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Despite what you may have heard, theatre isn’t dead. Moving online has made new spaces for creativity and collaboration that won’t close when venues reopen, writes Laura Killeen.

title confrence call screen with 6 performers working from home and a digital advent calender displayed in the center. A digital clock is counting down from 15.

When Covid-19 arrived, Degenerate Fox Theatre, like so many other creators, had all its work cancelled. Our connection with our audience, community and each other was gone. We started a YouTube channel, which was a great way for us to stay in touch and keep creating, but the live aspect of our work was missing. Then, this September, we decided to do our show online. Six performers each in their own homes, three layers of software, a tech in Peru, and a valiant attempt to perform 30 plays in one hour, all on the internet. 

We had no idea of the transformative benefits of making live work in this new medium. At a time when we are being inundated with articles about 'the death of theatre', I believe theatre and performance can in fact grow and evolve through the challenges ahead. 

Huge opportunities

Without doubt, the greatest joy of performing in this way has been the increase in accessibility - physical, geographical, and financial. We usually perform in a beautiful pub theatre in north London, but it’s up a steep flight of stairs. We work on a box office split and have overheads in putting work on stage. In performing online, anyone, anywhere can watch our show; theoretically anyone can perform in it too. We have company members from all over the world and it has been gratifying to have their family see their work for the first time - even staying up late in Australia to watch live! As we are now the sole producers, we receive 100% of the box office. Not only does this mean we can offer a lower ticket price, it also means we can pay people more for their work on the show. 

The democratisation of our work means our audience has developed. Each of our online audiences has been larger than our sold out house in the theatre. This new forum is giving us the perk of exposure, with our performers and creatives having their work seen by more people in more places. Plus, borders don’t confine our work so more opportunities are accessible to us, including global collaboration. 

Having a space for our audience to chat, react, and communicate during the performance has been a revelation for us. Such a space inspires so many creative possibilities: we encourage interaction during our shows, and our audience does not disappoint. They have the choice to be passive or active in a new way. It’s worth investigating how this can inspire new connections, catharsis and empathy in a time when we are all so far apart. This is a community building activity.

Creative challenges

It’s been a swift and steep learning curve. We are rehearsing at least twice as much as we usually would, and we are now theatremakers creating in the language of film. This opens doors creatively, but it also presents challenges. Each performer is now their own technician. They have to solve sound problems, get their lighting right and make sure their internet is working at its best.

We couldn’t do shows like this without the internet but it is perhaps our biggest hurdle. For productions like ours, which exist in real time with no fourth wall, we are able to build connection issues into the experience. Thankfully, whenever problems have arisen our audience has understood and, with new platforms created specifically for the streaming of live performance, I don’t think it’s an issue we’ll be suffering for much longer. With every show we are fortifying our connection - to the internet and to the audience.

Being independent of a theatre space has its benefits financially, but we are now the only producers, technicians and ticket sellers for our shows, meaning all issues are ours to solve – even in the middle of a performance. Mostly though, the greatest challenge posed by the absence of a shared physical space has been the lack of incidental interaction. Chats in the rehearsal break and after-show drinks are where ideas and relationships are formed. We need to find new space for this if we are to continue developing theatre online.

Collaborative future

How long will these joys and challenges continue to be a part of our lives? According to a recent study by Facebook for Business, 42% of global consumers who watched a live streamed concert or play for the first time due to the pandemic said they could see themselves doing so for years to come. We’ve already had people asking whether we’ll continue to perform online when – or if – we go back on stage. There is a clear appetite for live online experiences; whether that continues remains to be seen. In any case, we are certainly gaining great learning that can benefit our shows whether our stage is a traditional place of performance or not, and we now have the tools to share our work in a variety of ways. 

One of the greatest opportunities in these challenging times is to pioneer new solutions to new problems. There's a lot of negativity at the moment, and understandably so. But we’ll find a silver lining if we can move forward with new knowledge and connections. New space for creative collaboration and participation has opened up that didn’t exist before – space that won’t close once restrictions are lifted.

Here’s the real scoop: theatre isn’t dead. It’s growing and evolving, and we’ll only be better for it.

Laura Killeen is Managing Director and Co-Artistic Director of Degenerate Fox Theatre.
 @killeenmesoftly | @DegenerateFoxUK

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Laura Killeen