“In Real Life” Theatre is Back … But Don’t Forget Digital

Published Tue, 12 October 2021

Almost three-fifths of theatres who dabbled in online streaming during the pandemic have dropped their online efforts and thrown themselves into a fully-committed IRL recovery.

The research, conducted by a collaborative team from the University of Kent and Loughborough University, raises concerns that gains in accessibility to theatre made during the pandemic could be lost.

In an impassioned statement, research lead, Richard Misek, says: “The suddenness and the extent of this snap back to in-person-only performances raises an important question: what are the implications not only for remote and disabled audience members, but also for D/deaf and neurodivergent audience members, vulnerable, elderly and housebound audience members, carers, night workers, those who can’t afford to visit a theatre, those who feel going to a theatre is ‘not for them’, and many other potential audience members for whom physical attendance may be difficult or impossible.”

The pandemic has seen a huge number of theatres explore online programming, varying from livestreams of stage performances, to pre-recorded and fully edited productions. Theatres have also offered remote audiences the chance to meet the cast through the medium of Zoom calls.

The research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, found that 126 of 224 publicly subsidised theatres in the UK hosted at least one online production from March 2020 to September 2021.

Coming up this season, this number drops to just 60 theatres, demonstrating a dramatic shift back to in-person-only productions.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4, disabled theatre director, Jamie Hale, championed online productions, saying: “During lockdown, I’ve felt far more able to experience theatre … I feel very concerned that as the auditoriums fill up, theatres will decrease the amount they offer for live streams and it will become less possible for people living in rural areas, people with caring and parenting responsibilities, not just disabled people like me, to access the theatre we want to.”

Some theatres, such as the National Theatre and RSC, are continuing to create digital theatre, and research like this shows there is a real value for diverse communities in this work.