For many, it is theatre’s darkest hour. For others, Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company included, lockdown has speeded up the use of technology that has transformed stagecraft and revealed new audiences and business opportunities.
Even before COVID-19 closed theatres, they had distributed recorded performances via cinemas for people who could not get to the West End or Broadway.
The pandemic has turned even the smallest theatres into producers of streamed content watched far beyond their local communities.
Most say a screen cannot replace a live performance, but many also predict digital theatre is here to stay, and a generation that has grown up with computers and smartphones might even prefer it.
The Royal Shakespeare Company says it is combining digital skills with traditional art.
Mixed reality productions allow actors to work alongside technological versions of Shakespeare’s more unearthly characters and digital events have invited audiences worldwide to contribute to the action from their computers.
“We’re living R+D right now. If we look at what the pandemic did, it cracked open the future. And this is the first draft and I think that’s terribly exciting,” Sarah Ellis, director of digital development at the RSC, told Reuters in an interview.
“We have an audience that’s local to us, but we also have this huge global audience, which is a massive potential.”
Research by the RSC during lockdowns found audiences willing to pay for digital content and prepared to watch online even when theatres reopen.
Theatres are unanimous in wanting to recreate the tension of a drama as it unfolds.
That used to mean expensive technical crews. But a few months before the pandemic took hold, a transformative piece of equipment became available.
It is known as a switcher and the one generating particular excitement – because it costs just $295 – is the ATEM Mini produced by Blackmagic Design, an Australian company that has worked with the RSC and provided technology for blockbusters such as Avatar and Game of Thrones.
It allows switching between four different cameras, meaning a single performance – as opposed to the many takes required to create a movie – can provide all the angles and close-ups needed. It also permits rapid editing, so performances can be shared almost immediately.
Blackmagic founder Grant Petty said he wanted to help new talent by providing easy-to-use technology.
“When I first got into this industry, I found that creative people were being sidelined and the business people were the ones that were running everything. I just felt that was wrong and if the equipment was more affordable, it would empower creative people,” he told Reuters.
RISING FROM THE ASHES
Theatre Charlotte is a small theatre that has used the switcher to stream to an audience across the United States and Canada.
It is North Carolina’s longest continually producing community theatre, but faced an even more uncertain future than most after a fire last year ravaged its 80-year-old headquarters.
Its previous theare also burned down, forcing actors to perform where they could. Acting Executive Director Chris Timmons said the company had rediscovered the “renewed energy of theatre not just being a building”.
Timmons expects to carry on streaming even when Theatre Charlotte has a refurbished venue next year, and can imagine a younger generation less interested in the rituals of pre-performance dinners and after-show drinks.
“Maybe we’ll look back in a few years and see that there’s this whole generation that would rather just watch it on a screen than have that other social aspect to it. I think there’s certainly room for both,” he said.
Michigan-based start-up Colvin Theatrical agrees. Founder Cody Colvin says many productions are loss-making at the best of times and streaming can address that.
“Fundamentally, we’re going to hit a point where selling tickets is not going to pay the bills anymore,” he said, citing rising rents, insurance and other costs.
“Theatre will be like sports and like comedy, where there will be a live audience paying a premium to go to the event and then it will be broadcast. That’s the only way to scale.”
The live experience will still be hard to beat. Neil Darlison, director of theatre at Arts Council England, said the council supported the use of digital tools to engage a wider audience, but the appetite for live theatre was still strong.
“I don’t think streaming is going to be as disruptive to theatre as it is to, say, cinema or indeed it was to music. Theatre’s USP is the collective experience – which is much harder to replicate digitally,” he said.