Why lockdown offers an opportunity for theatre

James Haddrell, artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

Like many other theatres, at Greenwich we are offering audiences the opportunity to watch theatre from home while we’re all caught up in lockdown. This week we are offering the chance to see our own production of Doctor Faustus and next week will be Sharklegs Theatre’s Fulfilment – their increasingly topical show about working conditions at a major online retailer, streaming on Friday night on Facebook and then available for a week on YouTube.

For theatres thinking about survival it is an easy logical step to make – we all have audiences who enjoy watching shows, we want them to come back when we reopen, we’d love them to donate something to help us deal with our losses while we are closed, so let’s give them some of the thing they enjoy, but delivered to their own homes.

However, it is worth the industry taking a step back and thinking about this approach. Sure, if you’re the National Theatre and you have a library of recordings of cinema quality that you would normally be putting out under the NT Live banner, then you really are able to give audiences something approaching the theatrical experience, but for many other venues it is not the same. A lot of the recordings are archive copies, shot from a single camera at the back of the stalls and never intended to be seen by the public. Sharing them keeps theatres in touch with their audiences, but if the experience of watching them is not a good one then they can do more harm than good.

For me, the answer is not to stop streaming but to be honest with audiences about what’s on offer, to celebrate the opportunity to get a glimpse of something that they could not have seen otherwise and to increase the amount of communication with audiences during the process.

When we stream Fulfilment, Sharklegs will be on twitter at the same time tweeting about the show and answering questions from anyone watching along with them. You could never do that in the theatre, but the chance to interact with the creative team and chat to them about what you are watching in real time opens up a whole new way of watching the recording and a new set of insights to bring with you when you come back to a live performance.

Full House Theatre, another company that has played Greenwich before, should have been with us at Easter with their sequel to Peter Pan – Little Darling – but like everyone else in the business they had to bring their plans to an early end. Now, with support from Arts Council England the company is taking rehearsal footage and turning it into a family friendly online piece all about the making of the show, with contributions from the director and related activities for children to complete.

Nick Hern Books, the theatrical publisher, has an even more innovative approach to the current closure of theatres. The company has launched a book club and every week they release a script that can be read online for free. During that week readers can submit questions about the play, and the following week the publisher records and releases a podcast interview with the playwright including the submitted questions. We may not be able to see the plays on stage but we can still experience them, and gain an insight into the writing process at the same time.

Streaming theatre is certainly a way to stay in touch with our audiences, but the most innovative approaches to maintaining those audiences reveal an opportunity to do more than just broadcast our work – it is a chance to start a conversation that could continue long after the theatres reopen and we welcome people back into our buildings.


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