Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Why we should encourage theatre to be streamed

The National Theatre at Home initiative, which streamed productions free-to-view for a week, became a staple of my lockdown. ‘Theatre night’ was a weekly feature of my search to find something different to the exhausted collection of TV boxsets. Wanting to make the most of the ability to access theatre for free I scheduled my own interval for ice cream and enjoyed productions I would likely never have watched otherwise.

Theatre streaming evolved during the pandemic in an attempt to keep theatre alive. While the National Theatre streaming was free, it came interspersed with ads asking for donations and served to highlight what we could be missing out on if we failed to support the arts.

Theatre streaming evolved during the pandemic in an attempt to keep theatre alive

Yet the streaming of theatre has the potential to extend accessibility to much wider audiences in a post-covid world. Whether it was overcoming time and travel constraints, or the ease of access, this set-up encouraged people to watch productions they would otherwise have been more reluctant to go out of their way to see.

In fact, the breadth of material that the National Theatre at Home initiative broadcasted perhaps exemplifies a key benefit to the accessibility of streamed theatre. Available productions included several of Shakespeare’s plays including Twelfth Night and Coriolanus; adaptations of classic novels such as Jane Eyre and Frankenstein; as well as more contemporary works, such as James Graham’s This House which focused on the hung parliament in Britain in 1974, or Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.

These titles offered exposure to classics from the ‘Western canon’ often produced in entirely novel and engaging adaptations such as Tamsin Greig’s portrayal of a female Malvolia in Twelfth Night. Yet productions such as Barber Shop Chronicles offer a contemporary take on personal and global politics from the perspective of African men, all played out in several barber shops across the world. The contrast here is exemplary of how increased accessibility to a broad range of productions can encourage more engagement with different perspectives and increased cultural awareness.

The opportunity to view these titles from the comfort of my own home with the ability to pause and take breaks certainly encouraged me to watch plays I wouldn’t have watched had they just been shown at a theatre. The seeming abundance of time in lockdown was, of course, a factor but the nature of viewing in a much less formulaic environment reduces the investment and thus encourages the appeal of productions that may not initially seem like a dead cert favourite to the potential viewer.

The opportunity to view these titles from the comfort of my own home with the ability to pause and take breaks certainly encouraged me to watch plays I wouldn’t have watched had they just been shown at a theatre

Of course, the financial aspect may not be quite as attractive as the free-to-view shows that also streamed during lockdown, with theatres needing to monetise to make these services economically viable. Consequently, the National Theatre has now moved to a subscription-based model to access their productions.

At home, viewing does, however, allow for pauses and watching in instalments – a benefit that may appeal to those wanting to watch some of the three hour plus productions of Shakespeare’s works. On the whole, it also offers a cheaper alternative to theatre tickets and the nature of subscription services encourages the watching of multiple productions with payment for a time period rather than a set number of plays.

Nonetheless, the experience of attending a theatre in person is by no means displaced by the provision of streaming. There remains something that can only be provided by being in the same room as the actors, an intimacy and conveyance of feeling that simply doesn’t translate through the screen.

Nonetheless, the experience of attending a theatre in person is by no means displaced by the provision of streaming

Attending the theatre also speaks for itself, often requiring, or encouraging, dressing-up, and was accompanied by an evening out and maybe even a restaurant trip. The pre- and post-theatre hubbub filled with conversations about expectations, reviews, favourite moments or even friends catching up are simply not replicated in your own home.

Thus, the streaming of theatre, rather than replace and compete for theatre-goers, could provide an extra stream of revenue much needed in the post-pandemic world.

Theatres are continuing to take up the attractive proposition of offering digital platforms with nearly half of the stage venues in London adopting a form of this provision. The success of Sky Arts’ streaming of Romeo and Juliet will also not assuage the interest of other theatres in involvement with such services.

The streaming of theatre looks to be a welcome element of our ‘new normal’ in allowing audiences to engage with a wider breadth of plays and also providing a supplementary income stream to a recovering industry. 

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