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The trend has raised fears about diminishing access for disabled audiences - but research suggests they too are starting to switch off.

Is the digital bubble about to burst?

Mel O'Callaghan - Cranbourne

Theatres that pivoted to online productions during the pandemic are turning away from digital because there is no money in it.

New research out of the University of Kent found most online producing theatres have returned to live performances only, finding little financial incentive to continue.

The headline statistic, first reported by BBC Radio 4 Disability Reporter Carolyn Atkinson, is that 56% of funded theatres that had at least one online production during the pandemic have none scheduled for autumn 2021.


"It's not a philosophical objection; it's practical," study author Dr Richard Misek says.

"The funding structure is very fragmented right now. There's no long term funding for digital projects and there's no clear route to monetising yet."

The research, which covers all 224 publicly subsidised theatres and theatre companies across the UK, is perhaps the most definitive evidence to date of a reversing trend: as we've recently reported, a much thinner online pantomime schedule is expected this year.

As-yet unreleased findings show smaller theatres were more likely to abandon digital. 43% of larger theatres have dropped digital performances this autumn compared to 80% of small-to-mid-sized theatres.

Amid proliferating studies into the rise of digital arts and hype over a hybrid future, the research raises questions about how long expanded online access will last - and what impact its loss might have on remote and disabled audiences.

Many have surmised that digital is a gamechanger for these groups, but a Theatre Access survey by Vocal Eyes, Stagetext and the Centre for Accessible Environments says a third of disabled theatregoers (37%) don't like attending online.

Still, 35% were viewing more theatre online and 30% felt positively about the experience.

Respondents indicated that "online theatre is not an adequate replacement for the in-person experience", the survey report says.

"Theatres should therefore focus more than ever on making their venues and live performances accessible: disabled people want to return, and online content alone is not a satisfactory alternative format."

An optional extra?

Theatres feel they need "a good reason" to do digital.

In his research, Misek found companies were unsure what worked best and said artists lacked motivation to work on digital projects.

"There's still a bit of a remaining sense despite the past 19 months - no one says it - that digital is an optional extra," he said.

"The bottom line though is money."

None of the theatres surveyed believed digital activities would turn a profit. Though various digital arts grants schemes have emerged, the long term funding landscape remains uncertain. 

The latest figures indicate larger theatres that can leverage their reputation are more likely to to continue - and succeed - with a digital offer.

Misek called it "as clear an indication of a digital divide" based on size that he'd ever seen. 

However, he said the post-reopening emphasis on live performance may have skewed the results.

"It's possible there will be more activity in future but I suspect a lot of organisations are putting it off until there's an easier way in. I think a lot of organisations don't want to be first."

Captions on please 

If disabled audiences are turned off by digital options, it is perhaps because putting something online isn't enough to make it accessible.

Nearly half (47%) of respondents to the Theatre Access survey said online theatre was usually inaccessible to them because it lacked audio description, BSL interpretation or captioning.

Without these inclusive design measures, "streaming to 'global audiences' is simply exclusion by other means", the survey report says.

It notes many of the issues disabled and non-disabled audiences have with digital culture are the same - unequal access to broadband, poor digital literacy, digital fatigue and the poorer quality of some online experiences.

"But for the future to not simply be an extrapolation from their past... disabled people need to be consulted, their views considered, their agency and creativity recognised and championed."

A separate August survey by Attitude is Everything (AiE) found 78% of respondents wanted live streamed performances to remain an option.

AiE Founder Suzanne Bull said livestreaming can bring new income to theatres.

"It’s critical to their survival that all theatres respond to the needs of every audience member.

"The more choices that deaf, disabled and neurodivergent audiences are given on how to engage, the more accessible theatres will be."