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To Be (online) or Not to Be – The Future of Online Theatre

After a year in the dark, theatres are finally putting the lights on. But we haven’t been entirely without the theatre during the long, arduous lockdown months. In fact, almost the opposite is true. Despite closures, we have been blessed with an abundant supply of online shows, pre-recorded or socially distanced shows, and even shows that manipulate the video call format we have all come to know. Some of this has had unprecedented success: take, for instance, the National Theatre’s ‘National Theatre at Home’ programme, streaming 17 productions including Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus and Gillian Anderson’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Streamed free of charge on YouTube, with an option for donations, the programme raked in over 15 million views in 170 different countries. Getting to watch some of these acclaimed performances was a much-needed break from the monotony of lockdown life. Now, with the tentative return of live events, what is the future of online theatre? Will people remain interested when they can go out? Has it served its purpose or can it continue to engage us, even as the world opens back up?

I am inclined to think the latter. The rise of online theatre, of course, has allowed us to stay connected during a time when live performances could not happen. Even if it has not brought in the revenue that live theatre might have, it allows us to support the arts and maintain connection, as seen with the ‘The Show Must Go On’ initiative, a collaboration between the West End’s theatres and the Theatre Support Fund+, bringing in money to support both the pandemic and theatre charities by selling merch and streaming shows on YouTube. But even beyond the pandemic, I believe it has something to offer us.

Even as live theatre reopens, a key motivation for these online productions still stands: a need for accessibility. Theatre has long been classed as an elitist industry, particularly due to the cost and locality of its performances. Online theatre challenges this by making it readily accessible.

The main theatre hotspots are localised to London and New York, with occasional touring productions. It can be hard to get to these locations. Tickets, in particular, can reach extortionate prices—making it all the more pleasing that shows like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton were released on Disney+. Getting a Disney+ subscription, or watching with a friend, is certainly cheaper than a theatre trip, supports and sustains the industry as opposed to bootlegging (the illegal recording of performances) and can lead to a new surge in fans who otherwise might not have the means to see the shows. However, the production costs for filming these shows are great, and smaller independent companies may struggle to keep this up. In many senses, live performances are needed to support online ones.

Some wonder whether theatre and arts streaming services, such as Marquee TV (which streams theatre, ballet and opera), may be the future of theatre. While these do come with a subscription cost, they are often cheaper than live performances, and have the potential to be integrated with something as widely used as Netflix. The fact that Hamilton was filmed with the original Broadway cast from 2016 also demonstrates how online theatre can allow people to watch older productions, which they otherwise might not have been able to see. Furthermore, it can be used for educational purposes; for instance, The National Theatre has specifically educational resources that can introduce new generations to the theatrical world.

Making experiences more accessible is a crucial part of online theatre, including how it easily accommodates a range of needs. Subtitles are easier to access online and there is little need to worry about the mobility issues that going to the theatre may cause. Going into the physical theatre environment can be overwhelming for those with mental health or sensory issues, and so the potential for online theatre allows people to experience the joys of the theatre at their own pace. This again challenges the elitism of theatre, widening its horizons to include people at all levels of needs.

Online theatre has massively benefitted us in a time where live performances have been unavailable. It has kept the industry going, and allowed us to experience the magic of theatre from our own homes. Now, with the reopening of theatres, I think online theatre still has a bright future. Just as online theatre won’t stop us from dashing back to the theatres as they reopen, neither, I think, will live theatre stop us from benefitting from online resources. While the atmosphere of live performances is unique, online theatre increases access in a way live theatre cannot, teaching and inspiring across the globe. Although no one wants to repeat the pandemic, I hope that it has shown companies the increasing value of online performances, and how they can be continued, hand in hand with live shows, in the future.