Can Digitally Streamed Theatre Compare to Live Performance?

by Jack Peper (May 2020)
First published on

This week the National Theatre are streaming Treasure Island, the third in their quarantine series, through their newly branded National Theatre at Home format. Many other theatre and production companies have followed suit, putting an unprecedented number of shows online and for free (Where to watch live theatre in quarantine?). For me, someone who normally has to buy whatever partial visibility theatre ticket that is available in the nosebleed seats, I’m looking forward to getting a glimpse at life on the front row, watching the actor’s sweat dripping from their brow. This has all, at least partly, been made possible because of the groundwork that the National Theatre Live initiative has made in the last decade – but what does digital streaming mean for live theatre performance?

The emergence of National Theatre Live in 2009 was an attempt at using new development in digital technology to make theatre more accessible for a wider audience. Broadcasting in 700 venues across the country, it promised ‘the best seats in the house’ releasing 80 productions in the 10 years since its inception. With rising tickets prices and centralisation of theatre in London, it gave those unable to afford the expense, or unable to travel, the opportunity to experience some of the best performance work that the country had to offer, delivered by some of the nation’s leading talent. Nicholas Hytner, then director of the NT, explained that if Olivier’s National Theatre had been available for him to see at his local cinema growing up in Manchester, then he would have gone all the time.

Its first broadcast Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren, showed in 70 cinemas in the UK and 200 screens internationally. Undoubtedly, from the start, it was intended also as a commodity to be transported and sold around the world championing British theatre. Since then, most of its productions have been broadcasted internationally spreading the nation’s theatrical legacy. NT Live claims to broadcast in 2,500 venues across 65 different “territories”(1), a word which highlights its role in spreading a post-colonial national identity. Where countries are unable to broadcast live due to time difference, the footage is then packaged, shared, and distributed for repeated viewings with the material ‘unedited’. Here we have two clearly demarcated forms of digital theatre – recorded theatre, and live streamed theatre.

The emphasis on the lack of editing before distribution emphasises the difficulty of what the National Theatre Live is trying to reproduce. The essential element (or elements) that make theatre its own medium are hard to recreate digitally outside of the physical theatre, and even harder to recreate in your own living room. Nothing dispels the dramatic tension quite like someone walking in and asking if you want a cuppa. This difficulty is highlighted by the necessity of qualifiers to reassure the audience that what you are watching on the screen is in fact live. The constant reminders during news or sports channels that the action is only a fraction of a second behind, from ‘returning to the studio live’ to symbols in the corner of your screen. This qualification is not unlike the reassurance at the beginning of a movie that this is a ‘true story’, there to tell the audience how to experience the work.

It is difficult to imagine theatre without the physical live bodies on the stage. The closeness, the presence, the atmosphere is palpable. It is something that people around the world, despite the proliferation of T.V. and cinema are willing to pay significant sums for. Actors are well aware that the presence of the audience, the mood, the physical setting, alter and shape the performance so that each night is alive with a different flavour – for better or for worse. It is this hard to pin down, ephemeral substance that is the spirit of theatre and exactly what National Theatre Live, among others, are trying to capture and sell to you for consumption. But, like any wild animal, through its capture something essential and eternal is lost. Peter Brook in The Empty Space (1968) suggested that any space with an actor and someone watching them is enough to call an act of theatre engaged but, in the age of isolation, how close do you need to be for it to be theatre?

Scores of independent theatre makers are trying to adjust and adapt to creating new and interesting works within the limitations of a socially isolated theatre. The BBC’s Culture in Quarantine is a new commissioning strand launched by Arts Council England to fund these creative avenues of interactive digital work. For some, this has involved returning to other mediums like radio and podcasts; for others, they have explored rising technology like Zoom to meet our live theatrical needs. During this crisis people are tangling with and stretching the very definition of theatre, and other artistic experiences. Another wing of the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine looks out how the public can experience galleries from their bedroom, something that builds on what the Google Arts & Culture platform has been trying to do since 2011. But, how does streamed/recorded theatre compare to live performance?

One element central to live performance is the relationship between two or more living people involved. The uniqueness of live performance over cinema is that there is an awareness between two parties, a mutual awareness that they both exist. This awareness alters the nature of the experience. The character on the film does not exist and cannot know of your existence, but on the stage there is always an implicit recognition, often disguised, between audience and actor. This recognition is what Brechtian theatre attempts to highlight. It can also be seen in the call and response often present at live musical performance. We value this experience of an art that displays a mutually acknowledged existence and what that does to influence the work. In real terms, this is what leads to actors, and the work itself, adapting and changing as it encounters new people. The social and societal make up of the audience impacts the work because there is a fundamental recognition between living people. This is one of things we mean when we talk of theatre as alive.

Another element is the unpredictability of live performance. The value in watching live T.V, like sports, gameshows, and reality shows, is the uncertainty, the unpredictability in what will happen. The reason why talent shows broadcast their finals live, compared to their recorded and edited shows in the previous weeks, is because we place a value on the uncertainty of what will happen. It is the very reason some people prefer improv comedy. While there is a script for what will happen in most theatre shows, this element of unpredictability on how it will be played out, or how it will be performed keeps us excited. It would be false to deny that there is entertainment in watching a performance fail or actor forget their lines. It is the very fact that these things could possibly happen that adds a dimension of excitement to the performance.

It is these two things that NT Live, other theatre streaming sites, and emerging theatre makers are trying to retain as the medium evolves and develops in new directions. In these unprecedented times, the unnatural welding of live theatre and digital reproduction offer the best glimpses at what these initiatives can achieve. It cannot be understated that the consequences of our necessary precautions will lead to increased vulnerability for those who are already socially isolated. Many of the elderly face increasing lengths of time alone, many people who are mentally unwell will face disruptions to their routine, and many children who are in need of distraction and cultural education will, through streaming of live performances, be able to maintain that great preserve that is the arts.

Importantly, now more than ever, we are able to hold onto a connection from our isolation to things that we as a society value greatly. Its powerful to see that in a time where connection between people is at its lowest, a time when the power of sharing stories from the stage is at its most necessary, that in these times, we are able to continue to offer the world the very things that hold the days together. Unlike recorded and edited visual images, the live performance, even from your living room, allows you to share in a moment that is also being experienced in thousands of other living rooms with people sitting on their sofas too. There is comfort in the knowledge that what you are watching is being watched by others and that you are not alone in its experience. That the sadness, or anger, or laughter that is seizing you in that very moment is also being felt by others, even if you can’t be with them.

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