London Is Leading a Post-Pandemic Theater Streaming Revolution
(Bloomberg) -- When London’s theaters started streaming shows to home audiences in lockdown, the goal was to survive the pandemic. It’s worked so well that they don’t want to stop.
Almost half of stage venues in the capital are developing digital offerings to secure a new source of income long after their doors reopen post-Covid, according to The Society of London Theatre.
“An audience has developed around the globe and you can’t let that audience go,” said Susannah Simons, editorial director of Marquee TV, which streams content from heavyweights like the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The crisis has jolted many theater managers out of a reluctance to turn the physical experience of drama into a virtual one. Rather than finding reasons why not to show live theater on TV, they’ve been looking for ways to make it compelling.
“Theater has really pushed the boundaries of what it’s been able to achieve digitally,” said Michael Longhurst, artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse in the West End.
The Donmar is using 3D technology from ScanLab Projects to record more than 50 performers and audience members in three dimensions for “Adult Children,” a play about the fragility of relationships in the Covid era.
The Young Vic in Lambeth plans to stream every new production. Home audiences can watch a live edit, or create their own experience using the theater’s dedicated streaming platform that can switch between multiple cameras placed around the auditorium.
“The games industry has taught us that people love narratives, but they also love narratives they can be a part of,” Young Vic Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah told Bloomberg. Streaming tickets will cost around 15 pounds ($21), compared to 43 pounds for the most expensive seats in the house.
Online shows aren’t necessarily cheaper. The Old Vic nearby has curated a series of plays dubbed “In Camera” (Latin for “In Private”) with top talent including Claire Foy of “The Crown,” produced for remote viewing on Zoom. The first production was “Lungs,” about a couple wrestling with the decision about whether to have a child amid the climate crisis. Tickets cost up to 65 pounds ($90) -- as much as a regular theater ticket.
“It allowed people to see the value of theater, that it’s something that’s worth paying for. But it was a gamble,” said Kate Varah, Executive Director of the Old Vic. The bet seems to be paying off, with more than 100,000 people from 90 countries booking tickets for the Zoom plays.
Expectations that the huge demand for West End seats will quickly return once theaters reopen in coming weeks has partly driven the burst of digital creativity. In normal times, so many people want to see London shows like “Come From Away” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” -- even at prices as high as 200 pounds -- that waiting times stretch to months and potential customers walk away. Streaming can claw back some of the wasted revenue.
Broadway has a similar capacity problem but streaming hasn’t yet caught on there in the same way. Simons at Marquee TV says union agreements mean that getting a camera crew through the door costs significantly more than in London. U.S. playwright Jeremy O. Harris tweeted that he was met with “incredible resistance” when he proposed livestreaming shows.
“The camera as a tool for access is here to stay, and most theaters are going to be looking and heading in this direction,” said the Young Vic’s Kwei-Armah.
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