Theatre streaming: has the novelty worn off?

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Was the novelty ever there? The response from the theatre community was to simply move online. For bigger companies like the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company it opened up access to their professionally filmed productions. The RSC’s output ended up on the BBC and National Theatre is making two productions available on the newly free-to-air Sky Arts in December.

National Theatre made streaming an event, releasing their archive from the NT Live series including Frankenstein, Antony and Cleopatra and Barbershop Chronicles amonst the 16 productions shown over 16 weeks. It was accessible, with millions of views but financially it didn’t help the National Theatre, however the new NT@Home subscription service (though currently limited) has made productions that were only available in their archive or if you had a school login available to everyone for around £8 per month.

Theatres such as Chichester Festival Theatre attempted to provide streaming and live theatre in the form of Crave, though many attempts at reopening for long periods have been made difficult by national lockdowns and changing tiers. The financial support from the government is simply not enough to cope with the uncertainty.

Theatre also became accessible for creatives with Youtube and Scenesaver providing a platform. As an assessor for the OnComms I saw a lot of interesting work but truthfully whether filmed in your living room or on the Olivier stage of the National Theatre it all left me a bit cold.

Truthfully I have not missed theatre and I am not sure the void that streaming productions attempted to fill has been entirely successful. I’ve found other hobbies and enjoyed not dealing with poor transport, badly behaved audiences and badly put on shows but I am aware these are livelihoods at stake, people who have missed theatre and enjoyed the options streaming brings.

As a viewer it doesn’t feel like theatre, as a blogger I cannot write about these productions the same way I would write about theatre. When lockdown eased and I attended live theatre such as David Hare’s Beat the Devil and Quarter Life Crisis at the Bridge Theatre or SIX at the Lyric Theatre the joys I associate with going to a show had diminished; the masks though not uncomfortable are not pleasant, the queues outside even the most basic food establishments to ensure social distancing, the sense that these shows were half empty. Why was I risking my health and the health of others for this experience? Was it ever worth it?

At what point does it go back to normal? Do people really want to risk crowded trains to see a show? Why not just wait for the show to be streamed? Can theatres justify not streaming anymore? Can smaller pub theatres justify their hire costs when Youtube is free? The question is around the survival of theatre but what hasn’t been considered is that theatre will need to adapt, as the detriment to creatives and audiences, to simply keep afloat. Can it continue to make theatre accessible to those who cannot physically come or afford to see a live show? What benefit does it bring to a theatre if they lose money rather than make it?

In light of further closures and restrictions across the UK I want to see theatre make changes, not just rely on the government to keep them afloat. Shows barely breaking even/making losses is not good for any industry. It needs to refresh and modernise and maybe Coronavirus and this pandemic is the fire needed to start again.

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