Millicent Stott explores the impact of lockdown and the growth of the online upon access to theatre and the showcasing of underrepresented voices.   

It has been tough to find silver linings recently, with the heartbreak and uncertainty that has come with living our lives in and out of lockdown for almost a year. Within the industry of arts and culture especially, a period of unpredictability has taken hold. We can certainly find a silver lining, however, in the increase in experimentation with new forms of theatre over the pandemic. New digital productions of shows have provided many of us with our entertainment fix since theatres closed their doors to the public last year. To be able to access the theatre is an enormous privilege, one that is glaringly obvious in ‘normal times’; not everyone is able to afford the high ticket prices of many productions. Similarly, not everyone is able to travel to London to see West-end productions, no matter how passionate they feel about theatre. However, over lockdown, to enjoy theatre became something all of us were able to do, no matter where we were in the country or from which background we come.

Schemes such as Lockdown Theatre Festival, as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber releasing recordings of musicals on YouTube, have allowed people to feel immersed in theatre and become involved in the plot even when the outside world is particularly bleak. Another great example of this is the National Theatre’s NT at Home scheme, which featured plays such as ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘Jane Eyre’, and ‘Twelfth Night’. This new initiative allowed 15 million of us to welcome the theatre into our homes in a brand-new way befitting our digital era. The National Theatre has also allowed free access to productions and learning resources for all staff and students at state schools. The positive and equalising effect this will have for students cannot be overstated; I was not given the opportunity to attend any theatre productions at school, so having the plays I studied brought to life in this way would have been invaluable for me. This is a fantastic move towards theatre being used to educate all and emphasises its unique ability to transcend class boundaries.

For me, Marquee TV provided a lot of calm and escapism during an anxious lockdown summer. As a student, I would not ordinarily be able to afford access to a site like this, but a lockdown free trial offered me the possibility to explore new productions I would have never have seen otherwise. I watched my first ballets and operas, enjoyed productions of Shakespeare, and revelled in the opportunity to witness the glamour, music and emotion of theatre even if it was not in person. I felt connected to the arts more than I ever had before, and I know the same is true for other people who had not previously had much access to theatre until it became available online.

Similarly, production of the arts has expanded to include those whose voices were previously overlooked. Theatre productions on Zoom, YouTube and other streaming platforms have massively increased in popularity, arguably levelling out the playing field for those who create theatre and ensuring minority voices are heard in an industry that still favours cis white males over diverse creators. I have also loved seeing how Durham student creatives have adapted to theatre in an online format. The Durham Drama Festival was an excellent example of how online theatre can be incredibly successful. Gaining over 2,000 views on DDF 2021 is a testament to the fact that this form of theatre is not invalid nor obsolete – it is as innovative and as creative as ever.

Online theatre may never grant us the same immersive experience as an in-person stage, but perhaps we can take away a few elements from our time enjoying theatre in lockdown. In breaking down class barriers to the arts using experimental formats, we have revolutionised theatre experiences, made productions more accessible, and offered a voice to those who are so often disregarded in the industry.

Image credit: Marquee TV