#CIAM: Will Digital Innovation be the future of theatre – Presentation Video
This is the video from my Contemporary Issues in Arts Management conference paper, Will digital innovation be the future of theatre? The paper was delivered as the penultimate module of my Music, Theatre and Entertainment Management degree at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. To find out more about the conference, as well as the abstracts of all of my classmates delivering papers, visit artsconferences.co.uk.
There were a huge variety of papers, all covering contemporary issues which interested those speaking. They covered a range of topics, including music sync fees, social media and the evolution of the live music industry. To read the abstract for my paper as well as a little bit more about the topic itself, have a read of my previous #CIAM post. You might also want to follow the #CIAM hashtag on Twitter, where a variety of links are posted reflecting the reality young performing arts managers think they will be facing upon graduation.
This is one of the first bits of video I’ve ever published, normally working on the basis that its too much like hard work to record, edit and encode. All that gets far easier when you start using tools like the Flip camera which let you transfer video via USB the same as you would your digital photos. I don’t think we’re quite there yet but as much as most of us now have massive photo collections spread around the web, I think the video revolution is probably pretty close too.
Below you will find a link to the full text of the presentation, as well as the Prezi I was presenting with. To find out more about Prezi, a web based Powerpoint alternative, check out my post about it here.
My name is Andrew Girvan, and today I am very please to be delivering my Contemporary Issues in Arts Management paper on the topic: Will Digital innovation be the future of theatre?
In this paper I will be seeking to provide a number of answers to that question, focusing mainly on the arts organisations currently operating pilot projects, embracing digital distribution as a way of increasing both their reach and impact.
I will mainly be looking at the inaugural season of the National Theatre’s NT Live programme, whilst drawing on other arts organisation’s experiences of the digital environment, looking at the challenges which will face the industry as a whole, as we move towards a digital future.
So why digital? Why have I chosen to look at whether digital innovation in particular will be the future of theatre?
One of the main reasons would be the Arts Council England’s 2008 – 2011 policy document “Great Art for Everyone” which outlines four development priorities for the Arts, the first of which is “Digital Opportunity”.
I feel the Arts Council does a good job of summing up in a short paragraph why digital is an opportunity the arts cannot afford to miss:
“Digital media technologies are affecting every aspect of our society, economy and culture. We can now connect with audiences in new ways, bringing them into a closer relationship with the arts and creating new ways for them to take part. Responding to this change will lead to the development of new business models, new networks and new forms of creativity.”
Arts Council England, Great Art for Everyone, 2008
So what do we actually mean when we are looking at the digital aspects of the arts? The Arts Council England has requested all of its regularly funded organisations have a “digital strategy” in place by 2011. But what does that actually mean?
When funding bodies such as the Arts Council look into the potential of digital they generally talking in areas such as:
Although a new and for most still a developing part of their marketing mix, for most arts organisations their marketing strategy, is the most likely aspect of their business to be digitally engaged. I am of course talking about using digital tool such as social networks, podcasts, and multimedia websites all designed to promote sales to their physical performances. To many of you listening, digital marketing strategies, with their comparatively low costs, potentially high levels of audience engagement and ease of evaluation and analysis, might seem like an automatic course of action when promoting a cultural event.
However, it is at this point worth mentioning that what we in this room may accept as second nature does not reflect the artistic community at large. When the Theatre Communications Group, an American arts advocacy and funding organisation working with not-for-profit theatres asked its members what their were priorities for the coming year only 7% of respondents included using social media.
As recipients of public funding from bodies such as the Arts Council, many larger, regularly funded organisations are now being encouraged to work more digitally, taking advantage of savings inherent in storing information and communicating more digitally. Using less paper, working remotely, adopting digital infrastructures and workflows. These are all probably aspects of their business that audiences may never see, but can still form an important part of a digital strategy.
When the Arts Council used to talk about distribution it was primarily talking about touring, and regional theatre serving regional populations: the way that the arts and artistic performance can be distributed across the country and delivered to audience members. Its Distribution Policy document dated 2006 states arts distribution is about:
Putting the arts at the heart of national life and people at the heart of the arts.
It is important to note that even four years ago the Arts Council was using incredibly positive language about pushing its digital distribution agenda, going onto say:
“We particularly want to see the potential of digitisation and digital distribution technologies fully realised.”
Arts Council England, Distribution Strategy 2006
There is a reason that when Marcus Romer, the Artistic Director of digitally progressive Pilot Theatre spoke at the RSA State of the Arts conference in January he said:
“The platforms have changed. The genie is out of the bottle and its certainly not going to go back in. We are not going back into an analogue age, digital is here to stay, whether we like it or not.”
Marcus Romer, Artistic Director, Pilot Theatre, RSA State of the Arts Conference, January 2010
So which platforms are being referred to? Which have changed? Well that is what I am going to be exploring throughout the rest of the paper, as well as the challenges they have had to overcome to deliver their art digitally.
Digital distribution of theatre takes a number of forms.
One aspect which I would look to challenge would be the recent co-production from Mudlark and the Royal Shakespeare Company: Such Tweet Sorrow. The project, a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, saw a group of 6 actors improvise and use Twitter to deliver lines. It caught the imagination of the press and garnered widespread coverage, mainly, I believe because it is an example of a large, well known arts organisation breaking the conventions of its artform, exploring the power of a new medium. A medium with which the British press currently appear fixated. The RSC propose the project helps them deliver their mission to “keep audiences in touch with Shakespeare, as our contemporary” with going on to claim the project invents a brand new artform.
I would propose that by taking artistic exchange online in this way, the RSC is taking advantage of the under utilised artistic potential, a platform like Twitter provides, rather than digitally delivering their art to a wider audience. I personally feel that the RSC is using the project to fulfil marketing, more than artistic objectives. Still, admittedly, this is something the company should be praised for.
The main reason I do not feel the project properly represents the best digitally distributed art has to offer is because it has strayed too far from its theatrical roots. In asking actors to use services such as Twitter whilst in character, delivering dialogue in real time, with a long, 5 week performance period may be the basis for a new genre of performance art however I do not believe it can really be considered theatre as it completely destroys traditional, theatre convention.
To better examine digital distribution that respects the theatrical convention: by which I mean an audience, viewing a live performance by actors in real time, I am going to spend the rest of my presentation looking at digitally streaming theatre. Mainly in the model used by the National Theatre with its NT Live season, but also using other projects to contextualise the work being done by their pilot.
On 25 June 2009 the National Theatre broadcast live from the stage of the Lyttleton Theatre a performance of the Greek tragedy Phedre starring Helen Mirren, to cinemas first across the country and then around the world. The project was supported by NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts; Arts Council England and was sponsored by Travelex. It the first piece of theatre to be broadcast in this way in the UK, and saw the National Theatre join organisations such as New York’s Metropolitan Opera, digitally transmitting their performances to remote groups of audience, and embracing digital distribution of their physical performance.
I personally think its fitting that Helen Mirren was delivering a Greek tragedy for the National Theatre’s first ever streaming performance. Here’s why:
I’m going to talk a bit about the fundamental business models of theatre and how dramatic a change; the move towards digital distribution really is. This is the Halicarnassus Amphitheatre on the Bodrum peninsula in modern day Turkey. You might notice that its the only image I’ve used in my presentation so far. That is really because as I have been thinking about this topic, focusing more and more on the business models that digital streaming of live art opens up to us, I have constantly been drawn back to thing, one core idea: The mechanics of the theatre business model haven’t changed in a major sense since amphitheatres such as this were built by the Greeks as early as 400 BC.
For nearly two and half millennia live theatre performance has been delivered by bringing an audience within physical viewing distance of the actors. Audience capacities have always been physically limited by the number of people who can meaningfully consume the live content in the presence of the performance. As such the potential revenue that can be generated, has been regulated by the price that the market will bare for tickets, and capped by the physical capacities of the venue.
NT Live’s cinema tickets were priced to match tickets at the National Theatre on the South Bank at £10 each. They also removed the physical limitations of the venue, giving audience members an intimate, live theatre experience with some staggering numbers attached.
The production at the National Theatre could only be watched by an audience of 890 people in the Lyttelton theatre, the National’s second biggest stage. However the NT Live project allowed it to create what NESTA call in their report “virtual capacity”. During NT Live’s first streamed performance it is estimated 14,000 people saw the show in cinemas across the UK with a further 36,000 viewing around the world, with the performances delay-broadcast at times staggered to match time zones.
In total some 50,000 people saw Helen Mirren star in Phèdre on 25 June.
Following this initial production NESTA undertook research into the audience who had attended the event at 35 of the cinemas across the UK as well as at the Lyttelton itself. I am going to use their research to examine the potential for digital distribution on a wider scale.
But what kind of experience did the audience watching the performance out-with the Lyttelton receive? How does watching a performance broadcast from a theatre in London to cinemas internationally differ from going to the cinema to watch a Hollywood produced film?
At this point I would like to examine more closely exactly what product is being delivered to the audiences of these events. Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director of the National Theatre and Director of the Phèdre admitted when speaking about NT Live at the State of the Arts Conference:
“My own suspicion that it might be a creative ‘pig’s ear’ were allayed… stage actors yelling in close up on a big screen might have felt terrible – but we took the risk, it worked, it felt like some kind of new hybrid live / theatre performance in a cinema.”
Nicholas Hytner, 2010, RSA State of the Arts Conference
He was later quoted by David Sabel, the National’s Head of Digital and Producer of NT Live, when he was speaking at a seminar hosted by NESTA, and which was subsequently blogged by John Wyver for Iluminations Media:
“He – Nicholas Hynter – told the cast to recall the moments that they treasured in the rehearsal room and that had then perhaps got lost in the process of pitching a performance for a large space.”
David Sabel, cited by John Wyver, 2010, Illuminations Media
This has caused some commentators, such as Matt Trueman in the Guardian, who calls the NT Live product a “cinematic hybrid” to suggest that the theatre performance may have been undermined in some way, stating:
It’s hard to believe that the productions being broadcast aren’t designed and staged without being influenced by the prospect of appearing on screen.
So we’re a little clearer on the product being delivered, and one of its key creators and contributors, Nick Hytner, acknowledges that the experience is not that one of pure theatre. So what differentiates it from traditional cinema?
One of the most striking elements of the results from the NESTA audience research was this: The audience put an incredible value on the “liveness” or the “perceived liveness” of the event being delivered. Two of the conclusions delivered by the NESTA research were:
“The live and collective aspects of the theatrical experience remain essential for audiences.”
Continuing, in spite of lower expectations:
“Cinema audiences reported higher levels of emotional engagement with the production than those who had experienced the play at the National Theatre.”
So why is this important? Well its the collective experience, the way in which knowing that the performer is delivering their performance live as you watch the production, that helps draw you into the illusion and theatricality of the piece. It is the liveness and the collective viewing experience which truly differentiate live streaming theatre from traditional cinema.
According to the NESTA audience research, there may even be an argument to support the idea that NT Live delivers a better audience experience than traditional theatre. With its multiple camera angles giving audiences nothing short of a spectacular up close view of some of Britain’s greatest living actors whilst radio mics and booms provide a clarity of sound unrivalled in the live theatre experience, it can be understood when NT Live cinemagoers appear to have had more engaging and intimate experiences than their theatre going counterparts.
88% of NT Live audiences claimed to have felt an emotional response to the play, compared with 73% of audiences from the Lyttleton.
63% of cinemagoers went as far as saying they had felt they had been ‘transported to another world and lost track of time’ compared to just 48% of theatre audiences.
Delivering digital theatre, however is not without its challenges and I’d like now to spend some time looking at them.
The first and most salient point to make is that NT Live as standalone project has, not yet managed to break even. Quoting Nicholas Hytner again, he offered on the subject:
“Its not yet at a stage where it is self financing, it needs sponsorship, but it is rapidly on the way.”
Nicholas Hytner, 2010, RSA State of the Arts Conference
Although no actual budget figures have been released for the NT Live season its Producer David Sabel did divulge that Phèdre had been projected to make a loss of £50,000, a figure which was later revised down to £26,000.
Although we cannot compare these losses to the total production costs, we just don’t have them for NT Live. The figures can be put into context by comparison to New York’s Metropolitan Opera and their digital cinema streaming project which was launched in 2006. Its estimated that the cost of each of their digital transmissions is in the region of $800,000, today £521,000. The cost of staging opera is generally higher than that of straight theatre, for a start you have an orchestra to worry about, so the figures may not be directly comparable however what it does demonstrate that although these projects attract huge audiences is a major financial undertaking.
The New York Met’s 2006 – 2007 digital season attracted an average audience of 54,000 people per transmission across 300 cinemas, figures quite comparable to the inaugural season of NT Live.
Rights, for key creatives as well as actors are a considerable part of the jigsaw which has to be worked out, negotiated and standardised before digital distribution will even be a consideration for many arts organisations.
Of the four pieces which the National Theatre has presented so far. Two, Phèdre and Alls Well That End Well, have been classical works which exist in the public domain, this must have greatly reduced the negotiation burden for the National when considering the pieces for production.
The two most recent productions, Nation and The Habit of Art are both works by living authors who worked directly with the National Theatre to get them staged. Alan Bennet, the playwright of the Habit of Art, has a very close relationship with Nicholas Hytner with the play being the pair’s fifth collaboration, whilst Nation was an adaptation of the book by Terry Pratchet, adapted for the stage by Mark Ravenhill, both personally engaged with the project.
For an organisation such as the National Theatre the issue of rights on digital productions will probably never be a major one, too many people want to be involved with their work. As the National Theatre moves into its second season of NT Live, announced for early 2011, its rights payment models could potentially set a precedent at the top of the industry.
Having said that, just because the National is able to set presidents at the pinnacle of the subsidised sector, does not mean that we will suddenly see a framework which can be made easily applicable to London’s commercial sector. The National’s progressive approach in areas such as Sunday performances, particularly when compared to the rest of the West End, prove that just because the National embarks on a project does not mean the rest of the industry will follow.
So that was rights, but we also have to establish practices for how we pay actors and creatives. Casts and creatives involved with the current NT Live season received a modest upfront fee which is supplemented by a profit share framework should any individual production make its money back. As I mentioned earlier, none have so far.
Marcus Romer, Artistic Director of Pilot Theatre, a company whose past performances have been live streamed to individuals and consumed by audience members around the world criticised the entertainment industry unions on their resistance to change in this area, saying:
“One thing is that the unions are not up to speed on being able to deal with this.”
Going on to say:
“They assume its broadcast and they say, “its £986 per actor” because that is the same as going out on BBC 2. So we have to create our own new models for doing this.”
Marcus Romer, 2010, State of the Arts Conference
How do we encourage other small theatre companies start to distributing digitally? The DCMS in its very recent report Encouraging Digital Access to Culture suggests that once the digital plaforms have emerged, there should be a move towards industry standardisation saying:
“Platform operators… need to enter into ‘blanket’ arrangements, so that small organisations without access to expensive lawyers and negotiators can still feel that using the platform or system is worthwhile.”
And against a back drop of collective bargaining agreements across all levels of the subsidised theatre sector, through organisations such as the Independent Theatre Council and the Theatrical Management Association, we could potentially see a situation where a platform for digital distribution, is adopted for the use by the industry, with its rights and fees models being set through a series of high level agreements.
So its now time for me to leave you with a few thoughts:
Digital innovation is enabling arts organisations to reach new and vastly larger audiences than ever before. NESTA research reveals some audience members are enjoying the experience of consuming theatre digitally in a cinema more than they did when compared to a theatre. People like David Sabel, however wonder how long it will be before the novelty of digital transmission begins to wears thin, however I would bring you back to this:
We should be reminded that at all times it is the quality of the art, the content that we are bringing to audiences in these new ways, which will form the basis of any of their experiences.
The business models available to arts organisations working in a digital environment are fundamentally different to traditional models. Digital distribution removes the normal physical and geographical restrictions on theatre audiences, creating virtual capacity for an organisation to monetize.
The business models emerging from organisations such as the National Theatre have still to be proven, in spite of their already massive scale, enabled by public research funding.
This will mean that arts organisations and funding bodies will have to invest in supporting experimentation, championing best practice in areas such as rights and pay.
Funding bodies should share information about these experiments, as well as about evolving consumer attitudes and behaviours, helping arts organisations to design their digital strategies. Better knowledge about what works and what doesn’t in digital environments can reduce the uncertainty which might keep some organisations from innovating, and may help us avoid costly mistakes.
Arts organisations will require digitally native arts managers to help them navigate this digital environment, this is now being acknowledged by arts industry leaders.
One of the biggest concerns the DCMS found when talking to organisations about digital, was a lack of leadership who felt confident debating and taking decisions on digital strategy.
The process of educating and enabling these organisations will therefore, fall to a younger generation. I for one am very glad to be a graduating arts manager at a time when digital presents us with so many opportunities.
It just leaves me to say: thank you very much for listening.
I would love to answer any questions you might have.
Video credit: Cinematography by Connie Brice