Hello Las Vegas! How livestreaming is transforming the stage

Claire Armitstead
·7 min read

As Christmas season dawned at the end of last year, two American critics had a crash course in that most British of theatre traditions, pantomime, dropping in remotely to eight shows for the New York Times. “I felt like an ethnographer studying a foreign culture’s strange ceremonies,” wrote one, while the other enjoyed the peppering of Covid-related jokes, including the insertion of “fiiiiiive toilet rolls” into The 12 Days of Christmas.

The song featured in Oh Yes We Are!, Perth theatre’s four-scene mini-panto intended for small groups in a promenade performance, after the first lockdown made its Cinderella, on a conventional stage, impossible. But just as rehearsals were due to begin, new restrictions forced it online.

So, in 25 livestreamed performances over a fortnight, it played to an estimated 3,000 schoolchildren and nearly 10,000 households in 25 countries. On the first night, says dame, writer and director Barrie Hunter, they were astonished to find a family in Las Vegas cheering and booing along among the virtual audience.

The story of Oh Yes We Are! typifies the can-do response of the performing arts to a pandemic that has devastated their industry, putting thousands out of work and posing an existential threat to the buildings in which they ply their trades. Livestreaming wasn’t just a lifeline – it delivered a reach never dreamed of before. The first UK company to livestream a full-stage production during the pandemic was Emma Rice’s innovative Wise Children with Romantics Anonymous, its soft-centred musical about the love that blooms between two socially awkward chocolate-makers (he suffers from nervous sweating, she faints when people look at her).

“I’m the biggest technophobe,” says Rice. “I find it hard to switch on the telly. I spent the beginning of lockdown strongly resisting, but I was pushed by our technical director Simon Baker. We used our own people. I was on camera and in headphones. We were filming and editing live. It was like the ensemble on stage had extended into the auditorium. I was more fearful than I’ve been for decades but the thrill is extraordinary.”

Baker was originally a sound designer and so was “used to bending existing technologies into things that live theatres need”. He has now become the go-to techie for a host of other companies – not least London’s Old Vic, which mounted a hugely successful four-show season of livestreamed productions culminating in an all-star revival of A Christmas Carol.

Matthew Warchus, Old Vic artistic director, recalls how it all began. “My crazy original idea for our first show, Lungs, was that Matt Smith and Claire Foy would turn up on stage, and me and my assistant would film them on our phones. So I called Simon and said, ‘Is this gonna work?’ And he said, ‘You probably need a little bit more kit than that.’ We worked our way through about four different cameras, as well as tripods, dollies and track, which radio mics to use, and which software to mix it all on.”

With ticket numbers limited to 1,000 but expanding to 5,000 over the season, these largely sold-out shows have paid their way – and, in the case of A Christmas Carol, provided work for 80 embattled freelancers. But Warchus points out that it has been a huge – and unsustainable – communal effort involving voluntary pay cuts for those staff who weren’t furloughed or made redundant, and stars making goodwill offerings of their services. Andrew Scott even managed to star in that rarest of things, a premiere during the pandemic. Three Kings, Stephen Beresford’s play about the fallout triggered by the return of an absent father, reached 72 countries.

But how much of this innovation will outlive the crisis? And could it even pose an existential threat to live performance when real audiences can finally return? The National Theatre – which last summer attracted 15m viewers in 173 countries to a season of free shows – recently announced that it was developing its NT Live strand into a paid-for service. But though the seven plays on the new platform were filmed during live shows, they are not live in the sense of being simultaneously streamed, so are not so likely to affect seat sales.

Pandemic premiere … Andrew Scott rehearses for the livestreamed Three Kings.
Pandemic premiere … Andrew Scott rehearses for the livestreamed Three Kings. Photograph: The Old Vic/Getty Images

Nicholas Kenyon, director of London’s multi-platform Barbican Centre, points out that New York’s Metropolitan Opera has been livestreaming since 2006 without any obvious loss of audience. The Barbican made its own livestream debut in October, with 12 concerts filmed live with a distanced audience. “There’s definitely a positive side to it,” he says, “but I think it’s not going to exclude the live. It’s going to be a new balance, a hybrid: one performance crafted for both audiences.” How feasible this will be when theatres start to fill up again is, he concedes, a moot point.

Wigmore Hall is staging another 40 free concerts online in the run-up to Easter, streamed from the empty hall and has raised close to £1m in donations since first starting the initiative in June.

Edinburgh’s Traverse, meanwhile, set up a bespoke online venue, Traverse 3, and took the cancellation of last year’s Edinburgh festival as a chance to mount its own virtual season, which proved so successful that it has made 12 available to download free for a limited time. “As much as everything else,” says executive producer Linda Crooks, “it’s been about trying to engage with the audience and artists. Since we received relief funding in July, we’ve worked with more than 200 independent artists – at least 300 if you count indirect collaboration. We’ve been using it as an opportunity to explore around digital, simply regarding it as a distanced way of making art.”

Perhaps the most heartening innovation is the growth in collaboration. Theatrical provocateurs Headlong and English Touring Theatre hooked up with more than 25 other touring companies for Signal Fires, set up to be performed live to local networks or streamed nationally in a spirit of keeping the campfires burning. When Liverpool, where Headlong were set to premiere their contribution, was shut down, they switched to phones, projecting the number on the side of a bombed-out church so that passersby could dial up to hear either David Morrissey or Leanne Best performing a spooky story, The Ghost Caller.

While smaller, younger companies have been hardest hit, they also have the flexibility to try out new ideas. Many were starting to do it anyway. Dante or Die recrafted a show designed to be performed in cafes into what they decided to call a video podcast. Using the homescreen of a mobile phone as its stage, User Not Found offered a smart reflection on how our digital identities will outlive us. It features Luka, who has left 33,000 tweets for his ex-lover to erase, which is “roughly the length of The Brothers Karamazov”.

Touring company Uninvited Guests, meanwhile, morphed one of their existing shows into Love Letters from Home, which invited song dedications and personal messages from a Zoom audience. “It was always a very intimate show,” says director Paul Clarke. “We sat around tables, a lot like a wedding reception, and served the audience cava. But what we discovered is that, in some ways, it’s even more intimate when the performers are going from their own domestic spaces into people’s homes.”

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The crisis has accelerated the rise of a new breed of theatre artist, according to Headlong’s Holly Race Roughan. “We might be theatre/digital/fashion designers,” she says (this development has been christened the “slash generation” by the Young Vic’s Kwame Kwei-Armah).Some of it is to do with capitalism and job insecurity. But theatre enables you to say, ‘I’m currently sat in a bucket but we’re going to imagine we’re on the ocean.’ And it enables you to apply that across many different platforms. I think we’ll see a bleed between forms, a new inventiveness coming down the line.”

Emma Rice has no doubts. “I’m evangelical about it,” she says. “I’m at that stage in life where it’s hard to surprise yourself and you’re not struggling any more artistically. So you have to notice when you’re knocked off balance – because that’s where the excitement lives. It has made me much more visually aware and I think I’m going to take this ‘filmic lens’ into my work. We’re not capturing performance. We’re capturing a shared moment of live humanity.”