2020 saw theatres all over the world shut their doors for many months, with many turning to livestreaming and recorded performances to connect with their audiences in the absence of crowds being able to gather in-person. However, as Dr Hannah Greenstreet explains, many theatres had been using digital technology for years before the pandemic, raising interesting questions about the relationships between technology and performance.
Theatres including the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have been using digital technology to reach larger audiences since the 2000s. The closure of theatres in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend, with more and more theatre companies sharing recordings of their productions online and experimenting with new, digital forms of performance. These technological developments in turn raise questions of definition. If theatre has often been thought of as people sharing space and an experience together at the same time, what does it mean if people are watching in their homes at different times? Is digital theatre still theatre? This article will situate the technological developments in digital theatre alongside these philosophical and aesthetic questions.
Livestreaming and recorded performances
Since 2009, the National Theatre has been filming and broadcasting selected theatrical productions live from its stages to cinemas across the UK and around the world. This enables them to reach a much wider audience, including people who might not be able to get to London to see the show in person due to where they live. For example, the very first NT Live broadcast, Phédre, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Helen Mirren, reached a cinema audience of over 50,000 people globally – the same number that saw the show in person at the National Theatre over the production’s three-month run. Moreover, the theatre critic Michael Billington observes that streamed theatre gives everyone ‘the best seat in the house’; it is democratic in the sense that, unlike at the theatre, you cannot pay more to get a better view of the stage.
While a large part of the appeal of these events is the opportunity to experience a National Theatre production live, there are some differences in watching the play in the theatre and watching it through the livestream. Crucially, unlike when they attend the theatre in person, audience members are not able to choose where to look. That is decided for them by the director and the director of photography. High-budget live streams have six or seven cameras placed throughout the auditorium, giving different views of the stage. The feeds from these cameras are then mixed together live by the director of photography. Close-up shots on the actors’ faces at particularly tense moments can create the feeling of immersion and intimacy more common in film than theatre, while wide shots – sometimes even using a camera on a crane – can give a sense of the scale of the set design and the actors’ positions in the space. When watching a filmed theatre production, then, you are watching an adaptation of a stage play into another medium. Watch this video from the National Theatre to see how they do this and the decisions the process involves.
This does not mean that watching a livestream is an inferior substitute for watching the production in-person, but rather that you may take different things from each. Recognising the differences between the media has also helped reassure people who worried that digital performances would replace ‘real life’ theatre. Rather like the misplaced furore over e-books threatening the existence of paper books, there is no sign of this happening yet (except, perhaps, when theatres were not legally allowed to open!). Indeed, arguably the pandemic has encouraged theatres to think about how to make their productions more accessible to people who find it difficult to attend shows in person, due to disability, caring responsibilities or for financial reasons (though theatres most still charge for tickets to contribute to the costs of making a high-quality recording of the show). For example, at the height of the first lockdown, from April to July 2020, the National Theatre streamed 17 shows from its recording archive for free on YouTube in an initiative called National Theatre at Home.
Made for digital performances: Zoom theatre
Even more innovatively, some theatre companies used the pandemic as a spur to experiment with new technologies. While many were becoming familiar with Zoom for schoolwork, meetings and family quizzes, Creation Theatre used Zoom to rehearse and stage a digital performance of The Tempest. Creation is an Oxford-based theatre company that specialises in creating interactive performances in unusual spaces; the previous year they had staged a promenade performance of The Tempest around an industrial estate, with the audience walking to different locations to encounter different scenes and characters. They were able to translate some of this immersivity into the digital production. Actors worked with the designer to choose their own digital backgrounds, projected onto green screens, and make their own costumes from what they had at home. As in the in-person production, the actors also used improvisation to engage with the audience and encourage them to get involved. While not everyone enjoys audience participation, many people were more willing to participate over Zoom and enjoyed the opportunity to contribute to the show, finding that it gave a sense of togetherness amidst the isolation of the pandemic. Research by The Economist shows that 25 million people in the UK visited a cultural site online or attended a virtual cultural event in 2020. 8 out of 10 people said participating in culture online helped them feel connected to their communities.
Where next for digital theatre?
With the easing of social distancing restrictions in July 2021, theatres were allowed to reopen with full-capacity audiences. However, many theatres are still choosing to make some performances available for people to watch from home, suggesting that the industry may adopt more of a ‘blended’ approach going forward. Theatre companies are continuing to experiment with making digital theatre, both anticipating future shut-downs and recognising that the extreme financial pressure for theatre to adapt to the Coronavirus crisis has resulted in real technological and aesthetic progress.
Dr Hannah Greenstreet received her DPhil in contemporary theatre from the University of Oxford in 2021. She is also a Project Support Officer on the Inspire Programme.
Find a piece of online theatre to watch and write a review (see Inspire website on how to write a theatre review if you’d like some guidance on this). Note anything in particular that you observe about the digital medium/ filming, for example any close-ups or wide shots; any significant moments or characters the director chooses to emphasise. Is the performance interactive and, if so, how did they use the digital medium to engage you as an audience member? Is the performance live or pre-recorded? Can you see the theatre audience or other parts of the theatre or is it more like a film? For an example of a review of a livestream, see Review: Faith Healer, Old Vic: In Camera – Exeunt Magazine.
Or, read the ‘Further Reading’ articles above and answer the following questions in a mini-essay of 300-500 words:
- What are the benefits of digital theatre? Are there any disadvantages?
- Where do you think digital theatre could go next?
What’s next for online theatre? – Exeunt Magazine
Does online theatre really need to be live? – Exeunt Magazine
Why digital theatre poses no threat to live performance | Theatre | The Guardian
Theatre in the time of Covid: the show has gone on. | University of Oxford
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