Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Artistic Director at the Young Vic, announced in May that the theatre would begin a policy of livestreaming all of its future productions. Kwei-Armah, who is been in post since 2018, has overseen the Young Vic during the UK’s lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 which affected so much of the live performance industry. According to him, the approach many theatres have taken offering virtual performances in that time means that it is no longer possible to go back to the old ways of doing things. Instead, the Young Vic will welcome audience members back as soon as the pandemic regulations allow for it while also livestreaming its performances.
The news may come as a surprise to some in the theatre because so many performers, directors and technicians have been looking forward to returning to what they had been used to. Indeed, many theatres and theatrical companies may attempt to return to traditional live performances without the need for technology providing remote attendance. That said, Kwei-Armah’s idea is to get the best of both worlds with a genuinely live atmosphere for theatre-goers along with the ability to view productions over the internet.
The Young Vic, which was initially part of the National Theatre when it was first established in 1970, has been an independent body for almost half a century. In that time, previous artistic directors have always sought to bring more experimental theatre to the West End from its site in Southwark. In this sense, Kwei-Armah’s insistence that theatre won’t be able to go back to being solely experienced via physical attendance should be seen as nothing new. The Young Vic’s traditions have always attempted to shape the mainstream while often being one step ahead of theatrical fashions.
The theatrical director, who is also a well-known TV character actor and playwright in his own right, said that during the theatre’s enforced closure he had decided to innovate and not merely copy what other theatres were doing. As a result, the Young Vic came up with a novel way that it could use to livestream its productions. Without audiences being present at the Young Vic’s famous thrust stage, experiments with multiple cameras were undertaken to allow people to view the action from their choice of angle. This project was named ‘Best Seat in Your House’ because it meant that online viewers did not have to always watch the play they were seeing from one point of view. The whole point was to deploy several cameras and allow online audiences to select which one they wanted to view.
According to Kwei-Armah, the problem with many streamed plays is that they have a sense of being curated for audiences which means the director gets control of the camera lens making livestreams poor imitations of movies. By contrast, ‘Best Seat in Your House’ offers a more interactive experience that is closer to attending a theatre in person. “Even though the director pushes me in a certain direction,” the artistic director said, “I have the final say of where to look.” Kwei-Armah went on to say that viewers can select whether to view the performer who is stage left or the actor who happens to be stage right as they see fit. “People can even choose to look at their fellow audience members if they wish,” he said.
More Than a Hybrid Approach
Kwei-Armah said that giving a virtual audience the chance to change their seats mid-performance and, therefore, their perspective was the driving principle behind ‘Best Seat in Your House’. Having invested in developing this system, the artistic director has decided that it would be right to introduce it for all future productions, thereby offering a global audience the chance to log on and see what is going on at the theatre. The director insists that the livestreaming option will in no way dilute the in-person experience of going to the theatre, however. Actors will still need to project their lines for real audience members to be able to hear them, for example. As such, future productions are still going to be theatrical ones rather than adapted for a screen-based audience.
Part of the reason that Kwei-Armah has decided to back the project so fully is that it will offer the chance for more people to enjoy the Young Vic’s productions and to do so in a close-up way. The theatrical director said that when he was younger and less well off, he would often purchase the cheapest ticket he could for a production he wanted to see. He would then look around the auditorium for potential no-shows and move to the best seat he could find. “I want to do the same thing for our virtual audiences,” he said. “I want online theatre-goers to be able to choose their seat and to curate their own experience [of our productions].”
However, it should be noted that the Young Vic will also allow its online audiences to take a more relaxed approach to its plays. The ‘Best Seat in Your House’ technology will also offer the option to follow the on-stage action with what will be labelled as the ‘director’s cut’. So, perhaps audiences will have the best of all worlds by soon being able to attend in-person, to manage their own online experience or to simply sit back and watch the action unfold.
The Future of Theatre?
It seems that many theatres in the UK will be watching what happens at the Young Vic with a great deal of interest. Of particular note will be in-person audience attendance figures compared to virtual ones. Will the ability to watch exciting new productions from home put people off coming in person? That said, Kwei-Armah insists live theatre remains something that cannot be fully replicated on screen. “I want to underline that it is not a way of replacing live theatre. [It’s]… not something I think will compete with it in any way,” he said.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. He writes extensively for Culture Geek and MuseumNext. Manuel has a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.