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Jo Caird: To Stream, or Not to Stream

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For as long as there's been theatre, there have been theatre-makers inspired to take their work out of the auditorium, taking theatre to the people rather than the other way around. Until very recent times, this was limited to street theatre and site-specific work, but with increased understanding of the tools of the digital age, we've seen a new phenomenon with the potential to open theatre up to audiences far larger than the capacity of even the hugest of venues: live streaming.

The Royal Opera House began screening performances in Covent Garden Piazza in 1987 (I know, surprisingly early, eh?) and launched the BP Big Screens live relay programme in 2000, but it wasn't until a couple of years ago that the rest of the industry began to catch up and started launching their own live streaming schemes.

In 2008, the same year that the ROH launched its series of live nationwide cinema screenings of ballet and opera, digital pioneer, York-based Pilot Theatre, began live streaming its work online via its interactive channel Pilot-Theatre.TV. The following year, NT Live saw Phaedre with Helen Mirren broadcast to 73 UK and 200 international cinemas. Michael Billington's review of the screening concluded with the words, “my hunch is that this is only the beginning of a revolution in making theatre available in ways of which we had never dreamed”.

When I interviewed Pilot's artistic director Marcus Romer in 2009 for an article on what the theatre industry might stand to gain from using Twitter (which makes for interesting reading looking back if I do say so myself), the world of digital engagement and live streaming was still very new. Back then he commented that “we don’t know exactly what it’s going to be but we’re interested in how this is going for the future”. Romer was confident, however, that live streaming offered fantastic opportunities for extending theatre's reach.

Two years down the line and, while live streaming isn't exactly standard practice in UK theatre, it's certainly becoming more common. Last week Chris Mellor, creative producer at Camden Theatres, a local council supported umbrella organisation for the borough's theatre spaces, wrote a piece for the Guardian Culture Professionals Network on the potential of live streaming as an untapped source of revenue in small-scale theatre.

Mellor's argument that theatre producers should direct resources towards digital audience engagement is no longer a controversial one. These days, if you're running a theatre or a company without a website, Facebook page and Twitter account, you're missing a major trick. More problematic, I think, is Mellor's suggestion that this investment in social media will have a direct pay off in terms of revenue earned.

The producer has published an essay on the subject that makes for interesting reading, offering some practical advice for producers and theatres wishing to further develop their social media engagement. In particular, his run-down of the costs and issues to consider for setting up live streaming may be useful for theatre-makers looking to explore widening audience engagement in this way. But the idea that as it becomes more difficult to get bums on seats in small venues, money can be earned by live streaming shows to paying customers online, as well as charging for recorded versions of the show after the fact, seems to me hopelessly flawed and a dangerous model for the small-scale theatre industry.

Things get tricky when you start asking live streaming to provide a return on investment, this model effectively shutting down the potential of the technology to broaden the reach of a piece of work, access previously hard-to-reach audiences and give existing audiences a value-added experience. Charging for online content sets up expectations as to the value of a product.

Organisations such as NT Live and Digital Theatre (which works with theatre companies to produce recorded and edited versions of live performances for download) invest a great deal in creating two-dimensional versions of live theatre that will stand up to critical scrutiny in their own right. The craft and expense that has gone into making them justifies charging people to see them. Small-scale theatres and producers are unlikely to have the resources available to create an online product that people will feel is good value for money in its own right. My concern is that producers tempted by Mellor's idea of live streaming as potential revenue stream stand to risk losing sight of what's most important and pouring money into live streaming at the expense of the work itself and the experience of the audience sat in the theatre.

I could be totally wrong about all this. Maybe in a year's time we'll all be acknowledging live streaming as the saviour of small-scale theatre. It's impossible to predict the future, particularly when it comes to fast-moving technology. But my instinct is that looking to live streaming to sooth theatre's financial woes is unwise and a distraction from the many positive opportunities that it has to offer the industry.


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