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Streaming Shakespeare: the theatre industry in lockdown

In March 2020, the world’s theatres went dark. As countries around the world imposed social distancing measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, theatres cancelled productions, tours and rehearsals, leading in most cases to the cancellation of entire summer seasons months in advance. For an industry based on bringing groups of people together to experience collective live performance, a more catastrophic turn of events is difficult to imagine.

Yet even as theatre faces an economic and existential threat to its future (especially in the UK, where a majority of artists work job-to-job, as opposed to industry models elsewhere in the world that give performers secure continuous employment), theatre also jumped to fill the gap left by its own closure. By the end of March, theatres around the world had announced ambitious online streaming programmes, making archival content available – often free of charge – to global audiences from the comfort of their own homes.

Even if you restrain yourself just to Shakespeare, the offerings are intimidating. The National Theatre has launched a new programme, broadcasting the versions of its productions filmed for cinema free on YouTube. Shakespeare’s Globe has begun releasing previously unreleased recordings of recent productions free online, and the RSC has announced a programme, At Home With Shakespeare, to start later in the year. Meanwhile other companies have opened their archives, offering unmissable productions that are usually impossible to get hold of; in the first six days of April alone, I was able to review three separate outstanding German productions spanning a decade on my blog, something that would have impossible even under the best of normal circumstances.

For those of us – especially Shakespeare scholars – who have been writing about remediated theatre for some years, it has been illuminating to see our fringe area of research take centre-stage. As producer John Wyver laments, mainstream theatre critics have generally been reluctant to engage with live streamed versions of productions, continuing to cover the shows as in-person attendees, despite meaningful attempts at an industry level to consider the impact of streaming. Yet this means that the question of what live-streamed theatre actually is, as a medium that is now being offered in place of in-person theatregoing, is not as well understood in the public consciousness.

While the National Theatre’s cinema broadcast programme, NT Live, promises viewers ‘the best seats in the house’, the advantage of broadcast theatre is precisely that it doesn’t offer a view from any given seat. Instead, productions are captured by specialist directors, working alongside the directors of the stage versions, to produce a distinctively filmic experience with its own conventions and aesthetics. Erin Sullivan’s important article on the aesthetics of the stage broadcast draws attention to the work of the screen director in offering a mediatised experience that is significantly and observably different to the in-person experience, but which creates a unique interpretation of the performance.

"Theatre subsists on an economy of ‘togetherness’ – whether of performers, of audiences, or both"
Dr Peter Kirwan

The other major impact of the shift to online streaming is on audience behaviours. The dominant mode of transmission of remediated theatre so far has usually been into cinemas which replicate many of the conditions of the theatre (darkened rooms, mobile phones off, limited interaction between audience members). But web-streams, as Rachael Nicholas outlines in her recent chapter for the collection Shakespeare and the ‘Live’ Theatre Broadcast Experience, have seen theatregoers recreate their own forms of collective behaviour, by sharing thoughts among virtual communities during the performance.

Several live-tweeting ‘watch parties’ have already emerged in the lockdown period. I created the hashtags #SchaubuhneHamlet and #SchaubuhneR3 , which preserve the collective experiences of groups of viewers watching two German Shakespeare productions which were made available for six-hour windows in early April; while #WTwatchparty (co-ordinated by Nora Williams and myself) is bringing together audiences on three occasions to watch three different productions of The Winter’s Tale. These watch parties have a dual purpose: to enhance viewing pleasure by sharing insights with one another, and to create much-needed connection between people watching in isolation. The innovative Oxford theatre company Creation have gone even further by converting their immersive 2019 production of The Tempest into a Zoom-based production in which remote audience members contribute live via their devices; one of the key research questions going forward will be how ‘liveness’ finds new kind of value during a period of remote spectatorship.

At the same time, streaming theatre raises many issues. Streamed theatre poses technical obstacles, both in terms of hardware (how well do films designed for the cinema turn out on smartphones?) and bandwidth. It raises expectations of theatre’s availability on-demand that will be difficult to reverse, but which have implications for performer contracts and rights. And in an era of remote-working, spending yet more time looking at a computer screen is losing its appeal, especially if limited availability windows are pressuring people to watch productions now or risk missing out. At the industry level, John Wyver, in a typically insightful piece, has already set out some of the stark questions about what comes after this period, including how this will affect theatrical production, and The Stage has argued for the ways in which the uptake in streaming will reshape the industry.

As the performance reviews editor for a Shakespeare journal, Shakespeare Bulletin, these are some of the issues that my reviewers will be grappling with in a forthcoming special issue ‘Shakespeare in Lockdown’, in which critics around the world will be using their engagement with streamed Shakespeare to reflect on their own subjectivity as isolated theatregoers. Theatre subsists on an economy of ‘togetherness’ – whether of performers, of audiences, or both. By reflecting on the ways in which both theatres and audiences are experiencing and creating togetherness through theatre streaming and media engagement, the activity generated by these strange circumstances will be driving the questions about what theatre means for a post-COVID-19 world.

After the virus

Read more from our researchers as we reflect on the challenges we face after the coronavirus crisis, as well as opportunities to rebuild a more resilient, fairer society.

Peter Kirwan

Dr Peter Kirwan is an Associate Professor in Early Modern Drama, whose research includes the performance of Shakespeare on stage and screen.

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