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National Theatre's executive director Lisa Burger: 'We've always sought to be more accessible'

Burger talks to WhatsOnStage about the venue's new streaming platform and hopes for 2021

Lisa Burger
© James Bellorini

One of 2020's defining moments (from many!) was the National Theatre's decision to launch its own streaming platform – National Theatre at Home. The successor to a fruitful relationship with YouTube that saw free shows being streamed for a week across the summer, the subscription service (which also offers individual shows on-demand) houses a plethora of National Theatre productions (and co-productions) that have been either been recorded or previously broadcast in cinemas as part of National Theatre Live. At the moment, users can sit down for an evening with Inua Ellams' adaptation of Three Sisters, Phèdre starring Helen Mirren, Mosquitoes with Olivia Colman and many many more. All shows come with captions, and a selection of titles will have audio-description and BSL versions available.

Speaking with the theatre's executive director Lisa Burger back when London was in tier two (remember that?), the platform has, in her words, launched to great success: of the two models offered, a large portion have chosen to subscribe to the service ("the timing has been very good – it's the ideal Christmas present") – particularly the annual subscription. Burger sees it as a solid sign of audience belief in both the venue and its digital offering – an investment not simply in a streaming site, but in a major producing venue.

The platform hasn't just been a hit domestically – 50 per cent of the National Theatre at Home's audiences are from outside of the UK. Burger has promised that more shows will be added monthly (coming soon is Julie starring Vanessa Kirby) – as she puts it, to "show people the huge breadth of work that both the National and its co-producers make."

But how exactly did the National Theatre at Home come about? Burger says it's been a gradual process: "Over the years, we've always sought to make the National Theatre more accessible. Through accessible ticket prices both during and post-Travelex sponsorship, by getting work into schools (both live and with the NT Collection), taking productions out on tour, or through NT Live.

Getting people to sit down and watch shows at home is only the first step though, Burger states: "One of the key things is, once we've got people watching NT at Home, how do we then link them to theatres around the country. Because that's important – there's so much incredible theatre across the UK."

"National Theatre At Home"

Theatres aren't the only ones that have faced perilous times during the pandemic – freelance workforces have been hit hard, something Burger hopes the National Theatre at Home service will help highlight: "This is a way of getting the message out about how many freelancers are affected by this terrible situation, and how all our shows are made by this workforce. Getting a revenue stream for them was really important to us".

It's hard to try and discuss the future when so much uncertainty surrounds the performing arts – the National's pantomime, Dick Whittington, had its run halted by tier three restrictions (a recording will be added to National Theatre at Home later this month), while the venue's upcoming revival of The Normal Heart will hopefully arrive at some point this spring – dates are currently unconfirmed.

But the National's prospects are helped immensely, according to Burger by the reconfigured Olivier auditorium design – where the venue has been presenting shows on and off since October. "We've moved the capacity to 500, but we can flex it if and when social distancing changes – altering the configuration on stage or the audience in the auditorium. It means we can aim to plan through quite a way into 2021." Of course, a lot of this is down to infection rates, though news of a vaccine roll-out was as well-received by Burger as any in the arts community.

Like so many other organisations across the UK, the National has had a tough time across the pandemic – cutting staff numbers and applying for a large-scale government loan, which has since been given. Burger is realistic yet pragmatic about the coming 12 months: "It's going to be a tough year. We've all built business models that rely on high audience capacity – not just bums on seats, but also people coming in and eating, drinking, parking their cars, buying things from the shop, going to the cinema for NT Live. It's meant we've had to cut our cloth somewhat.

"That's why getting income from things like NT at Home subscriptions has been so vital – balancing the books and getting work to audiences."

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