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What is the Future of Theatre in the Digital Age?

Grid Iron's Leaving Planet Earth.

You may have recently read this article by Spektrix co-founder Michael Nabarro on the future of the theatre box office in light of new technologies. We can be sure that this transformation won’t stop at the box office but go well beyond it. And that’s because the ability of digital technology to connect people better and faster aligns with the fundamental purpose of theatre  - which is to connect people to entertaining or intellectual artistic experiences. The growing possibilities for connecting to audiences through digital technology could reshape what theatre is at its most basic level.

With all new moves to new technology comes a fresh wave of calls about the ‘death’ of theatre. But rather than theatre simply giving way in favour of new technologies, it is already adapting in small but significant ways to use technology to connect with audiences in new ways.

Theatre makers are using technology to augment the experience of audiences in theatre and connect them much more closely to the action with immersive theatre. At the Edinburgh International Festival this year, Leaving Planet Earth heavily used technology to put audiences into the role of displaced refugees from a future dystopian Earth, and back in 2010 Give Me Back My Broken Night led its audience through a future Soho using computerised maps projected from box projectors worn like necklaces. We may still be in the "novelty whizz-bang" stage of bringing technology into theatre but this will soon give way as technology begins to blend more invisibly into the work, leaving audiences with the sensation that they have had a heightened theatrical experience.

Theatre isn’t only bringing technology into it, but is going to the technology to look for new ways of engaging audiences, by making it possible to participate in theatre on the internet. It’s a type of experience audiences actually want; an Arts Council report on digital audiences found that leading edge participants in digital art and culture want a new generation of online experiences that make use of the unique characteristics of the internet. This year’s Royal Shakespeare Company production ‘Midsummer Night’s Dreaming’ provided audiences with just that very thing. Produced in collaboration with Google Plus, it aimed to get people experiencing the play rather than watching it. In their trailer, they say “we want people to play with the play” and to surround it with “noise” in the form of memes, infographics, blogs, and songs. This online content was later curated by Puck himself, who steps out of the play and off the stage to become a kind of virtual guardian of online content. 

As an experiment to explore ways of connecting audiences online and in turn, re-configuring Shakespeare for today’s world, contributing and interacting with online content was as big a part of the production as the live performance itself. However, it is also proof that digital marketing has an increasingly interesting role to play in the process of reshaping how theatre connects audiences to artistic experiences. The way the RSC used social media to listen rather than talk, its use of video trailers, behind-the-scenes blog posts, and its invitations to people to contribute are the same tactics for connecting with audiences used in a new breed of marketing that 4 out of 5 CMOs say is the future of marketing: content marketing.

Content marketing can be described as marketing which doesn’t push marketing messages onto people, but invites them in through interesting content, adding to their experience of the thing being sold. Content marketing is being used effectively in the retail sector, for example in the form of Red Bull aligning their energy drink closely with the world of extreme sports. But in the theatre, content marketing is different. Content marketers in theatre already have stories and interesting content – as a result, arts marketers can help people connect to artistic experiences in deeper ways, by making more of the creative material. This begins to blur the division between those who make the art and those who market it. The RSC production (and many others) demonstrates how arts marketers are beginning to work as collaborators on art, rather than mediators to the public and as long as digital technology carries on developing, this will continue and result in sophisticated content creation.

This deepening of digital content into art, and art into digital content, is going to increase as wearable technology like Google Glass and smartphones in watch form emerge, making it more difficult for audiences to leave technology out of the auditorium. As theatre makers recognise the increasing need to explore digital technology to connect to audiences, they will become more involved in marketing, and in turn, marketers will become more involved in what artists and theatre makers do, in order to produce valuable and meaningful content. There will be artists whose creativity is matched by their knowledge of technology to heighten audience experiences, and there will be marketers who, as well as being highly digitally skilled, will need to become more involved in the creative thought that goes into theatre.

At a wider level, this could have implications for the arts sector as a whole, which will require digital prowess and creative thinking in equal measure - because at some point, the two sides surely have to meet, and when they do the arts sector will be fertile ground for innovation.

 

Image credit: Stuart Armitt, via wired.co.uk