A cross-European study of digital theatre production before and during the pandemic reveals steep rise in roles with a digital remit since 2019.
The number of theatre roles with a digital remit increased by 268% between 2019 and 2021, a major study of European theatres has found.
Data from 19 theatres across 17 countries, including three located in the UK - Belarus Free Theatre and the Young Vic, both in London, and the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh - showed digital theatre "boomed" as a result of lockdowns and restrictions imposed during the pandemic.
Digital theatre ticket sales in Europe were up 772% in 2021 compared with 2019, while regular ticket sales fell by over two-thirds during the same period.
Despite this significant increase, the Digital Theatre – Strategies and Business Models in European Theatre report says digital theatre remains "divisive". Of the theatres which chose not to produce digital theatre, three quarters attributed this to a “lack of interest” from the creative team.
“It is clear that such theatres hold strong opinions about digital theatre and many believe it to be in direct opposition to their definition of theatre-making,” the report, conducted by the European Theatre Convention (ETC) and the Academy for Theatre and Digitality in Dortmund, states.
Some theatres also expressed concerns that digital distribution could replace opportunities for international touring.
The report concluded that digital theatre in Europe is at a "crossroads" due to numerous obstacles and challenges which may “prevent, or even undo, such growth in the years to come”.
Cost is one major challenge facing theatres keen to continue producing digital theatre. This has resulted in a growing trend of outsourcing both roles and equipment, which helps theatres avoid costly investments but creates a more precarious environment with regards to staffing, artistic copyright and development of in-house expertise.
Ticket sales are another challenge, with many theatres reluctant to charge full price for digital productions.
Meanwhile, the report found that funding structures remain “a major barrier to the long-term adoption of digital production and strategy”. It says digital funding tends to be short-term and project based restricting long-term planning and encouraging short-term contractual labour.
Increase in freelance use
The survey found the proportion of freelance or short-term contracted staff with digital roles also increased, from 42.4% in 2019 to 63.7% in 2021. It warns that "care must be taken to ensure that digital creatives and technicians have access to stable employment opportunities".
“For digital growth to be truly sustainable, theatres must be supported in planning for their futures,” the report states.
“There is still much to explore, but this study equips us with deep, cross-European knowledge about the vital developments in digital theatre and business models in European theatres,” said Heidi Wiley, Executive Director of ETC.
“This will become increasingly relevant and important as theatre establishes itself in a digital sphere and the concept of ‘discoverability’, or being able to find theatre when looking for other cultural experiences online, becomes more commonplace.”