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How is theatre pivoting to live-streaming?

More and more theatrical companies are at least looking into the possibilities that live streaming will afford them during the current socially distanced times. However, it was not just the arrival of a global pandemic – which forced nearly all of the world’s major theatres to close at some point or other – that led to an interest in live streaming as a theatrical form. Of course, without being able to operate with a live audience – let alone completely fill an auditorium – theatrical producers have needed to find alternative ways forward.

And yet, some forward-thinking people in the arts have already been looking into the ways live streaming might offer an alternative to the usual ‘bums on seats’ approach that theatres have traditionally followed. Some in the music industry, for example, have already been using live streams of their performances for some time to promote new tracks or to reach a wider audience than would be possible through paying concert-goers alone. As such, theatres have pivoted towards live streaming more than ever before in the last few years with a great deal of acceleration that has occurred in the last twelve months after the pandemic took hold.

Read on to find out more about which theatres are embracing live streaming and how they are going about engaging with audiences in an increasingly digitised world. Firstly, however, it will be beneficial to take a slightly longer view back at theatrical live streaming. After all, it is nothing new.

Pre-Covid Theatrical Live Streaming

There have been many filmed versions of stage productions over the last few decades. Filming a stage play or musical for later broadcast is, of course, something that television production companies have often done instead of producing their own made-for-TV content. In many cases, filmed performances were done at the end of a production run when live audiences were no longer going to be able to see a hit show and this was deemed to be the only way for more people to be able to enjoy it. Certainly, many productions by the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have been filmed and subsequently either made available in cinemas or on television.

However, it should be noted that this model – despite its similarity to live streaming – is not the same. Recording a production which can then only be shown by certain broadcasters usually comes with some form of licensing arrangement. Broadcasters will usually have to pay for the rights to broadcast the production each time it is shown and they will either monetise it by selling advertising or, in the case of state broadcasters like the BBC, fund it from the licence fee. Streaming, on the other hand, puts the viewer in control. By definition, broadcast material is usually pre-recorded and edited to fit a television schedule whereas live streaming occurs in real-time with people paying for access to the images and audio of the streamed production as it happens.

That said, the distinctions between the two models can be blurred. For instance, live theatre has been shown on TV as it happens before. Famously, for instance, Mark Rylance’s all-male Globe Theatre production of Richard II was broadcast live on BBC4 back in 2003. The production ran in front of a live audience which also included numerous TV cameras. For about a decade now, the National Theatre in London has been filming its productions as they happen, usually once or twice in a run. These were shown simultaneously in cinemas so that audience members could enjoy a communal experience with other virtual theatre-goers.

Such was the success of this format that in 2014, the National Theatre expanded the idea and offered live feeds to cinemas from Broadway. Its hit production of an adaptation of Of Mice and Men, starring James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, was shown as it was performed. This threw up an interesting question for many European virtual theatre-goers insofar as whether the show was truly live or not. At the time, the National Theatre conceded that its filmed content in London was shown as it happened to European audiences but it had always delayed its feed to audiences in other time zones, such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

Consequently, the link between live-action and a simultaneous feed was broken in the minds of many audience members. Nowadays, live streaming can mean something that is performed as live and viewed later without further editing or it can mean a genuinely live feed from events on a stage somewhere that are currently going on. This is the case with musical performances, especially pop acts which use streaming services to promote themselves. For theatre, the same thing goes. Live streaming has to be something audiences can tap into when they want. So long as the content they are consuming is ‘as live’, it seems that the public is perfectly willing to accept it even if they are not viewing something happening right now. Commercially speaking, this fact has thrown some theatrical companies a lifeline.

How the Coronavirus Led to Increased Interest in Live Streaming

With the onset of the global health emergency, even the National Theatre’s groundbreaking model of showing live performances in cinemas became defunct. Although the UK saw some restrictions lifted surrounding audience numbers in both theatres and cinemas in the summer of 2020, they were soon put back in place which led to a truly disastrous season for performers of all kinds that year. However, ever the innovator, the publicly subsidised National Theatre was among the first companies to embrace what live streaming had to offer.

In the first weeks of the initial nationwide lockdown in the UK, the National Theatre made one of its previously filmed productions available to view on its high-definition YouTube channel for free. Each production could only be seen for a limited time period. For example, the first one to be shown was an adaptation of the Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, starring James Corden. It had been filmed as part of the National Theatre Live programme but was now being made available to anyone who wanted to stream it.

Of course, the National Theatre had an advantage over many production companies because of its already established programme. In short, it had the back catalogue of filmed productions to fill the void in live theatre. However, this did not mean that other theatrical companies were slow in the uptake of live streaming, often monetising it on a pay-per-view basis. The Unshut Theatre in Sheffield, for example, was able to run an entire festival of new theatre in the summer of 2020. Its shows were conceived and put together in a socially distant world, often with actors and writers rehearsing and workshopping over Zoom and even by post. Live streaming platforms, like YouTube and Twitch – until then, better known as a live video game streaming service – were used to bring these sorts of one-off theatrical events to a virtual audience.

Established theatres with a big reputation began to live stream, too. The German dancer and choreographer, Pina Bausch, put together an international co-production of the Rite of Spring in Senegal. The ballet was made available to stream by the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in the UK for which it charged £5. By comparison, the New Diorama Theatre, also in London, made some of its material available to live stream over Zoom. Without an easy way of enforcing payment to access its streams over that platform, the theatre simply chose to ask for donations to be made. Consequently, although the uptake of live streaming was fairly consistent among established and up-and-coming theatres, the degree to which it was monetised varied greatly.

Can Live Streaming Generate Meaningful Incomes?

Given that theatres in many parts of the world look set to remain closed for some time to come, live streaming could be the only customer-facing income stream they will enjoy for some time. Although governments around the globe have offered some form of financial support for arts institutions during the pandemic, the fact is that many theatrical companies have seen their finances all but ruined over the course of the last year. Can live streaming provide a stop-gap measure?

Well, as the case of the New Diorama Theatre, shows there is not a zero-cost way to set up a live streaming service that the public will pay for. Other than selling pre-recorded ‘as live’ content to an already established streaming service – such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, for example – there is only one main option remaining – setting up a bespoke streaming service. To be clear, it is possible to use platforms like Twitch and YouTube without cost but the income streams they generate are low because they’re based on viewing statistics and advertising rather than paying subscribers.

This is perhaps why the Globe Theatre has come up with its proprietary Globe Player. It features many filmed versions of its productions going back over the last few years. For example, Emma Rice’s acclaimed production of A Midsummer Night Dream can be accessed from the theatre’s purpose-built website. It allows viewers to watch the performance for a one-off streaming fee of £4.99 which puts it in much the same charging territory as Sadler’s Wells, of course. That said, it is also possible to own a copy of the production which means being able to download it in full or to purchase an access code to give as a gift instead so that a loved-one or friend can perform the download instead. The Globe charges £12.99 for this service. Unlike a stream, of course, this means the content can be viewed again and again in perpetuity, so long as it is on the same device, without further charge.

It is not just internationally renowned theatres that are taking this sort of approach with streamed performances, however. The Southwark Playhouse, an independent theatre well outside of the traditional West End, is a theatre that is well-known for championing new playwrights with often experimental productions. Like many smaller theatres, it has pivoted to streaming in a big way. A great deal of what it has to offer can be seen freely in the filmed trailers it has on its YouTube channel. Viewing an entire production comes at a cost of £10 but the stream can be paused, rewound and returned to at any time within the 24-hour period following the purchase of a virtual ticket.

The Royal Opera House is another big theatrical name that has developed its own streaming service. Again, its back catalogue has been used to great effect. Popular past productions, such as the ballet Cendrillon from 2011, have been made available to view for limited periods, usually for a month. The Royal Opera House has some free content to watch, often a short but virtuosic musical performance. Full streams of ‘as live’ former productions of its operas and ballets cost as little as £3 to watch and this will often include audio-described performances, too, making the streaming service accessible to vision-impaired virtual audience members.

Whether or not these various pricing structures generate more or less income is difficult to say, of course. Each model is something of an experiment and the pricing is likely to be adjusted as time goes by. That said, streamed services are generally cheaper than purchasing tickets for a theatrical performance, not to mention the lower drinks charges available at home compared to a typical theatre bar. And even when income streams may be low as a result of uptake of such services, at least they are a form of income in a world where most theatres remain closed.

Live Streaming in a Post-Covid World?

The latest research suggests that the public wants live streaming of theatrical productions. Indeed, even before the pandemic struck, this was a viable business model for some theatres. Given that the global health emergency has driven many theatres to embrace live streaming and to figure out how it might help them to connect to wider audiences, it is unlikely to go away when theatres eventually reopen. It will probably simply become an additional way to enjoy theatre that complements live performances but which does not replace them. After all, theatre-goers have got used to this way of enjoying live theatre now, so there is unlikely to be any turning back.

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.

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