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What next for digital theatre?
Half of all UK theatres have gone back offline this autumn. Why? The long answer: it's complex. The short answer: money.
Note: this blog post was written for the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s COVID-19 umbrella project ‘Pandemic and Beyond’ and has also been published on their website.
The last 20 months have seen a widespread pivot within the UK’s theatre sector towards livestreamed, on-demand, and digitally native performances. During this time, well over half of all UK theatres and theatre companies have created artistic content for online audiences. But following the lifting of restrictions this summer, there has been a ‘snap back’ to in-person performances almost as sudden and drastic as the initial pivot to digital. Research conducted earlier this month by our current AHRC COVID-19 project (‘Widening Access to Arts and Culture Through Video Streaming’), and recently reported on the BBC and in The Guardian, suggests that over half of all publicly-subsidised UK theatres that pivoted online during the first 18-months of the pandemic have now returned to producing live performances only. From conversations with researchers across Europe, it is clear also that this is part of a far broader international trend.
Why has this ‘snap back’ happened, and what are the implications of it?
Before answering these questions, it’s worth providing a bit more detail about what we’ve found. The statistic emerges from a web-based survey of the past and forthcoming activities of all 224 UK theatres and theatre companies that receive public subsidies from the Arts Councils of England, Wales, or Northern Ireland, or from Creative Scotland. We found that of these 224 theatres, 126 had at least one online production in the first 18-months of the pandemic and 98 did not; for the current autumn season, 60 have at least one production available online and 164 do not. 71 (56%) of the 126 theatres that had at least one online production in the first 18-months of the pandemic have none scheduled for the autumn season (September to December).
Data was gathered initially by searching each organisation’s website for details of their activities over the last 18-months and of their autumn 2021 programme. In cases where a website search did not yield information on past activities, information was gathered through theatres’ and theatre companies’ Twitter and Instagram activity over the last 18-months, and through searching snapshots of their past websites on the Wayback Machine.
It’s very possible that we may have missed some past and future online activities. It’s also possible that some organisations have only paused their digital programmes temporarily and are still developing their digital capacity; interesting in this respect is our finding that five theatres that were not digitally active in the first 18-months of lockdown are producing their first digital performances this autumn. It’s possible too that organisations may find themselves pivoting back online in the coming months as the pandemic continues. However, despite these qualifiers, the shift back to live-only programming by so many theatres is still significant, and quite revealing about the current state of the sector.
Reasons for the ‘snap back’…
From the interviews that we have carried out with arts organisations over the last two months, a number of factors have emerged. These include:
Limited staff, with not enough time and energy to initiate digital projects.
A tendency post-lockdown to default back to the traditional work of filling venues. For example, one interviewee noted, ‘We need a good reason to do a digital performance’, though no reason needs to be given for doing live performances.
A residual sense that online activity is an optional extra (and an inferior alternative) to live activities, though attitudes within arts organisations are changing fast and ‘digital scepticism’ is far less prevalent now than it was two years ago.
A lack of clarity about how to best to engage with audiences online and what kind of online content is most effective. For example, one interviewee at a famously innovative theatre said, ‘We haven’t yet seen a sustainable model for digital performances, beyond the National Theatre’s famous faces’, suggesting that even organisations with a more experimental ethos may still feel overwhelmed by the multiplicity of options faced (e.g. do they livestream or provide content on demand, or both; do they make live content available online, or programme different work live and online; do they just stream video, or do they use interactive platforms such as Zoom or Mozilla Hubs, and so on).
Finally, the one obstacle identified by all our interviewees is money. Digital productions cannot yet be relied on to make a profit (nor – one might argue – should they, as digital theatre is still in its infancy). At the same time, funding to initiate digital projects is piecemeal and erratic; recent digital productions have typically been paid for through a mixture of Culture Recovery Fund money, repurposed core funding, and successful applications to individual schemes such as those managed by our project partner The Space. As a result of the absence of stable funding for digital development, theatres often lack an economic motivation to put work online and invest in digital capacity-building.
… and it’s potential significance
The ‘snap back’ is of particular concern because the surge in arts organisations’ digital activity over the last 20 months has led to significant access benefits. Data emerging from our project in the next few months is likely to suggest particular gains for geographically remote, older, and disabled audience members. The suddenness and extent of the snap back to in-person only performance raises an important question: what are the implications not only for geographically remote, older, or disabled audience members, but also for d/Deaf and neurodivergent audience members, vulnerable and housebound audience members, carers, night workers, those who can’t afford to visit a theatre, those who feel that going to theatre is ‘not for them’, and many others for whom physical attendance may be difficult or impossible?
On the plus side, many organisations (including the National Theatre, the Young Vic, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, the RSC, and Sheffield Theatres) are continuing their digital programmes, and working to develop sustainable models for digital theatre. But our research also seems to confirm a ‘digital divide’ between large, well-resourced organisations and small and mid-sized ones. In the second phase of our survey, we broke down the figures according to the size of the theatre company – large, medium, small, and micro. Our finding was that while only 42% of large theatres have dropped their digital activities this autumn, over 80% of mid-sized, small, and micro theatres have done so. This seems to confirm the widespread perception within the arts sector of a ‘digital divide’ between large, well-resourced organisations and small and mid-sized organisations struggling just to fulfil their current responsibilities. Clearly this disparity is also of concern, as unless all scales of theatre company have the support to experiment and develop their digital expertise, the current digital divide between arts providers will only get bigger.
Though our main research findings are still to come, it is becoming clear that two of the most important factors in deciding the short and medium term future of digital theatre are its potential profitability and its future funding. However, our research also suggests that profitability is not, at this moment at least, a realistic possibility. Audiences for digital performances are still emergent, and have declined since the lifting of restrictions; meanwhile, the option of making large marginal revenues on expensive stalls seats is not open to digital performances with £10 ticket prices. As a result, just breaking even on a digital project is currently an achievement. So, arguably, that leaves the short and medium term future of digital theatre dependent on how arts funding is structured in the coming years. As a result, the danger is that a vicious cycle may evolve: the digital innovations that will help digital productions to become a sustainable source revenue for theatres in the longer-term future will require funding, but funding may only come if the social value of digital projects is more clearly articulated and more widely evidenced.
In short, unless arts funders are able to earmark funding for digital development, and unless arts organisations are also willing to experiment with new forms of digital programming, many of the advances of the last 19 moths of digital theatre may yet be lost.