There’s no denying that NT Live is a huge success story. Since 2009 3.5 million people have watched an NT Live showing in more than 1,100 venues around the world, 550 of which were in the UK alone.
It has essentially set the bar for regional streaming, and at house we’re now exploring the impact this has on small-scale theatre and how venues and companies could capitalise on the new ‘norm’ of live streaming for their own development. As a touring and audience development initiative which exists to improve the range, quality and audience for contemporary theatre across the South East of England, this is something we’re keen to investigate as part of our wider remit.
With companies like Pentabus live streaming into the Royal Court, it’s becoming clear that streaming theatre from London to the provinces isn’t the only way of sharing the most innovative, high quality work. Streaming allows theatre to be shared pretty much anywhere. So to further explore the relationship between streaming and regional audiences, we plan to stream a performance from a village hall in Reading into South Hill Park’s cinema in Bracknell.
South Hill Park has been pioneering digital theatre and live streaming regionally for a number of years now through their SHP Live project, which has seen pantos streamed into hospitals and artists commissioned to seed new digital performance. Working in collaboration with SHPLive, we plan to stream a performance of Miss Caledonia by award-winning Canadian artist Melody Johnson from Mortimer Village Hall in Reading on Wednesday 6th May. Miss Caledonia is a two person show about Melody’s mother Peggy Johnson. Touching and comical, it tells the true story of Peggy’s life growing up on a farm in Canada and her attempts to escape rural routine through winning the local beauty pageant.
Billed equally alongside the other streamings in South Hill Park’s cinema programme, the possibility of audience transferal within streaming is intriguing. Will audiences at South Hill Park attend Miss Caledonia as they would an NT Live show? At the moment there’s much debate from companies and venues about whether NT Live develops or decreases audiences for live contemporary theatre regionally. Although early NESTA research suggested that it will help increase audiences over time, there’s a feeling within some touring companies that there are sometimes fewer dates available in arts centres and theatres because of the slots taken by screenings.
The debate as to whether NT Live is a gateway to live work or a barrier will continue to grow as more venues take NT Live work and the brand continues to gain momentum. NT Live has become associated with high quality theatrical experiences, inevitably creating recognition and loyalty amongst some of the millions of audience members. But does this loyalty deter audiences from attending other streamed shows that are not under the NT Live umbrella? There’s not yet enough research to answer this question, but my feeling is that the NT Live brand impacts on shows in a similar way to that of star casting, where people trust and know the reputation so will therefore purchase tickets. Streaming from rather than to a village hall will also test what happens to that sense of intimacy shared in a hall space, and whether the feeling of spectacle created with NT Live screenings can be replaced with something smaller.
The screening will have a secondary audience online, as Miss Caledonia will be made available to programmers and village hall promoters to watch online from their own homes. Testing the appetite of the small-scale sector to interact with work in a different way, this offers a possible solution to the ever busier schedules of programmers across the country, and could pose an exciting opportunity for companies to book tours off the back of a streamed performance rather than an expensive Edinburgh Fringe run. Not discounting the fact that streamed shows feel very different to live, and can’t and will never replace live performance, there’s still much to be said for shows being shared further afield and with more audiences throughout the country through the implementation of this increasingly popular format established by NT Live.
Continuing to experiment with the role of streaming in small-scale touring will be crucial in keeping up to date with this fast moving technology. With audience engagement becoming tougher and live theatre attendance now sometimes unpredictable, streaming could offer venues and artists an opportunity to grow audiences on their doorstep through the use of regional streaming, and be inspired by the success of NT Live rather than uncertain about the role it has to play for audience development in the touring sector.
Miss Caledonia will be streamed from Mortimer Village Hall in Reading on Wednesday 6thMay at 8pm.
This article was written for Exeunt Magazine.