The show must go online: How performance was reinvented for the pandemic – CNET

There’s no business that’s suffered through the pandemic quite like show business. Chronically underfunded at the best of times, the arts world saw its limited resources stretched to a breaking point in the past year. 

Hollywood’s biggest names looking to stretch themselves as artists have long sought out opportunities to tread the boards in the top UK theaters. But that’s no longer the case thanks to the full shutdown during the pandemic, causing the arts industry here to struggle to stay afloat. The country’s government budgeted £830 million ($1.17 billion) in arts recovery grants, but this hasn’t reached many of the freelancers and small collectives that are the lifeblood of the industry.

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Ever industrious and creative, many performers, theater companies and venues have turned to the internet to find opportunities to ensure their shows will go on. According to a survey published this March that was undertaken by the Society of London Theatres and UK Theatre, almost half of all venues that responded said that they were developing digital revenue streams as part of their response to the pandemic.

These new ventures stir a debate over whether these digital takes on traditional performances are here to stay, or if this was an anomaly sparked by a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. This past year, online shows encompassing drag, comedy, dance, theater and other innovative performance mediums blossomed, bringing new art forms to new audiences. Yet some just want to go back to “normal.” 

Theater researcher Katie Hawthorne, who is doing her doctoral dissertation on online performance at Edinburgh University, applauded theaters, which she called traditionally “technophobic,” for  embracing online performance.  But she is dismayed to see it framed as a “Plan B” by many venues.

“I actually still am worried about that because this whole time the discourse has been so like: ‘Well, of course, it’s not the real thing’,” she said in an interview.

The shift to digital hasn’t been without its technical difficulties. Just last weekend, a Glastonbury livestream, which received rave reviews for its musical performances, was nearly undone by technical problems that meant some attendees who had spent £20 to access the virtual festival couldn’t log in to the platform.

The event, titled Live at Worthy Farm, featured performances from acts including Coldplay, Damon Albarn and Haim and was streamed by a production company called Driift, which issued an apology for the technical difficulties.

The COVID Arms, a virtual comedy night held monthly and hosted by comedian Kiri Pritchard-Mclean, also initially had teething problems in the tech department. Initially, said Pritchard-Mclean, the fact that “COVID” was in the title seemed to flummox YouTube’s moderation algorithms, which kept pulling down the stream, forcing the tech team to tweet out fresh links and the audience to stream hop throughout the show.

As the show has continued, the COVID Arms tech team has figured out how to use a combination of YouTube and Zoom, which means the streams no longer get pulled down. It’s gone on to host some of the biggest names in British comedy, and in total throughout the pandemic, the event has raised almost £150,000 for food bank charity the Trussel Trust. (The next show is slated for July 3.)

Indeed, many performers, venues and companies believe digital performance should be here to stay.

The digital fourth wall and whether to break it

As the world begins to reopen, there are big lingering questions about what digital performance should look like, how it should be priced and where it should sit in the vast landscape of online entertainment options.

Many theaters and venues will be looking simply to continue streaming performances with a static camera in a traditional format, exactly mimicking what an audience member sitting in the theater would see from the seats.

Often these performances are available on established or up-and-coming streaming platforms. This week, the National Theatre announced a partnership with Amazon Prime Video that will see Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s stage performance of Fleabag, Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch and a series of performances by Ian McKellan sit alongside Amazon Original series and Oscar-winning films.

Away from mainstream streaming services, platforms such as Marquee TV, which hosts productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Bolshoi Ballet, among others, and Next Up Comedy, which showcases livestreamed and on-demand comedy, provide performance or genre-specific services catering to existing niche audiences.

For those willing to experiment, digital is allowing some venues and performers to reshape their mediums and create new hybrid performance modes that subvert existing entertainment categories. A prime example: the virtual experiences created by UK theater company Swamp Motel, which combine immersive theater with film and online gaming to provide audience members with something akin to a narrative-driven online escape room.

Traditional theaters, too, are seeing value in experimenting with format. Last year, London’s National Theatre created a film of Romeo and Juliet, one of the plays it was due to stage in 2020. The NT’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, worked with a cinematographer to reconfigure the theater and use the existing sets to reimagine the performance for the screen, which was then broadcast on Sky Arts. This comes on top of existing work to stream its performances to cinemas and incorporate AR and VR. 

Edinburgh’s new writing theater, the Traverse, had also started reorganizing itself for the digital world in order to bring in new talent and new audiences even before COVID hit, said Executive Producer Linda Crooks. 

“We were very much looking to embrace technology and engage with our community in the broadest sense, in a slightly more dynamic and meaningful way,” she said in an interview, adding the arrival of the pandemic accelerated the theater’s plans.

Last August it launched Traverse 3 — a bespoke online venue to host a huge range of stories, created for or reimagined in a variety of formats, including films, podcasts, audio plays, performed readings and open access scripts. While the opportunities are vast, they need to be thought through. “We’ve got to be careful not to flood the market and overwhelm the audience,” said Crooks.

Putting on a digital show costs around a third of what it costs to put on a production in a live theater, according to Crooks, which makes digital an exciting place to take creative risks and experiment. But, she added, the return on investment is also not quite as high, and theaters have yet to crack monetizing for digital audiences.

As Hawthorne points out, some theaters are limiting capacity to the same number of seats they have in their auditorium, or charging people different ticket prices based on the view they pay for. These are both totally unnecessary ways of replicating the exclusivity of theater — something she said leaves her feeling both “tickled” and “grossed out.”

Recreating the feeling of ‘live’

Those exclusivity elements are part of the “softer” side of the theater experience — first night rituals, front-of-house messaging and drinking after the show in the bar — that don’t translate well in digital. Some theaters are working on ways to re-create the experience of attending an event.

Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum and the Pitlochry Festival Theatre teamed up to create a new audio performance platform called Sound Stage, which attempts to re-create all the peripheral elements of attending the theater, allowing audiences to chat with other theater-goers, “mingle” in the virtual bar with drinks and meet up with friends from anywhere in the world. There are also bells to call you to your seats, and post-show talks.

Meanwhile, the Glasgow-based Take Me Somewhere festival, which is running online this month and into June, has built a Festival Foyer into its bespoke online hub, where audience members can enjoy DJ sets, artist playlist performances and festival gatherings before and in between shows.

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Fans of BTS have been able to watch livestreamed concerts.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

The festival also features a number of ways audiences can participate directly in the performances — through intimate phone calls with one another, Zoom performances where people can volunteer to be script readers or an interactive installation featuring multiple artworks.

The best “live” feeling experience Hawthorne enjoyed throughout the pandemic was Bang Bang Con, a livestreamed concert by K-pop band BTS, which featured six different camera perspectives that you could jump between, and a ballot fans could enter to have their webcam views displayed on the back of the stage. It was great to get a better view than she would have ever had seeing the band at a real show, said Hawthorne, who is a huge BTS fan, but watching the group perform to an empty stadium was also “very emotional.” 

“One of the worst moments of my year last year was when BTS finished and then cried because nobody was there,” she said.

It’s easy to imagine how performing live — whether in a stadium or from the comfort of their own homes — without the presence of a physical audience could also be an unsettling experience for performers. This is true in comedy, where building a rapport with an audience can affect pacing and tone. 

As the host at the COVID Arms, Pritchard-Mclean said while there are some comedians who can talk straight into camera and perform their set with no audience response, there are others who are less comfortable. Often those who fare best are the “match-fit” club comics who have “an impenetrably brilliant, tight 20 minutes that they can do in any circumstances, because that’s how they make a living,” she said.

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Kiri Pritchard-Mclean has performing across multiple online platforms this past year.

Kayla Wren

As for her own performances, Pritchard-Mclean said using material  she knows well lets her remain comfortable with the format. “As time has gone on, I think I’m quite used to doing it just down the barrel,” she said.

Over the past year, digital audiences that performers can interact with have also become increasingly common, which has shifted the dynamic back to an extent. Pritchard-Mclean hosts BBC Radio 4’s sketch show Newsjack, which is traditionally recorded in front of a live audience, but went without for a while during the early stages of the pandemic. It now has a digital audience, which she said is “really fun” — for the most part. 

“The only thing is, the rhythm’s kind of not right, a bit like when you’re on a Zoom call — there’s a slight lag.” It can result in a second and a half where nobody laughs after she’s told a joke, she said. “And then they do and you’re like, oh God, thank Christ.”

It’s then important to quickly move on when the laugh ends so as not to leave a gap, she added. “You’re just constantly learning on the job,” she said. “We’ve had to adapt our skills very quickly.”

It goes to show that while audience interaction can’t be exactly replicated, there are still ways to form and reinforce connections between audiences and performers that feel meaningful to both — even if it means jumping between platforms to do so.

Pritchard-Mclean uses Instagram Live to host Ru Views — a Ru Paul’s Drag Race recap show — with fellow comedian Stephen Bailey, and to run Q&As with her All Killa No Filla podcast host Rachel Fairburn. “My audience is on Instagram, so it’s a really nice direct way of hanging out with them,” she said. 

Accessibility and diversity

While the pandemic has been hard — especially financially — on the arts, digital has brought new benefits in accessibility and storytelling. “The pro has been that we’ve been able to open out to a wider community of artists,” Crooks  said. “So we’ve had to open our thinking and not necessarily just work with the traditional mix, and that’s brought a diversity of programming.”

It’s helped to drive a wider change for the theater in finding fresh stories and fresh lenses to tell those stories with “integrity and urgency,” she added, helping to provoke debate around the environment, the Black Lives Matter movement, gender inequality and abuse of power.

In the comedy scene, the constant touring and gigging can be hard on comics who have disabilities, are neurodivergent or don’t have the money to sustain themselves while getting started. Pritchard-Mclean said digital has provided a good opportunity to ensure more diversity in lineups. She’s worried it may not last.

Clubs and other comics have supported and profited off comedians throughout the pandemic who hadn’t previously had allowances made for their access, and are turning their backs on them again now that physical venues are reopening, which she describes as “really gross.”

“We’ve had a steep learning curve with it, but we’ve all got stuff in place, and I think that we can all do more to make it more accessible,” said Pritchard-Mclean.

Hawthorne warns that venues continuing to provide digital options as they reopen will frame the experience as second best. Theaters still want people to come to shows, so in order to convince them they should, it’s necessary to maintain the logic that one option is not quite as good, she said. “It’s that facade of access that still prioritizes bums on seats, bodies in a room.”

Digital accessibility has hugely benefited traditionally excluded audiences over the past year, many of whom theaters have been trying and failing to reach for years. The innovation that’s taken place has proved that digital experiences don’t need to be second rate, and opened the mind of theater makers to new possibilities.

The online offerings from Swamp Motel, for example, have shaken up people’s expectations of what online theater can look like over the past year, but historically the company has focused on site-specific immersive theater. Inevitably, said co-founder and Creative Director Clem Garritty, this ends up taking place in a big city such as London. This limits the number of people who can see it to those who have access to the city and those who can afford the ticket price, which given the size of the sets and the space needed, can be quite expensive. 

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Swamp Motel’s immersive experiences are highly rated.

Swamp Motel

The pandemic has shown him a different way of doing things that can give audiences who are traditionally excluded from pricier site-specific shows a similar, if not quite as sensory, immersive experience.

“We get them to cooperate with other audience members and hopefully get their hearts racing a little bit more than they would if they were just watching another Netflix show,” he said in an interview. “So I like the idea of continuing — it’s been really lovely to open our world up to all of those new audiences.”

For smaller performance spaces and venues that have a community around them, taking events digital has been more than just providing entertainment — it can also be a real lifeline. Among LGBTQ people who have been deprived of access to the dynamic scene in London during the pandemic, or never even had access to it in the first place, online events such as Queer House Party and Club Quarantine have been really important and successful, according to Alim Kheraj, author of the book Queer London.

“I hope artists and venues realize that digital offerings should continue, especially in a city like London where accessibility is a really big issue for LGBTQ venues, many of which are down in basements or not necessarily welcoming to people with disabilities or those who may be neurodivergent,” Kheraj said over email. “Digital offerings from these venues, as well as digital club nights, really open up LGBTQ+ nightlife to everyone and that’s something that I hope that people consider moving forward.”

Digital performance in a post-pandemic world

Despite the desire to go back to normal, digital performances aren’t going away.

This Sunday, Pritchard-Mclean is due to perform her first All Killa No Filla stage show with an audience in the room since the pandemic began at Kentish Town Forum in London. But for those who can’t make it in person, there will also be a ticketed livestream

After a year of livestream-only shows, she sees no reason why having a stream shouldn’t become the norm. “Now we’ve moved into an area of greater inclusivity and access, why would we move backwards?” she said. “If you have the facilities, I don’t know why you wouldn’t.” It’s hard to quantify because her work is varied and across many platforms, but she thinks her own audience may have grown over the past year — especially internationally.

Crooks also doesn’t see digital as an either/or option. “It’s part of your tool box, your compendium of tricks,” she said. “Why would you not [use it]? Why would you exclude anybody from your experience, whether it’s from a creative opportunity or be it from the audience? Why on Earth would you not work really hard to be inclusive?”

Both Kheraj and Garritty expressed their hope that Zoom fatigue won’t get in the way of people embracing digital performance in the long run. As a theater maker, Garritty said the challenge now is “extracting the thrill of the games, from the stigma of video calls.”

“We’re very keen to hammer home the message that you can also walk around someone’s house and play it, or it’s like a film that you can all take part in,” he said. “It’s not just a Zoom-based lockdown activity.”

From Crooks’ perspective, theater has been presented with an opportunity for a shakeup, to liberate itself from the shackles of convention — a challenge, she pointed out, they should be able to meet given that they’re creatives.

“It’s ironic, because the whole point is that a lot of us got into it because we’re bloody anarchists, and yet our practice is actually quite conservative,” she said. “I think it’s time for change, don’t you?”

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