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The Digitization of Theater: Are There More Ways to Watch Than Ever Before?

In a previous life, I worked at a publishing house where my role was to help our author’s books be made available in as many languages, countries and formats as possible. The philosophy was simple, the more widely available the text was, the broader the author’s audience and the more revenue returned to the publisher.

While the dawn of Kindles and ebooks posed a threat, it also presented a new outlet of readers and a new format to reach them with. Rather than viewing ebooks as ‘other’, it became key to embrace them and accept this was a new way of interacting with readers. So it’s been very interesting for me to see the digitization of theater. Are there similar opportunities to explore in the arts?

How has the way we access the arts changed

Looking at the way people access entertainment now compared to how they did ten or twenty years ago, the options available are almost unrecognizable. The current generation of entertainment consumers are the most demanding there has ever been, and with services such as Netflix making it easier than ever for them to watch whatever they want, any time, any place, it’s now possible to enjoy entertainment more frequently and more conveniently from the comfort of their home or when they’re on the move.

There’s no question that this fills the hearts of many arts industry folks with fear and doubt about whether or not people will eventually no longer feel the need to attend the theater at all, finding that all their entertainment needs are satisfied by their TiVo box or Netflix subscription. But despite the long list of other ways people can be entertained, for many people, their love of watching theater hasn’t diminished. However, it does seem that there’s a growing list of ways that people are interacting with theater that arts organizations can benefit from.

Live theater streamed into cinemas

When National Theatre Live began in 2009, it was an experimental initiative, broadcasting the National Theatre’s live production of Phedre starring Helen Mirren to cinemas across the country. Since then, their broadcasts of over twenty productions have been experienced by over 4 million people in more than 1,100 venues around the world, including 550 in the UK. The broadcasts are always live and take place in front of an audience in the theater, with cameras positioned to make sure that cinema audiences get the “best seat in the house” view of each production.

Similarly, on the first night it was streamed, 225,000 people went to their local cinema to watch the Barbican’s production of Hamlet. Although the celebrity casting of Benedict Cumberbatch may have done much to encourage such a large audience, there’s no doubt that live theater streaming made it much more accessible with cheaper tickets and unlimited seats to people who otherwise may not have engaged with the theater at all.

Studies done by National Theatre Live show that live theater streaming is allowing the arts to reach a younger and less affluent audience, as well as older people who may not be able to make it to a theater, particularly one on the other side of the country to them. As pointed out in the Economist,

“Streaming [...] is less a threat than a hope, doing more than any other innovation to tackle the elitism and the lack of access that plague the performing arts today.”

Repeat screenings of live theater

In addition to reaching a new audience, the Barbican managed to benefit from the production well after it’s 12 week run was over, as there were encore (repeat) screenings running until the end of November, over a month after the run ended.

Many argue that the immediacy of live theater – that in-the-moment, unique experience of attending a live theater event – is lost if you’re watching a filmed version of a production that has been over for a few weeks. But if an organization is able to benefit financially, reach an audience of people who they’d otherwise never reach and potentially convert some people to buy tickets to other live theater events, then it’s worthwhile.

Could a theater streaming service be the future?

As with the film industry, where we’re used to seeing a film and then being able to catch it on Netflix or a similar service at a later date, could this soon become the case with theater?

Much like the debate over print and ebooks, fears have been voiced over the years that live theater streams would cannibalise theater-going, encouraging theater audiences to go to their local cinema rather than the theater.

However, research from Nesta in 2014 disputed this, indicating that actually live theater streams were creating higher engagement in London and having no impact on theater-going regionally. It would seem then that high quality streamed theater is only creating demand.

In the US, a new streaming service, Broadway HD, created by acclaimed Broadway producers, Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, was announced in October last year to be the new Netflix or Hulu for the stage. The service is offering a library of performances available either for individual rent, or through a monthly or yearly subscription. Although the service is still quite limited in content, it’s easy to see the potential it has to progress. Other on-demand subscription services have also began to emerge, such as Digital Theatre and Digital Theatre Plus for schools.

Again, these services could open up a whole new audience who previously never attended the theater, maybe because of expensive tickets or fear of the elitism often associated with the arts. These services aren’t intended to replace the unique experience of live theater, but rather were created with the aim of allowing theater to reach as many people as possible, with a vision that someday all performances will one day be captured on film so people can continue to experience them for years to come.

Although this service is still it’s early days of life, could this be the direction theater is headed, as it has been with the film and TV industry?

Rather than seeing the digitization of theater as a threat and something that will destroy theater as we know it, we should use it as a tool to reach new audiences and show them the real value of theater. Although most arts organizations won’t be able to live-stream every production they have into cinemas across the country, digital services like YouTube or social media platforms can be used to whet the appetite of theater-goers. It’s a relatively cheap and effective way of keeping up with the times and can help diminish the fear in your organisation over the digitization of theater.