As I logged into Twitter on Saturday evening, the tweets cluttering my timeline were, unusually, united in startling agreement. Nearly everyone I follow seemed to be watching the same thing; not Take Me Out or The Voice, but an online live stream of Forced Entertainment's six-hour durational show 12AM: Awake & Looking Down.
Everyone who tweeted was watching it in a different place, from their bed or sofa or desk, but these scattered individuals were also watching the show together, as part of a separate but collective audience meeting in an online space.
This observation feels significant in light of renewed debate around the increasing practice of streaming theatre productions, be it huge operations like NT Live screening in cinemas across the country or modest webcasts of experimental performance. A number of theatre makers have expressed concern about these recordings replacing live performance, while Lyn Gardner recently mounted a persuasive defence for the expansion of audience reach that these screenings allow.
Both sides of the argument make valid enough points. Those who take issue with the recording of performances protest that it somehow pollutes or detracts from the uniqueness of the live event, releasing viewers from the attention that is required of them in the theatre and encouraging audiences to retreat further and further into their screens, while live performance withers away. The digital advocates, on the other hand, argue that screening theatre events can take them to a bigger audience in just one night than they might otherwise reach during a whole run, not to mention offering an opportunity for those without easy access to a theatre to engage with an art form that might otherwise be unavailable to them.
As Gardner points out, it doesn't have to be a case of either/or; enjoying a performance online or in the cinema does not preclude the possibility of also taking a trip to the theatre. The two experiences offer different benefits. What I'd rather focus on, however, is the accusation – often levelled at streamed theatre – that it removes the collective, live experience of being part of an audience. It is implied that this is one of the key reasons for attending theatre rather than watching TV or sitting in front of a computer screen. In the modern world, the theatre is one of the few places where we can still have a live, unmediated experience, surrounded by other human beings. And this is, to an extent, true.
But what I witnessed on Saturday night looked an awful lot like an audience all having an experience together, even if that experience wasn't in the same room. The same thing happened to an even greater extent throughout the 24 hours of Forced Entertainment's Quizoola!, live streamed from the Barbican last year, and a similar online buzz has attended other webcasts by theatres such as the National Theatre of Wales and Hampstead Theatre.
On these various occasions, I have experienced a rare feeling of real community online, as a wide range of people all gather round one enthusiasm and exchange thoughts and responses. Sure, it's not quite the same as having those reactions while sitting in the same space and breathing the same air, but the feelings and thoughts that the online experience provokes belong to the same family as those encountered in a theatre. And once audiences are hooked on the shared experience, who's to say that they won't seek it out again and again, both on and offline?
Check out our pick of cinemas to watch this week's screening of the West End production of Private Lives, starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor.