Why live streaming of performances is an opportunity not a threat – or is it?

By Anne Bonnar
13 October 2009

The streaming of live performances by NT live signals the opening up of theatre productions to a wider audience. The experience is excellent and creates opportunities for audiences to see productions they wouldn’t otherwise. Take All’s Wells that Ends Well , the second NT live show. Its one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays which is unlikely to be seen by many. Firstly, its a ‘ problem play’ because of its genre defying characteristics and idiosyncracies. And secondly, the production resources needed to solve the problem – more than met in Marianne Elliot’s wonderful, grim and fantastic fairytale production with very fine performances, a wonderful design and all the creative and technical resources afforded by the National Theatre – are scarcely available outside the NT, RSC, Globe etc. It simply doesn’t stack up for a regional theatre to produce this play.

So last week the audience for this show was seated not only in the Olivier Theatre but in 70 cinemas throughout Britain. Most of us were seeing a show to which we would not have access otherwise and that is a great thing. The quality of the experience is fantastic – as an audience you are in the room with the performers, live but also have the advantages of being in great and moving seats, up close. And, for those of us who live far away from London, we haven’t spent a fortune or increased our carbon footprint. So it is certainly the way forward for work which our regional theatres won’t or can’t produce.

The traffic could become two way – the best of our regional and local work could also be live streamed to London and abroad.

As the work of world class brands becomes more and more accessible, regional theatres will have more opportunities to diversify and free up resources.

Its part of the programming balance in a regional theatre to present world classics and Shakespearian productions but this is a costly business. The cost of mounting a Shakespearian production or major classical production in our regional theatres varies. So does the cultural success of the productions, in terms of the specific resonances and connections to local audiences through the production and the quality of the production.

But if a regular supply of excellent productions of Shakespeare and classics becomes available at a nearby cinema, then theatres could free some of their resources into the streams of theatre that are very specific to their audiences. Collaborative work, participative and community work, research and development are all costly activities which tend to be subordinate to putting on the big productions but which embed theatres into their communities and allow them to take artistic risks. This of course could be Shakespeare.

Lyn Gardner at the Guardian has taken the argument further, questionning if we need multiple productions of the same play. A bridge too far for me. But the argument is heated.

So, is live streaming a threat to live theatre, as many have argued? Or is it an opportunity?

1 response to Why live streaming of performances is an opportunity not a threat – or is it?

  1. I think it is great to see wider distribution of work, so people in the regions, especially in those towns and cities without producing theatres, get to see the national companies. The question I have is whether this wider distribution actually achieves “new audiences”. Like Hannah, I think for some people this could be a safer way of “test-driving” what a play is like. So who do we market ‘theatre in cinemas’ to if we want to attract new audiences and not just “preach to the converted”? And how do the cinemas and their nearby theatres work together to persuade people to “test-drive” the real live experience.