Isy Platt discusses the future of theatrical streaming as audiences are allowed to return to the venues
Picture it. For the first time in months, maybe years, you are taking your seat in the auditorium of a packed, buzzing theatre, waiting for the lights to go down. It’s an experience that can’t quite be replicated - certainly not at home, on your sofa, watching a graphic countdown the seconds before the streaming of a filmed production from several years ago, long since it was live.
But when the pandemic is finally over, and as we begin to revert back into our old, familiar ways of life, will theatre streaming stay for good?
It would be overly simplistic to label streaming as a quick-fix solution to Covid restrictions which can be set aside when we can pile back inside theatres; streaming was, of course, a common practice in worldwide theatre pre-2020. In the UK, National Theatre Live, set up in 2009 by then NT Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, aims to bring both West End, London and - increasingly - regional productions to wider audiences who would not otherwise have been able to access them, for economic or geographic reasons. The filming of their productions is tailored to ensure audiences watching live across the world, simultaneously with those in the auditorium, are able to experience as similar an experience as possible to that of the in-person theatre-goer.
So maybe the question shouldn’t be whether theatre streaming will stay or not, but instead whether it will experience an increase in popularity, and maybe even threaten live productions. If you had the choice of paying upwards of £40 for an unexceptionally-positioned seat at the National Theatre, or less than half for a cinema ticket for the same production, which would you go for?
When theatre is filmed for streaming, the production undergoes minor alterations and is crafted to resemble a film, whether that be technically, artistically, or in terms of performance. Although filming seeks to disrupt actors’ performances as little as possible, having a dozen strategically-positioned cameras where there would usually be starry-eyed audience members surely affects how performers behave and respond, especially if they are themselves established in film and television. Acting for the screen is very different to acting for stage, and arguably where streaming encounters the most hiccups is the incompatibility of acting style and the framing of shots.
Film is – and has been for a long time – a more popular medium for entertainment than theatre. It is ‘safer’ than theatre, with one, final form that cannot be compromised by on-the-night mishaps. It has a greater universality, not to mention extensive financial backing. By making theatre more like film, it arguably serves to broaden its outreach – but does this compromise the very nature of theatre? A recent success story was the National Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet, starring The Crown’s Josh O’Connor. Threatened with cancellation by the pandemic, they made the bold decision to continue on with rehearsals and film their production over a few days. The end result could not have been more dissimilar to an NT Live production, making use of tight shots, cuts and editing impossible had it been captured live in front of an audience in real-time. Film creates an opportunity for directors to draw audience attention towards specific moments, actions or symbols that might be lost in an auditorium a thousand full. Equally, if people could easily access any number of previously filmed productions, they could choose what they wanted to watch, as they could on Netflix for example. They are no longer dictated by ‘What’s On’ at the theatre; if they wanted to watch 2014’s A Streetcar Named Desire or 2019’s All About Eve, they could, bypassing that familiar feeling for the theatregoer when they read about a fascinating-sounding show they’ve missed.
For me, streamed theatre doesn’t quite live up to the real thing. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its upsides – I did love Romeo and Juliet, and thanks to the Live at Home series I’ve been able to watch plays I had wished I’d seen at the time they were filmed. However, the immediacy and energy of live theatre is something I’ve missed most these past 18 months, and as wonderful as the free NT Live streams were, it made me painfully aware of how much I wanted the real thing, with the uniqueness of each and every night on stage. I’m incredibly fortunate that I’m able to go to the theatre, and that it is becoming increasingly easier for young people from all backgrounds to access it, where steep ticket prices would previously have been off-putting.
(Taking a moment to let everyone know that in London and many UK cities, theatres have reduced prices for under-25s, sometimes as little as the equivalent of two cups of coffee from *insert coffee chain of your choice*)
But – we can’t forget the importance of broadening access and exposure. It might not be perfect, but streaming can form a key part of reaching out to new theatre-goers. Yes, marrying theatre and film isn’t simple, but it can have its benefits. Theatre is a very unique form of artistic and political expression, and the greater its catchment, the better. Otherwise, the key will be whether post-Covid, filmed productions continue to pull the crowds in - or will people not be able to help but go back?