The sixteenth of March is going to be a number etched into the history of the performing arts across the UK – the day the call came: "close down, stay shut, it isn't safe for you to be open".
Within weeks theatres had mobilised archives – announcing what they were planning to stream online, how much it might cost, which charity it was raising money for. Here at WhatsOnStage we've been meticulously trying to keep track of it all, and in the last month and a half, many millions of you have been flocking to the site to find out what's available to watch.
While a lot of the shows streamed have been big, gargantuan hits (looking at you, Royal Albert Hall Phantom), the fact that the National is presenting Inua Ellams' sublime Barber Shop Chronicles next week is a major cause for celebration, while Pilot Theatre's Crongton Knights was a rollicking blast and a glimpse at what the future of performance might look like. Last week I watched David Ireland's blistering Cyprus Avenue before hopping over to Deafinitely's YouTube page for Love's Labour's Lost. In short, the greatest festival has been assembled – and it's all free on the internet.
Fringe work (from the likes of Teddy Lamb, Breach, Poltergeist and oodles more) sits side by side with big productions from big producing houses – rock musical Eugenius, Curve Leicester's Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual, the Globe's historic Richard II with Adjoa Andoh, or Sally Cookson's Jane Eyre. There's certainly no comparison whatsoever with witnessing it live (and, even with all the free content, audiences will still treasure that experience when it does return), but it's a pretty veritable embarrassment of riches nonetheless.
What all the online theatre has done is beamed out UK-grown shows to global audiences. It's brought work to UK shores – The International Online Theatre Festival has presented some gems, including Schaubühne Berlin's Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch-led Orlando (Barbican audiences were robbed of the chance to see it in April), or Milo Rau's Lenin. What's more, it gives fan favourites another spot in the limelight – the tear-away Brontë musical Wasted being an obvious example.
In the middle of lockdowns, these streamed shows keep the performing arts fresh in everyone's minds, they might even coax brand new audiences into venues once the virus subsides (NESTA's tracker is showing a growing number of people streaming theatre online for the first time). They highlight just how revelatory and malleable theatre can be – take the Lyric Hammersmith's production of A Doll's House adapted by Tanika Gupta, transporting Ibsen's story to 19th century Kolkata and letting it unfurl with new themes and truths. It also gives a wider platform to rising stars – in this case, a nuanced central turn from the award-nominated Anjana Vasan.
There are a few significant caveats – venues and companies must do everything they can to make sure that all of this work is accessible – as Stagetext recently reported, 2.5 million people watched The Phantom of the Opera with subtitles, a record number for the company. Where possible, recording audio introductions and making resource packs available can go a long way.
Most importantly though, just because this work is being streamed for free, doesn't mean the producers behind it are sitting pretty on stacks of cash. Every week brings direr and direr news about the impact of both lockdowns and social distancing on venues and companies. A brief look on Companies House reveals some theatres are already strapped, now lacking their biggest source of income. Without adequate funding, especially once quarantines are over, productions like those being shown for free right now will never be made again.
If you have the means, please donate when you watch a show online. Think about the follow-spot operator lighting the stars, or the seamstress working their magic backstage. These roles are vital for the thrilling nature of performance, and many freelancers are currently jobless. It's heartening to hear the National confirm that it's making a nominal payment to all artists involved in its shows placed on YouTube – in the same week that artistic director Rufus Norris warned of the venue's future. Only through sustained support can theatres return to producing top-class art – when talented creatives can let their passions shine.