Better Than Live?

Five years after the National Theatre started broadcasting shows through NT Live, it looks unlikely that live theatre screenings will be disappearing any time soon. If anything, they continue to go from strength to strength, as NT Live streams more and more productions from beyond the National Theatre and other large organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company join the live broadcast party. That’s not to mention the burgeoning area of online theatre, from live streams of durational performance to Digital Theatre’s growing online library of recordings.

This technology, however, is still in its infancy and its impact on theatre as an art form is yet to be determined. For as long as digital theatre in its many forms has been available, it has been surrounded by debate about its pros and cons. Few would suggest that we try to reverse the growth of live theatre screenings at this stage, but there are numerous factors to be considered as it continues to develop, many of which have been flagged up by a recent spate of articles on the topic.

At the beginning of the year, the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner dismissed fears that broadcasts might diminish audiences for live theatre, instead seeing them as an opportunity to increase the appetite of audiences and tell stories in new and interesting ways. Elizabeth Freestone, artistic director of small-scale touring company Pentabus, responded with a warning that the infrastructure around screenings puts them in direct competition with small companies like hers, although she stressed that with better communication and collaboration live theatre and screenings can sit happily alongside one another.

Since Freestone wrote her article, Nesta has released new research showing that NT Live has had no negative impact on theatre attendance in England and has actually prompted audience growth in London. The sample size used for this research, however, is not large enough to determine the different effects that live streaming might be having in different geographical areas, and if anything it demonstrates the need for further research going forward. It’s still too early to get an accurate handle on how live broadcasts are influencing audiences.

Another view was offered by Michael Billington, again in the Guardian, who argued that “it’s time we stopped pretending that [theatre] offers an unreproducible event”. Praising Digital Theatre’s recording of Ghosts at the Almeida, he described this technology and the fidelity with which it can capture live performance as a “revolution” – one with democratising potential. It’s hard to disagree with the desire to make theatre more accessible, but what Billington neglects to acknowledge is that the Almeida’s production of Ghosts represents a very particular kind of fourth-wall theatre; we can’t pretend that all live performance would transfer so seamlessly to the screen.

When thinking about live broadcasts, it’s also important to remember that it’s not just big venues and companies like the National Theatre who are doing them. At the recent show business symposium, Marcus Romer highlighted how Pilot Theatre have been developing live streaming solutions for work of all sizes, as well as innovating how digital theatre might engage with audiences in different ways. Coney are doing something similarly inventive with their Better Than Life project, which the Guardian wrote about here, while greenhouse has teamed up with SHPLive.TV to support digitally native performance which explores new ways of exploiting the potential of live streaming. This is perhaps where the future really lies, in developing new and different ways of engaging with performance online.

While conducting research for a forthcoming article on this very debate for UK Theatre Magazine, everyone I interviewed agreed that live broadcasts are – in principle at least – a good thing. They create the opportunity for theatre to reach areas and individuals who might otherwise struggle to access it, while removing some of the barriers that prevent people from attending theatre has the potential to increase appetite for live performance. But digital theatre can never become a replacement for its live counterpart; it has to be an ‘and’, not an ‘or’.

Do you show live theatre screenings in your venue? If so, what has your experience been? We would love to hear the thoughts of the house network on this issue.