Digital Theatre redefines how we view the arts

The digital space is taking theatre beyond the limits of the physical stage. Audiences can now watch, appreciate and interact with performances like never before. But does this complex emerging market guarantee new audiences? 

The arts industry’s approach to digital technology has changed dramatically in the past few years. Where organisations once deliberated over the necessity of even using social media outlets, online presence is now deemed almost as important as the artistic content they produce. And whilst companies large and small have reacted to the irrepressible sweep of the digital revolution, for many, the challenge of how to fully utilise the ever-expanding potential of the internet to build interest, broaden audiences and increase revenue, remains.

One company to take advantage of the digital gold rush has gone from the beginnings of an innovative idea to a being a major (and increasingly international) player since its founding in 2008. The brainchild of British director-producer team Robert Delamere and Tom Shaw, Digital Theatre captures top productions on film, and after a careful, collaborative edit with the artistic team, distributes the shows across multiple platforms.

Plays can be watched through an impressive variety of mediums: the Digital Theatre website (where users can download productions on a pay-per-view basis); a YouTube subscriber channel; an app for iPhone and iPad; and a Smart TV app available on Samsung TVs. The company has also begun to take shows to the big screen – the recent West End hit Merrily We Roll Along was distributed to over 1,000 cinemas in 22 countries.

Digital Theatre’s first production was English Touring Theatre’s Far From the Madding Crowd. ‘They were our crash test dummy,’ says Delamere. ‘A lot of funding bodies were promoting being in the digital space, but there was obvious logical resistance.’ When the team initially pitched their idea, they relied on their reputations as established arts practitioners to win over some of London’s leading theatres.

Along with the RSC, Almeida Theatre, Royal Court and the Young Vic, English Touring Theatre was one of Digital Theatre’s five original creative partners who helped make the team’s bright idea a reality. ‘The power of the internet to distribute content to a much wider audience was a gem of an idea that took a bit of time to convince some partners,’ says Shaw. ‘The companies that we first worked with wanted to be pioneers of that.’

While in most cases there was no upfront cost to the companies, Digital Theatre owned sole distribution rights for the films they produced. The main draw for arts organisations at that early stage was to boost interest around their productions, rather than generate immediate revenue. ‘We had to talk about the concept and the buy-in from that before we had any proof that it would be a commercial success,’ says Shaw.

In addition, Digital Theatre worked with several unions, including Equity and the Musicians’ Union, to ensure performers and creative teams were adequately remunerated for their contributions to the productions. Five years on, the companies that took the leap of faith have undoubtedly broadened their reach across new digital frontiers, attracting audiences as far afield as the US and South Korea. Digital Theatre has also begun paying out to partners as a result of sales, as well as advances of over GBP300,000 (€358,000) to actors, musicians and creatives.

‘It’s an exciting, new territory that’s emerging – almost a new marketplace… no one’s exactly sure where it’s going to end up’

Since that first play, the company has gone on to build an archive which currently stands at 33 productions (including opera and ballet) ready for audiences to watch on a range of devices. The archive also features a series of productions with specific companies – such as the ‘Shakespeare’s Globe Collection’ and the ‘Royal Opera House Collection’ – to which it holds worldwide non-exclusive digital rights (as opposed to the sole ownership of the ‘Digital Theatre Originals’).

Inevitably, some theatrical purists were critical of the idea of trying to capture the live experience on film, claiming that the team’s project would only result in a watered down version of the real thing. Delamere says that the comparison is frustrating: ‘I think the problem is that the history of recorded performance is littered with the bodies of productions that haven’t been well captured.’

DT differs because it uses multiple remote cameras to record performances from a range of angles, applying the film close-up to the art of theatre. ‘If you watch a screen, you need to use screen grammar,’ Delamere continues, ‘because now kids have iPads from the age of two; everyone has that understanding from an early age.’

And it seems the on-demand generation has taken to the service in droves, with a staggering 63,000 hours of Digital Theatre content watched since the company began in 2008. There have been over 900,000 views of trailers and productions on the DT YouTube channel since April this year, and vocal praise for many productions on social media, in particular Merrily We Roll Along and Frantic Assembly’s Lovesong.

Digital Theatre's Robert Delamere and Tom Shaw © David Jensen
Robert Delamere and Tom Shaw © David Jensen

Although Digital Theatre’s approach is unique, in that it captures the shows of multiple arts organisations, there have been other notable forays into this new performance arena by individual houses. The National Theatre Live project launched in June 2009, and thanks to sell-out hits like Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, The NT’s broadcasts have reached over 1.5m people across 500 venues worldwide.

Alongside digital downloads and live streaming, the RSC recently embarked on a project inspired by – and for – social media channels. In partnership with Google’s Creative Lab, Midsummer Night’s Dreaming saw Gregory Doran’s production of the Shakespeare comedy classic performed in real time, whilst related content was shared through images and news stories on Google+ to create a parallel, virtual stage. Audiences could vicariously experience the performance in a device the size of their palm.

Though they take different forms, what these three examples have in common is the drive toward communicating with audiences in ways that were never before possible. But are they really reaching out to a wider demographic? In the case of Digital Theatre, its core audience is 18 to 35-year-old American women. This clearly indicates the international scope of the concept, since audiences far from London’s theatreland are now able to access productions they would have otherwise missed.

But it is Digital Theatre’s sister education site, Digital Theatre Plus, that could hold the potential to bring completely new audiences to theatre. So far, around 1.3m students have accessed the service through their schools’ subscription package, which provides exclusive in-depth interviews with each theatre production’s creative team, and additional materials alongside the recorded shows. The complete experience is an appealing alternative to the worn-out recordings of outdated archival productions formerly used in the classroom, and removes barriers to accessiblity posed by geographical location or socio-economic background. The hope is that more students will be able to experience the same level of educational enrichment as their more privileged peers.

‘Digital Theatre is everywhere from Dubai to Kuala Lumpur, from Paris to Texas… there really is a massive global appetite for cultural access, and the education that we can offer around that access,’ says Delamere. ‘If you’re in Malawi – which is where one school we sold to is located – how would you otherwise get to see anything like this?’

The availability of a digital platform is not an automatic guarantee per se that underrepresented or remote communities will access the arts, yet education platforms like DT Plus are certainly a step in the right direction. By establishing interest at an early age, as well as in new geographical regions and communities, theatre companies have a better chance of thriving. According to a Digital Theatre survey, 70 per cent of respondents said they were more likely to attend a live theatre production having watched one of its productions on screen.

However, there is a danger that only productions deemed profitable will be distributed or broadcast. While Digital Theatre showcases a range of musicals, established theatrical classics and new work, there must be a degree of certainty that download sales will cover filming costs. Those guarantees come in the form of star names, such as David Tenant in Much Ado About Nothing, and the cultural highlights of London’s best theatres. Due to the cost of digital productions, the platform presents a limited picture of all that British theatres have to offer.

But Delamere and Shaw are quick to point out that their platform is built to complement the existing landscape, not replace it. ‘It’s becoming part of an expected extension of some of these productions,’ says Shaw. ‘The idea that a digital production can co-exist with a live space is becoming an accepted notion in the industry.’

Though ways to connect and communicate with audiences may be changing, the original essence of live theatre remains the same, for now at least. Digital Theatre aims to showcase the ‘best of British’, but the team is already in discussions with a wide range of international companies. ‘That’s a big step for us,’ says Shaw. ‘We want to embrace what we’re doing here and repeat that in different regions throughout the world. It’s an exciting, new territory that’s emerging – almost a new marketplace… no one’s exactly sure where it’s going to end up.’

Photo: NT Live’s All’s well that ends well © Simon Annand