stage, Gardner argued that theatre’s dominant model was coming to an end, highlighting “self-perpetuating, top-down hierarchies” and subsidies spent on building maintenance. “I doubt that, post-Covid, freelancers will continue to accept the injustice of low pay and insecurity to maintain structures, working practices and funding agreements that benefit buildings, but which leave them as part of the precariat.” To many younger radical theatre makers, the pandemic offered an opportunity to create a more accessible theatre world. Disability issues, for both audiences and performers, have been at the heart of progressive theatre conversations in recent years. What could be more accessible than allowing people to Zoom in from home?

As the early 2020 lockdown entrenched, theatres scrambled to create digital content. Many of the most successful were from touring companies. The National Theatre of Scotland has always prided itself on offering “theatre without walls.” Their 2020 series of YouTube videos, Scenes for Survival, was a powerful collaboration by over 200 artists working from their bedrooms, creating 55 films, based largely on monologues about the lockdown experience. But elsewhere, the quality was haphazard. Filming is expensive—theatres, already financially crippled, couldn’t afford high production values. As the director of one of London’s leading theatres put it: “We threw everything at the wall to see what would stick—and most of it didn’t.” 

Most arts organisations had engaged for years in ponderous conversations about the digital future; yet few were ready for the pandemic. The National Theatre has been broadcasting live performances since 2009 under its “NT Live” brand. And while its contracts with performers had included live streaming rights, it had not established a legal model for obtaining “on demand” rights. As recently as 2018, it was privately telling potential partners that it could not provide screenings of much of its own back catalogue. When, in December 2020, the National announced a new National Theatre On Demand service, some artists who had collaborated on the relevant shows had only been informed the day before in an email that they were now required to grant consent to these rights.

Now, with restrictions largely lifted in the UK, theatres are returning to live performance. Press releases lauding new digital projects have suddenly dried up. At times, it can feel as if theatre’s digital lockdown moment never happened. But after some breathing space, will lockdown leave a digital legacy?

Local theatres fear any model that might prevent them from targeting digital work at audiences that are already hard to reach. Annabel Turpin, chief executive of the respected ARC arts centre in Stockton-on-Tees, explains: “It’s easy to put stuff online, get lots of views and feel like it’s a success. But if we value who our audiences are, and want to continue our work in diversifying audiences, ensuring everyone has the opportunity to experience culture if they choose to, then we need to pay more attention to who is watching.” Early in the pandemic, ARC received a £21,000 grant from the Tees Valley Combined Authority for digital support, which it used to remotely connect artists and audiences in real time for creative dialogue around local traditions. 

At the other end of the scale is Marquee TV, often termed “the Netflix of culture,” which connects global companies and global audiences. The key to Marquee’s model is aggregation: where some theatres are still trying to host individual proprietary models, Marquee partners with companies to host work, with the added edge that it curates a homepage and recommends new work to its users. In the long term, such aggregators are the most likely to be commercially sustainable. Not only do they spread the burden of technical costs across their partners, but they cross-pollinate audiences.

Even established companies like Marquee TV, however, face a period of uncertainty before the regulatory and technical landscape is stabilised. Theatre was caught on the hop by lockdown, and the lack of industry standards for performers’ digital rights is the biggest barrier to progress. Yet as the rest of life moves to a hybrid model, over the next few years theatre must surely follow suit.