It has been a few months since I have written about the discussions and debate surrounding the streaming of theatre, live and recorded, to cinemas, performance venues and across the web. In my last two posts on the matter, Something to Stream About and Something Else To Stream About I wrote about the experiences, arguments and concerns as they were being put forward. In the UK in the past few weeks the discussion has gathered pace again, with further written comment, the publication of a piece of research with regard to its impact on audience figures and continued experimentation with the form.
In a piece for The Guardian newspaper, Let’s stop pretending that theatre can’t be captured on screen, the highly regarded, veteran theatre critic Michael Billington wrote:
But while I remain an evangelist for live theatre, I think it’s time we stopped pretending that it offers an unreproducible event. A theatre performance can now be disseminated worldwide with astonishing fidelity. This represents…….a revolution which knocks on the head the old argument that theatre is an elitist medium aimed at the privileged few.
Following Billington’s piece, another theatre critic and editor, Andrew Haydon (who also runs the excellent blog Postcards From The Gods) wrote an article Coney’s no island: could streamed theatre let audiences call the shots? in which he talks generally about the continuing development of the form and in particular about a new show, Better Than Life, by the company Coney, who describe themselves as:
Interactive theatre-makers….[who] weave together theatre and game design to create dynamic shows and experiences that can take place anywhere that people gather: in theatres, schools, museums, on the streets and online.
Haydon describes Better Than Life thus:
The live premise is simple: you arrive at the “secret location”, take part in a bit of audience participation and then meet Gavin, a man who has been granted the power to draw pictures of future events (a plot wittingly or unwittingly lifted from the wonky US science fiction TV show Heroes). The online premise is more complex: Coney’s stated aim is to experiment with how they might be able to let people interact with the performance even if they are not physically present. To this end, online viewers could choose which camera they watched from, interact in the site’s own chat facility and even control spotlights in the room itself.
Now this is clearly a different beast to streaming theatre as it has been developing so far, but indicates the pace at which interactive technologies have the potential to shape the future development of theatre. Arts journalist Miriam Gillinson also wrote about her online experience watching Better Than Life, as opposed to Haydon’s ‘real-life’ viewing, in her blog post, ‘Better Than Life’ review or ‘Is there a triple click option?’. However, both seem to agree that whilst it was a form still very much in development, there was distinct and intriguing potential in the work and how it might point to the we ‘watch’ theatre in the future. To explore Coney’s work more, there is an excellent interview by Rohan Gunatillake with the company’s co-director, Annette Mees, for Native Magazine intriguingly titled Gorillas, beautiful tension & Better Than Life. In the interview, amongst other things, she explores the difference between their work and the more conventional broadcast streaming of theatre.
As I said at the beginning of the post, one of the things that prompted me to revisit the streaming discussions was the publication of a survey in the UK that seems to show that the advent and growing audiences of streamed theatre is not, as some feared, having a negative effect on live audience attendance either in the capital or in the regions, as some feared. The survey was carried out by Nesta (a charity that funds innovation in the arts sciences and technology in the UK) and you can read their findings here. There is a condensed version of the findings here, courtesy of Whats On Stage.
Now obviously, these statistics are for the UK and they left me wondering how they would extrapolate out for international audiences of streamed and broadcast theatre. Since I last wrote about this subject and lamented the lack of broadcasts to Hong Kong, the National in the UK have at last found a cinema partner here. Their initial foray – Frankenstein – was an immediate sellout (I was too slow) and since then, more and more broadcasts have been added with Coriolanus and The Audience begin shown multiple times in the next couple of months. They are immensely popular with Hong Kong audiences (I don’t mean just expats either) and I can see how they are creating an audience-in-waiting of theatre goers ready for their next trip to London. I could be cynical of course and comment that all of these productions have star actors with international reputations and are therefore an immediate box office draw. However, I won’t and I can’t – I am just delighted that I can now see what I consider to be some of best theatre in the world in the place I choose to call home.
I also want to a mention of another streamed event, that in a week that saw 500,000 people take to the streets of Hong Kong demanding universal suffrage, has significant resonance for me. On June 24th, The National Theatre of Scotland hosted The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know 5 Minute Theatre Show which streamed for 24 hours, pieces of theatre lasting no longer than 5 minutes to and from around the globe.
Driven by the upcoming vote on Scottish independence from the UK, the idea was to create a democratic, dramatic response to the theme of ‘Independence’ – identity, borders, language, and national identity. You can watch some of the contributions again here. Quite rightly, many of them are from Scots making their own comment on what is to come on the 18th September, but there are also contributions from around the world. Theatre and democracy, hand in hand.
So as the experiments continue and the debates rumble on, I leave you with an article, Three Nationals, again from Native Magazine, this time by David Kettle, in which he talks to leaders in the three national theatres of the UK – The National, The National Theatre of Scotland and The National Theatre of Wales – about their digital visions. It leaves me in no doubt digital theatre broadcasting and streaming is hear to stay.