Blog: Streaming & Other Digital Performance Work

What happened?

When lockdown happened in March 2020 many theatres and companies rushed to put existing performance recordings online, especially shows that had closed early due to the pandemic.  Concessions to do this were agreed with the unions (for a period of time up to six months after theatres re-opened).  Initially a slew of this online theatre performance was free to watch. Gradually more, but not all, was made available on a paid basis, and some venues started to restrict their digital output to livestreams so audiences could not pick and choose when to watch.

In parallel with this activity, many ITC members had long been digitally active, posting shorts, trailers and discussion pieces on YouTube and other digital platforms and creating original work online.  Many members expanded this work during the pandemic and from this, for some, came a new focus on creating more work for the public spaces of the internet. 

How did it happen?

ITC members have never confined themselves to work in theatre buildings so having to work in a virtual reality was a challenge many could rise to, sometimes more confidently than expected.  One member company, Fly High Stories, narrated their 2020 story on their own website, it will be a journey that is familiar to many and went like this –

  • Made the decision to cancel our UK autumn tour. 
  • Were most of the way to putting the company… into mothballs to concentrate on small child wrangling and getting through the lockdown with sanity intact.  And then the ideas started happening … we’ve ended up having a jam packed and rather fun time 
  • First, in March, we created ‘Fly High Stories: At Home’ – a series of commissioned scripts from some of the best playwrights around for families to download and act out together at home. 
  • When Arts Council England announced their emergency funding we applied for (and received) funds to turn our cancelled show into an animation.
  • We created ‘Adventure in the Library’ – an interactive Choose Your Own Story Zoom Adventure for the Summer Reading Challenge. 
  • Then we received news that Singapore Repertory Theatre would be headlining our beautiful play at their online digital children’s theatre festival. 
  • For the autumn we created ‘Together-Apart’ – a schools’ project to encourage KS2 children to use creative writing to talk about and process their big feelings, featuring an astronaut, a super computer, and a HUGE amount of programming.
  • As 2020 drew to a close we commissioned ‘12 Tiny Plays’ – a series of festive themed short scripts for families to act out together at home, including an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, a Chanukah play, and a Zoomable version of the Nativity. 

In 2020 we worked with over 80 freelance practitioners, .. raised over £45,000 in funding, … reached over 5,000 families, and …haven’t forgotten to feed our children once. …Not bad for two mums communicating almost entirely over Facebook Messenger.

Another example of adaptability comes from Carbon Theatre, whose project ‘Sea Girl’ was planned as a piece of live theatre that would explore and celebrate the achievement of Laura Dekker, the youngest person to have solo circumnavigated the globe.  This is now being made as a digital interactive experience for families to enjoy at home; accompanied by a sensory storybook that uses sights, smells, sounds and textures, to ensure that the performance is still accessible to children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. 

Did it work?

There were many benefits, some, like the new creative directions described above, unexpected:-

  • Availability of the performing arts seemed to become much more democratic. Whilst not everything was free of charge cost was not the barrier it had been.  More people could watch more theatre than ever before even if no one could (or would) watch everything.
  • Captioning, BSL interpretation and audio description were easier to implement and became more widely used, improving accessibility for those with visual or hearing impairments.
  • The challenges of physical access to buildings was removed for those who had problems with travel, stairs, seating or just the sense that conventional theatre spaces were not for them.

The downsides were :-

  • It was difficult to monetise digital performances.  Without income performers and creative contributors would not get further pay for the use of their work and might withdraw permission to use it.
  • Digital indigestion set in for audiences, after the initial bingeing. Followed by digital fatigue. People started to remember that the presence of a live audience was an important part of the live performance experience.  
  • Unequal access to broadband, poor digital literacy, and the poorer quality of some online experiences meant there was still not access for all.

What happens now?

When live theatre returned this autumn there was an expectation that a hybrid method of operation, offering audiences the possibilities of real life or online attendance would continue to be the norm. In reality, it seems many theatres and companies have returned to live performance only.   A recent study indicated that fewer than half of the funded theatres that had put work online during the period of closure had online work scheduled for autumn 2021, with many of those that were offering only livestreaming rather than on-demand access. 

Quality of experience: One piece of recent academic research indicated few audiences consider digital theatre a substitute for the real thing. Those with deafness, disability and neurodiversity issues would still prefer better access at live performances, in the main, rather than only having a digital offer available. 

Access:  Attitude is Everything, however, did research that showed an overwhelming majority wanted streamed performances to remain as an option. They too argue that the more choices audiences are given on how to engage, the more accessible theatre will be. 

Rights:  The issues of rights and remuneration in order to achieve this, however, remain knotty.   The existence of copyable versions of performances and the question of ownership of these adds a layer of complexity to rights negotiations that goes beyond what is needed for a live performance. The need to ensure that a recording can be used in expected and unexpected ways in the future can make negotiating agreements with performers and creative contributors more challenging.  Always make sure you have all the rights to do everything you want from all performers and creative contributors involved with a show.

Cost: Making a digital offer in parallel with a live show has cost implications.  

  • Usually, the performers and creative contributors will require payment whether a recording is of a performance as it happens or is an additional call for the company. 
  • There are not yet standard national agreements for this type of work so it is hammered out on a case by case basis.  Deals depend on the extent of the use of the recording and anticipated income from it.  As already noted, much digital theatre raises little income and it is seems that audiences are not willing to pay a great deal, if they are happy to pay at all, for these experiences.
  • When are fees the best way to pay for digital use and when might royalty payments be the best approach?

We need to estimate what the value of this work really is and why it matters in order to negotiate rates for the sector that enable us to offer audiences the best of all possible worlds: digital and live performance.

What does ITC need to know?

What have members been doing?  

What would they like to be doing?  

What do we need to do to enable them to do this?

What has been new, what has been familiar?

In the meantime, here are some useful links to help with the practicalities

And don’t forget, when drafting digital contracts always contact ITC if you want to discuss terms or terminology.

By Jackie Elliman, ITC