If all the world’s a stage, every living room has the best seat in the house. Or so, that’s what organisations like National Theatre Live and Digital Theatre would have us believe. Since The New York Met first hosted a live screening a decade ago in 2006, the concept of watching theatrical performance from the comfort of your own home has slowly become more accepted and utilised, with technology making it easier to showcase and streaming capabilities making it possible to watch virtually anywhere.
While the capabilities behind live streaming have improved, however, theatre’s association with it hasn’t moved on completely and there’s still tricky ground wedged between live performance and recorded viewings; does watching a live streaming take away the very point of a communal production (and the age-old mantra that performance is ‘different every night’), or is it a way to encourage more to attend the real deal - making theatre, opera and dance accessible to all regardless of location or availability? Digital is an ever-changing platform, should theatre and the arts try and hitch a ride with it? Or is it better off in a different vehicle entirely?
In a landmark report titled From Live-To Digital, UK Theatre (SOLT) worked alongside Arts Council England and AEA Consulting to provide detailed insight into what, exactly, the industry consensus is and what it means for the future of recorded art. Interestingly (and perhaps as a surprise to some), 38% companies and producers believed that streamed shows had a positive impact on their work with only 13% seeing a negative effect. Most importantly, however, was the report’s finding that audiences do not believe recorded performances to be a substitute for live theatre; in the report, 54% of respondents believed live-to-digital a completely distinct experience from attending a performance in person, and less than 30% believed a streamed experience to be more engaging than watching live art in person.
What do these findings mean for digital and the arts then? And how can we utilise them to ensure new channels and technology work to the industry’s advantage, rather than against it. Unsurprisingly, the report showed that younger audiences are more likely to stream than older generations and, perhaps even less surprisingly, it’s these audiences that venues can struggle to attract. A survey by the Audience Agency earlier this year showed that the largest attending theatre audience group was people between the age of 65 and 74, with an average viewing age of 52. And, despite a 75% increase in the number of bookers under the age of 35, the National Theatre London’s average visitor age still rested at 47 according to their 2015-16 annual report.
According to UK Theatre’s study, 86% of the 16-24 year olds they spoke to had attended event cinema and 71% have streamed (compared to just 19% of over 75s), showcasing the opportunities available for the right companies. Digital is a language younger generations understand, but learning to speak it doesn't mean you need to use it in the same way as everyone else. We all have our own quirks when talking or writing, and every English-speaking area has its own dialect. It's understandable, regardless of what reports say, that some of us will still have doubts about what streaming could mean; a piece designed for the stage won't always necessarily translate to screen, with subtleties lost and the viewer forced to focus on what the camera does, rather than their own free will.
However, the report does show hope in encouraging new audiences to attend live theatre; both in terms of considering our marketing and, indeed, programming moving forward. And besides, even if the living room does have the best room in the house, a CD never stopped any music fan from battling to get coveted gig tickets online. All the world's a stage, and every resident's your audience if you choose to cater for them.