The show must go online, but should it stay there?
Updated: May 25, 2020
Two weeks ago I watched What The Butler Saw by Joe Orton, performed at the Curve Theatre in Leicester, while drinking tea and wearing my pyjamas.
It was archival footage from a brilliant 2017 production of Orton's 1969 play, directed by Nikolai Foster. It featured no fancy camerawork and sound quality so bad it required subtitles, but once I got over the oddness of watching via a single stationary camera somewhere in the nosebleed section, it was great. The comedy is absurd and dark as pitch, the performances were excellent, and the biting satire of Orton's politics still feels incredibly relevant today. And to top it all off, the play is free to watch. I would highly encourage anyone even slightly interested to give this work and this company a watch, and a donation if you can spare it. I am, however, a little disheartened that I can only watch great international theatre now that a global pandemic has decimated our industry.
The price and access of theatre is a complicated issue that anyone who wants to watch plays regularly can empathise with in some way. For some audiences members, the only barriers to seeing great theatre are buying tickets close enough to the stage and finding a park once you get there. Ideally, this should be all that an audience needs to consider when accessing this art form. But if you've ever been a potential audience member in a less than stellar financial situation, then I'm sure you know where I'm going with this.
Theatre tickets are expensive.
When I was a student, I would try to see at least one mainstage play every year. I would wait for the programs to be released, and then pour over the selection online looking for the one play I would see. Once I had selected my play, I would send the link to my mum, because every year my mum would buy us two tickets to the show I picked for my birthday.
We've had this arrangement for years, and I am very lucky that my mum was and is in a position to buy two $80 tickets for me as a gift. I am also incredibly lucky that my parents have connections and friendships with actors and theatre makers, meaning cheaper or free tickets weren't uncommon when I was growing up. It's this privilege that led me down the path of dramaturgy in the first place. When I was in high school my parents could afford to send me to weekly lessons at the Australian Theatre for Young People, giving me even more access to theatre than my peers. Engaging with theatre since I was 15 gave me a head start- I am grateful for that head start, but it would be disingenuous to say that me becoming a dramaturg was not heavily influenced by my access to money and education.
That being said, only seeing one mainstage show a year would probably be considered by some people in the theatre community to be a very small number. Someone could theoretically spend thousands of dollars seeing every show in Sydney if they wanted to. And I should point out that I don't think this is a bad thing- the more theatre the better, and if you can see great live performances then you absolutely should. But expensive tickets will automatically exclude lots of people from seeing shows. And this isn't just an Australian problem. In her 2012 article for The Guardian, Lyn Gardner explains that, when taking into account the average price for a West End ticket and the average full-time income in the UK at the time, the cost for two people seeing a play would be one fifth of their weekly income. And this just isn't a justifiable cost for some.
There are, of course, some workarounds- this article by Concrete Playground gives a comprehensive list of discounts and giveaways put on by theatre companies in Sydney. However, if you don't live in a major city, you still won't be able to access theatre regardless of your budget. Finding digital copies of filmed productions can also be nightmarishly difficult- I remember one of my lecturers at uni only having a copy of a German production because she went to the actual theatre while in Germany and purchased a physical copy.
Of course, in this situation, regional theatre becomes a vital lifeline in the arts community. Part of why I loved going to university in Wollongong is the amount of great community theatre that the Illawarra has to offer. Merrigong Theatre hosts touring productions from around Australia, if you're able to pay the regular $80 a ticket, but also offers a host of other excellent programs. This year would have included changes to their MerringongX program of new independent work, where audiences could reserve seats and simply pay what they could on the night. Aside from the big theatres, Wollongong is also home to companies like the Illawarra Youth Arts Project, Anita's Theatre, Workshop Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, the University of Wollongong's performance and theatre projects, and Roo Theatre Company, to name just the ones I've experienced myself . These companies, and dozens of others, offer wonderful opportunities for young performers and artists at very reasonable rates for audiences. It's definitely not as flashy as what huge, government-funded theatre companies can achieve, but if you want to simply consume as much good theatre as possible, then it's pretty achievable if your regional area has a community theatre scene.
Of course, even if you have some money and live near a big city, theatre has other barriers to entry that come with its signature liveness. If you work nights and weekends, if you study and don't have a lot of free time, or if you have to negotiate issues related to mobility or visual/aural impairment, then theatre is still hard to access. A lot of the bigger theatre companies offer closed caption or audio-described performances, but these services have their own issues. All the money in the world won't help you if you have vision problems and work on a Saturday afternoon at 2pm.
So, considering all the issues that might impact an audience member's ability to participate in theatre- money, location, free time, disabilities access- it seems like an obvious move for larger theatre companies to offer more streaming options. But before this pandemic, the concept of watching a lavish mainstage production online instead of in a theatre was laughable in most situations.
There are a lot of reasons why theatre companies may be resistant to the intrusion of streaming options. There are arguments to be made that services like Netflix have negatively impacted smaller film and TV markets like Australia, as viewers have become less reliant on local content. Could streaming international theatre, perhaps with larger budgets and creative teams, be unfair competition to the much smaller Australian theatre market? More broadly, part of the financial power of theatre is its scarcity. People will pay very good money to see Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett take on culturally important roles live on stage, where Cate and Hugo will presumably be paid handsomely for their efforts. Does a filmed production cheapen the effect, or maybe even discourage audiences when they could just watch Lord of the Rings on DVD again? Perhaps the infrastructure needed to record productions is simply too expensive or not worth the investment. But there are larger cultural problems at play here that are a little more abstract. Is it still theatre if it isn't live? With an archival recording or a live stream, your control over an audience's experience is drastically reduced. They can log off, they can pause, they can drink tea in their pyjamas and talk all the way through. Maybe it comes down to something as simple as the idea that it just doesn't feel like the theatre when its playing on a laptop screen.
But is it justifiable that theatres have only now embraced the community-bolstering potential of online shows? This pandemic affects all audiences now, but what about the large potential audiences that have essentially been ignored up until this point? Will theatre companies continue to let me pay my £10 donation and enjoy their hard work in the comfort of my own home?
I think a lot of people trying to negotiate the barriers of theatre would be more than willing to pay cheaper rates to watch online shows from Australia's best companies. I'm sure those who live in remote areas and have to consider their disabilities would agree. Theatre does arguably lose some of its magic when its not performed live, but surely any theatre is better than no theatre at all. I'm very happy that the theatre community has opened its doors and let some of these excellent productions have a second life online. This House by James Graham and Josie Rourke's Coriolanus starring Mark Gatiss and Tom Hiddleston are coming soon to National Theatre Live on YouTube, and I will most certainly be tuning in. But after this is all over, I think theatre companies might have a hard time convincing patrons that streaming is not the way of the future. The arguments against streaming are convincing, and the idea that this is the future of live performance is a scary one. But I believe that theatre companies can take advantage of the community's support, and turn this crisis solution into a lucrative business model that can help audiences of all kinds enjoy good, Australian theatre in whatever way they can.
And even if theatre companies still can't empathise with the plight of people with no money, people living in remote places, or people having to consider their own personal accessibility issues, they can surely empathise with the ridiculously convenient nature of streaming theatre. A cup of tea and comfy slippers can't compare to the magic of live performance, but they are a comforting benefit of online theatre.
When this is all over, it's going to take a lot to convince me that theatre and pyjamas and tea don't belong together.
What do you think? Should theatre companies stay online post-pandemic? Share your thoughts here , or on Facebook and LinkedIn!
Ainley, O 2019, 'Streaming Shakespeare – why Netflix and theatre make for a royal partnership', WhatsOnStage.com,14 October, viewed 22 May 2020, <https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/netflix-king-lungs-matt-smith-claire-foy_49968.html>.
Ciampi, M 2020, 'Nine ways to score cheap and discounted theatre tickets in Sydney', Concrete Playground, 13 January, viewed 22 May 2020, <https://concreteplayground.com/sydney/arts-entertainment/cheap-discounted-theatre-tickets-sydney>.
Curve 2020, Watch our archive recording of Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw, Leicester Theatre Trust, viewed 22 May 2020, <https://www.curveonline.co.uk/news/watch-our-archive-recording-of-joe-ortons-what-the-butler-saw/>.
Gardner, L 2012, 'Theatre tickets: who can afford them?', The Guardian, 26 September, viewed 22 May 2020, <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2012/sep/25/theatre-tickets-who-can-afford-them>.
Jewkes, K & Moffat, K 2013, Lessons in live streaming from National Theatre Wales, Culture Hive, <https://www.culturehive.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Lessons-in-live-streaming.pdf>.
Merrigong Theatre Company 2019, Hair, Merrigong Theatre Company, viewed 22 May 2020, <https://merrigong.com.au/shows/hair/>.
Merrigong Theatre Company 2020, The Keeper- development showing, Merrigong Theatre Company, viewed 22 May 2020,
National Theatre Live 2020, National Theatre at home, National Theatre Live, viewed 22 May 2020, <http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/>.
Sydney Theatre Company 2014, Thirties, Sydney Theatre Company, viewed 22 May 2020, <https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/twenties>.
Sydney Theatre Company 2015, Pricing and ticket information, Sydney Theatre Company, viewed 22 May 2020, <https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/season-2015/pricing-and-ticket-info#ticketprices>.
Sydney Theatre Company 2020, Accessible performances, Sydney Theatre Company, viewed 22 May 2020, <https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/accessible-performances-asyd>.
this. 2020, 'Is Netflix shrinking Australia’s film and television industry?', Deakin University, viewed 22 May 2020, <https://this.deakin.edu.au/innovation/is-netflix-shrinking-australias-film-and-television-industry>.
What The Butler Saw still © Catherine Ashmore
National Theatre Live Hamlet rehearsal still © Ludovic des Cognets