When lockdowns were enforced in the UK last year, its theater sector was hit hard. In a March 2021 survey by the Society of London Theatre, 95 percent of performing arts companies reported being worse off post-COVID — 53 suffered a loss of more than £1 million — with freelance theater workers forced to take roles outside the industry. While some organizations turned to streaming recorded performances in order to stay in touch with audiences, others, like Oxford-based Creation Theatre, leveraged digital platforms to produce innovative and interactive virtual shows.
In April 2020, Creation Theatre and Big Telly Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest was staged over Zoom (entry fee: £20 per device), incorporating pre-filmed scenes and live segments featuring its nine cast members performing in front of virtual backgrounds. Fully utilizing the video conferencing platform’s functionality, viewers were also invited into Zoom meetings with the play’s characters. Since then, the organization has presented a number of other live virtual adaptations from Romeo & Juliet to The Wizard of Oz on Zoom and its own streaming platform, Auditorium.
With such virtual shows, says Lucy Askew, CEO and Creative Producer of Creation Theatre, “you really are focusing on the storytelling, the style, what you want to do with this piece of work, and your audience’s experience.”
Viewer experience is further fueling the company’s post-COVID offerings, which span virtual and physical. In addition to its its first non-digital outdoor production in 18 months (Wind in the Willows), Creation Theatre is currently developing a digital presentation of Christmas Carol, with which remote audiences can enjoy with a luxurious restaurant-at-home kit. With these hybrid experiences, the organization is hoping to broaden the scope of performing arts. “We very much see it as a new medium,” Askew says. “It’s not theater, it’s not film, it’s not TV; it’s drawing on all those disciplines and creating something really new.”
Askew shares more below about how Creation Theatre’s virtual performances have broadened the company’s creative scope and boosted accessibility.
What goes into planning and producing a digital show?
At the beginning of this year, we went through a period where we had a rep company, so we had a group of full-time actors with us for six months. When we had them, we did a really rapid turnover, making shows in two-and-a-half to four weeks. We were really trying to learn as much as we could in six months — how to make [digital shows] work, what the audience enjoys, what they buy tickets for, what interactions they want, and what titles they’re interested in.
But now, we’re exploring making slower work. For Christmas Carol, we’re trying a new method where we really spread rehearsals over longer periods. We do a couple of days, and then go away and develop things, explore different types of technology, and then come back to it. We’re still refining what the perfect process is.
What are the technical difficulties that most commonly occur and how do you tackle them?
Obviously, you have bandwidth challenges, internet connection challenges, performers being thrown out. I like those elements because it replicates an unknown danger that makes it feel live. We like to retain that live-ness and not make it too orchestrated like watching a film. Another challenge is if your performers aren’t in the same room, and you’re using webcams, vision mixing, or conferencing technologies to film, it takes down the image quality that you can create. You can create things that are really ambitious and visually exciting, but the actual image clarity isn’t as good as if it was filmed on a 4K HD camera.
How has response to these virtual shows been like?
It can be quite emotional. We’ve had quite a few instances where people will come and see a show with a friend who doesn’t live near them, and they dial in together to watch the shows. A lot feedback also says [digital shows] fit their lifestyles better, [compared to] going to a theater — it’s far more accessible and easier to fit into a busy schedule.
It seems like digital shows make performance arts much more accessible.
The obvious accessibility benefits people who have physical disabilities or agoraphobia. But we’re also seeing that [digital shows] are really popular with neurologically diverse people. We also we did a report into sustainability, which showed that digital productions represent a 98.9 percent reduction in carbon emissions. That’s partly to do with not having to build sets, being able to use technology to do virtual backgrounds, and reducing audience travel. Digital is the way we can really make some kind of progress in the sustainability of the industry.
The pandemic sped up the adoption of technology across the cultural sector. How is this trend reflected in the theatrical field?
In the UK, we have the Arts Council that gives a lot of arts funding and they’ve had a really strong visual strategy for years. And quite honestly, many [companies] have been ticking boxes, applying for things, and thinking we were doing digital because we livestreamed a performance on Facebook or created film on our website.
But now, knowing what we know and what we’re capable of, the pandemic has opened up these possibilities. [Tech is] a very generous sector. If you want to work out how to do something, you can find the answers and people freely share open source code, and you can piece things together. Everyone’s very collaborative, which just fits really well with the kind of work that we do.
Has Creation Theatre considered adopting VR or other immersive technology?
Absolutely. What’s particularly interesting is exploring VR where people can be live in the experience, and we can have performers who are talking to you in the VR space in real-time. I think it’s really exciting possibility. We’re also doing some green screen work. How can we create experiences where we have two people sat at a table, both completely remote with an identical green screen setup, and then mix them together so it looks like they are in exactly the same space? We’re quite interested in the scope for what could be done.