There have been few things over the last six months that have been able to pierce through the monotony, stress, and hopelessness of our new normal. Given the recent outburst against the Government’s controversial arts retraining scheme it seems only apt to recognise something that has provided a creative light in our darkness: recorded theatre. We have been graced by the creation of ‘Nation Theatre at Home’, and live performances uploaded to the likes of Disney +. As a result, more people have been engrossed in plays and productions than ever before, despite our inability to actually go to a theatre. While this may appear to be a purely positive thing we must retain some reservations about this new medium. Namely, has it actually been a positive step for both the theatrical community and for its audiences?
It is undeniable that having hundreds of plays at your fingertips has been a somewhat thrilling experience. Can’t afford tickets costing a couple of hundred pounds to see Gillian Anderson and Vanessa Kirby? Don’t worry, watch it online. Don’t want to trek to London to see One Man, Two Guvnors? Save the train fare, watch it online. Haven’t done your summer reading but think the film will be too inaccurate? It’s chill, watch it online.
The populous have had the door swung wide into the world of theatre with an almost unlimited visitor pass. Recorded performance has therefore done wonders for the accessibility of theatre as anyone and everyone is now privy to its charms. To some extent the practice of screening recorded performance was already taking place pre-corona; burgeoning attempts were made by National Theatre as they started showing filmed plays in cinemas. However, over lockdown they saw a dramatic increase in viewership recording over 10 million views of streamed performances. This level of engagement equates to them being able to fill all of their seats for 11 years.
This influx is a reassuring recommittal to theatre; the allowance of theatre into the home has kept the arts within the cultural consciousness. Recorded theatre has prevented the sector being forgotten within the indomitable sea of Netflix and Amazon Prime. As they say ‘the show must go on’ and the community that has been maintained through recorded theatre has done that.
Commenting upon this is not quite as clear cut as it would seem though. We must recognise that in the minds of many this is a short-term solution that is unlikely to be sustained. Recorded theatre manifests itself as unviable in many ways. It is evident that financially there are drawbacks to the medium; National Theatre has placed performances online for free, albeit with the suggestion of a donation, and are therefore not drawing in the steady cash flow of previous years. This could be construed as a worthy sacrifice for art and yet on a practical level it is riddled with problems. If a play is performed once, filmed and streamed how do you consistently pay actors and staff, or the basic costs of maintaining a theatre? How do you justify the role of a theatre actor when they do one performance which is just restreamed over and over again rather than reperformed? We cannot forget that while this medium is being hailed for sustaining a participation with theatre, it has done nothing for everything that goes into putting on a play. Recorded performance cannot provide for ushers or technicians, costume designers or directors on a stable and everyday basis.
On top of this the streaming of theatre has in fact done little to combat the power or financial dominance of other streaming platforms. The release of Hamilton on Disney + is a prime example of this. The rights for the musical were sold for $75 million, $30 million of which Forbes suggested went to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Again, we see the lack of economic filtering that results from the new medium. To make matters worse the deal pushed Disney + subscriptions to over 60 million, and their total revenue to $1 billion. People may be able to bypass the $500 ticket prices, but Disney reap the rewards. The new medium only exacerbates the monetary divide between struggling theatre companies and media giants.
However, this is not the most destructive part of the medium. The greatest loss that we have suffered over the course of lockdown is the emotion, intensity and atmosphere that comes from a live performance in a theatre. The essence of the theatre is the comradeship of being a valued member of an audience, of being within touching distance of the drama, of immersing oneself in a world separated from your own by only the thin veil of a row of seats. The raw emotion that radiates through the air of a packed theatre could never be construed through a screen; it is the defining reason people go to watch a play instead of a film. The thrilling spontaneity of a live performance is lost when the same version is replayed and editing done to perfect mistakes. The audience and performers are inextricably linked by a bond of being; the audience exists to watch, the actors to be watched. The ability for a play to go wrong, or be adapted is replaced by stagnancy as a piece becomes fixed within the form that was chosen to be presented. The living being that is theatre is lost to us.
Where does this leave us? As a temporary measure the creation of recorded performance is by no means a bad thing. It has provided a previously unseen level of access to watching plays, and it has sustained both the creation and appreciation of drama where so many other things have fallen by the wayside. Yet, it has its significant drawbacks for both the future prospects of the theatre industry, and for the purist appreciation of the form. There are few solutions to the quandary we find ourselves in. Live streaming may work as it would maintain a wider network of jobs more consistently. But how this would work with covid is uncertain. Zoom or radio plays is also a reasonable option as we have seen in their rise over the past months. However, I fear that theatre and performance as we have known and loved will not return for a while.