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Is live screening leading to the “Tesco-isation” of the theatre industry? In a speech at the Westminster Media Forum, Elizabeth Freestone described some unintended consequences affecting the delicate cultural balance in the regional arts scene.

Live screenings of plays from London are killing regional theatre? Or, live screenings of plays from London are saving regional theatre? Which one of these statements is true? Does experience lead to appetite or does saturation dull demand?

It’s probably too soon to tell. Not enough statistical information has yet emerged to look at audience crossover and the genuine impact on programming patterns in venues or ticket-buying patterns in people. For now all we’ve got is anecdotal evidence. So here’s mine:

A joined up theatre ecology is not one where London money is spent on London productions which are then beamed into the poor starved provinces

I run a touring theatre company with the express purpose of reaching audiences who struggle to have access to professional theatre. We tour to village halls, colleges, pubs, market towns, studio theatres, arts centres. We do this because people living in geographically isolated places don’t have the same access to live arts that their urban counterparts enjoy. So I’m thrilled live screenings give my audiences more opportunities to experience theatre in places near them. I’m delighted the income venues get from live screenings helps them afford to programme live theatre in turn. But the infrastructure that surrounds how live screenings work can’t help but pitch us against them.

Here are four ways companies like mine are always going to be the losers in this new digital era. (Happily they are followed by six ways to solve it.)

  1. Money screws us over. Programming live screenings is dirt cheap, much cheaper than booking live theatre. Last week I got a phone call from an arts centre that has booked our autumn tour for one night in October. It’s a new play by Rory Mullarkey, who just yesterday won the George Devine Award for playwrighting. It’s bloody good. This particular touring date has been booked for five months. The programmer called me and asked to cancel it. Why? NT Live are doing a screening on that evening. It’s cheaper for her to pay me a cancellation fee as well as her NT Live money, than it is to turn down the live screening. The only option for me is to implement an aggressive cancellation policy. Do I really want to do that with venues my company has been touring to for 40 years?
  2. The day of the week screws us over. Venues that host live screenings get two opportunities to do so – the live evening and the ‘encore’, a repeat screening. When live screenings started the Opera House did Tuesdays and the National Wednesdays. That’s great for us – we’re unlikely to pack out a theatre on those nights. Our business is mostly done on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. But now NT Live creeps into Thursdays, the RSC have joined in, the Donmar and the Royal Court are next, there just aren’t enough days of the week for all those live events as well as the encores, which can be on any day and venues naturally choose weekends for those.
  3. Advance planning screws us over. Because they’ve got buildings to run, the big companies plan their programmes 18 months or so in advance. Touring companies like mine plan 9-12 months in advance. So by the time we’re calling people up to work out a tour schedule, venues already have various live screenings booked in. When live screenings started, it was on a one-off basis. Now the big companies are tying screening venues into contracts – if you take one RSC show for example, you have to take at least 3 in the season. Our last tour hit exactly this problem. We were well into planning our tour and knew where we’d be geographically in a particular week. But we couldn’t fill the Thursday night in this particular week because War Horse was being screened in the nearest big cinema. No smaller venue would book us and take the risk.
  4. The vocabulary screws us over. When Peter Bazalagette was asked about the decline in regional touring a few months ago he replied, well, there’s NT Live. They’re not the same thing and shouldn’t be talked off as such. The TMA’s best estimate is that there is around 25% less work touring the regions now than there was 10 years ago. Live screenings must not be thought of as the answer. Two different art forms; two different purposes.

So four problems, six solutions:

  1. I accept Thursdays are probably gone. But protect Fridays and Saturdays.
  2. Limit the number of live screenings companies can do a year.
  3. Don’t tie venues into contracts.
  4. Have an industry-wide conversation about it: let’s do ticket deals together, cross-promotions, gather evidence, look at individual venues.
  5. Change the language.
  6. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance live screenings backfire. An audience member who saw our last village hall tour – a new Duncan Macmillan play (bloody good) – had also seen Simon Russell-Beale’s Hamlet in the cinema a few months ago. He told me our show was “loads better”. It had made him realise what he’d missed.

What we’re talking about here is the Tesco-isation of the theatre industry. The big guys from London blithely crashing into towns, unaware of the delicate cultural balance in that particular place. Each town has its own peculiarities dependent on transport, parking, schools, employment, demographic, population. No one size fits all. The regional arts scene is fragile; a few more kicks and it will break.

So what’s the answer? A joined up theatre ecology is not one where London money is spent on London productions which are then beamed into the poor starved provinces, as a bone to a hungry dog.

A joined up theatre ecology is one where regional theatre is beamed into London venues; where small-scale theatre is live screened just like large-scale theatre; where London companies tour the regions and where regional companies perform in London. I’m proposing a network of theatres that screen regional touring productions into their studio spaces. The programmer who cancelled our Rory Mullarkey date has shot herself in the foot – I’ve found another venue for that night and our friends at the Royal Court are going to live stream the show for us (nothing fancy like NT Live, just a single camera), live from a village hall in Worcestershire onto a screen in the Royal Court bar. How about reciprocal screenings from a rural to an urban venue? How about the National Theatre get out on tour so regional audiences can access their live work as well as their screened work?

When my productions are beamed from a village hall in Herefordshire into the Cottesloe, and when the National Theatre takes to the stage in Clee St Margaret village hall, that’s when we’ll know we’re all in the same game.

Elizabeth Freestone is Artistic Director at Pentabus Theatre Company.

This article formed the basis of a speech at the Westminster Media Forum: Supporting the UK performing arts sector ‐ talent, funding, partnerships and marketing, 5th June 2014. It was first published by Westminster Forum.