Rise of live streaming poses questions for Scottish theatre

Ruth Wilson and Rafe Spall in the National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler, which was screened as an Encore event at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. 'Picture: Jan Versweyveld
Ruth Wilson and Rafe Spall in the National Theatre production of Hedda Gabler, which was screened as an Encore event at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. 'Picture: Jan Versweyveld
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The growing popularity of live streaming performances poses questions for Scottish theatres as well as audiences, writes Katie Hawthorne

The unique appeal of theatre is an audience and performer sharing a time and a space, with the understanding that anything could happen and that no two performances are ever quite the same.

But since the National Theatre (NT) in London popularised live streaming with the launch of its NT Live service in 2009, digital broadcasts have offered audiences across the globe unprecedented access to the stage.

Questions are now being asked on what such developments mean for live performance and how it could impact theatres in Scotland.

Digital theatre comes in two different forms - offering varying degrees of liveness.

Event cinema is a live screening of a performance held in a professional venue, such as Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre or Cameo cinema. Tickets are usually slightly more expensive than a cinema ticket but the screening often includes exclusive backstage interviews and the promotion of a specified hashtag which unites feedback from audiences across the country.

An “encore” is similar in price and venue - but the screening is a recording of a once-live performance - this allows repeat screenings, but offers no sense of digital community.

Both forms challenge the idea that liveness is central to a theatrical event.

When a live audience and a live performer are digitally distanced, and the performance that is created in the breach is documented and saved – is this still theatre?

Such broadcasts can be expensive to produce. Each NT Live broadcast costs around £250,000 and uses complicated camera choreography to create a cinematic experience.

A ticket to an encore screening of the NT’s recent production of Hedda Gabler costs £14.50 at the Festival Theatre, but a seat at the real performance ranges from £15-£65 - if you managed to buy one before the run sold out.

These pricing structures privileges the authentic London-based experience and positions the digitally distanced theatre as a secondary event.

But it’s clear that digital distribution can help make theatre accessible to whole new audiences as well as helping to alleviate restrictions of price or geographical location.

Aside from allowing audiences outside of London a close-up on Benedict Cumberbatch, this new access can benefit theatres, too. Used wisely, streams can expand digital seating capacity and help to promote tours across the UK or further afield.

The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) continues to emphasise the importance of physical performance above all else.

Its production of The 306: Day will be staged 14 times in May in ballrooms, town halls and community centres from Galashiels to Fort Augustus.

In contrast to NT Live’s 6.5 million audience members worldwide, this prioritisation of live theatre may seem slightly old-fashioned. Streaming could be easier, but should it ever replace a live tour?

A report commissioned by Arts Council England predicts the event cinema sector could be worth $1 billion by 2019 and hails the UK as a world leader when it comes to exporting digital theatre.

Yet, despite Edinburgh’s position as a universally renowned hub for performing arts, venues in the capital tend to host, rather than distribute, digital theatre of this kind.

It’s possible that in the relative ease of digital distribution there could be a danger of disenfranchising theatre fans, distancing them further from a live experience.

Katie Hawthorne is a freelance writer and PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh researching the impact of digital culture on theatres and audiences