Alice Aucott, our Theatre Development Coordinator, discusses the value of online theatre and argues that it cannot continue to be free. 

In lockdown, online theatre was a lifeline to the arts for many. Did I countdown the days to Hamilton being released on Disney+? Absolutely. Did I pay £20 to watch Lungs Live from the Old Vic in my pyjamas? You bet. Theatre has been dragged into the twenty-first century by the coronavirus pandemic, but what started as a national pick-me-up could have set a dangerous precedent for the industry’s future. COVID doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, and what will take even longer to recover is audience confidence. We must defy Rishi Sunak’s recent advice and prove that our industry is viable, sustainable, and able to thrive under new conditions. We need to revaluate how we consume and distribute online art.

During summer, in addition to the above (paid for) shows, the most notable example of online theatre was the National’s ‘At Home’ series. Over the course of the programme, NT streamed 16 world-class productions on YouTube, all for free. All of a sudden people had access to theatre (of the highest quality) that otherwise would have been gathering dust in archives. Furthermore, to get this for free was incredible – for my entire family to travel to London and each buy tickets to a show is not a cheap endeavour, and here we were enjoying theatre together with no monetary barrier. It’s also worth mentioning that NT’s programme wasn’t the only one of its kind: Middle Child, New Diorama and Poltergeist theatre all had similar free streaming programmes which added some much-needed variety to my summer screenings. The value of free theatre must not be overlooked: theatre is not a cheap thing with which to engage, and captivating a new audience is key to our own sustainability, but within the same breath, we must also acknowledge that not charging for theatre is (paradoxically) also unsustainable.  

Some of these ‘age of corona’ measures, I believe, should definitely be kept and worked into our usual MOs. It will increase engagement, accessibility and more generally prevent the sometimes elitist gatekeeping that can result from operating at extortionate prices in often old and uncomfortable buildings. 

There does need to come a notable change for online theatrical content, however. Much of what has been made available to people has been free, amazing in terms of removing financial barriers to the arts but unsustainable in the long run. Shows take money, time and passion to produce. To then effectively give these away for free undermines the skill, training, and again, passion that goes into creating them. We (both Durham and the industry as a whole) need to charge for our art. We must assign value to it; otherwise, we cannot expect others to. I completely understand why this summer’s programme was free – the nation needed a morale boost (and of course, something to do) – but our situation is now far more long term than originally thought. Especially as an industry recovering from however bad the corona-induced recession will be, our businesses need to be viable. Mixing business and art can be controversial to some, but it is a necessary evil. In the eyes of many, it legitimises theatre (and creative arts more broadly) as equal to other sectors that enjoy far more prestige and recognition. Convincing parents and politicians alike that the arts are a viable career when we ourselves don’t always assign (monetary) value to it is a losing battle. 

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s truly wonderful that this summer has removed socio-economic barriers to theatre, and the idea that anyone that wants to can engage with it regardless of external factors is the best part this initiative. We need to retain the best parts of this, whilst making sure we safeguard our own futures. To keep the industry alive we need to find a happy medium where we are economically sustainable without needlessly charging extortionate prices that have become the norm in the past.


Image: Alamy, Montage by Jeff Porter