Last week, the Arts Council of Wales hosted a discussion titled Is the Future Hybrid? as part of the Edinburgh Fringe initiative Fringe Connect. At the event, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Andrew Barnett compared the shift to digital on its own, without context or creativity and community, to spaghetti without the sauce.
In theatre it’s not the space that matters but what you do with it: you can have a state-of-the-art auditorium and still deliver dull shows. It’s the same with digital. The space must be used in the most imaginative ways, engaging with artists, communities and audiences.
When you simply swap in-person space for digital space, you replicate tired old structures and ways of doing things. If theatre is transferred from stage to digital without exploring the latter’s creative potential it’s hardly surprising the result is bland.
The most exciting digital theatre works in the same way as the most exciting in-person live work. In successful shows, people come together and are active, the audience’s presence genuinely matters and the community is engaged.
It’s increasingly clear that digital can’t deliver miracles for theatremakers but it does offer a multitude of possibilities: about access, reach, new audiences, time frames, multiple platforms and sometimes – not always – income. Jermyn Street Theatre artistic director Tom Littler’s recent ruefully honest article on wishful thinking about pent-up demand as theatres reopened adds to reports I’ve heard of digital fatigue from audiences this summer.
That may change if the winter brings bad weather and rising infections. But there are good reasons for not sliding into the default idea that digital theatre is only for when we can’t gather together in person.
It’s not a substitute – it is something in its own right, a new place and space for theatre, just as film and TV and even radio once provided a different space. It’s no threat to live performance: just as conductor Thomas Beecham was proved wrong when he railed that broadcasting concerts on the new-fangled wireless would lead to the demise of concerts.
Thinking about digital space as an underexplored frontier rather than a poor substitute is important because – with some caveats about disability – it is not often that artists are able to access space without first having to ask for permission.
Theatre spaces are often crowded and policed. There are gatekeepers to keep you out, whether you are a student working on a laptop in a theatre foyer or artists trying to gain access to that venue’s rehearsal rooms and stages, funding and other resources.
Sometimes this space tries to keep the audience in their place too: sitting in the dark, quietly in neat rows. Of course, these institutions want to revert to the status quo as quickly as possible. It has always suited them and means they retain the power and the keys to the space.
But something worth pondering was raised at Is the Future Hybrid? by Tundé Adefioye. He talked about how, over the pandemic, we have all had a different relationship with space and how we occupy it and how it made us sit with ourselves.
Perhaps that experience can and should help us reimagine arts space – particularly funded space. Adefioye dreamed of the possibility that arts spaces like Tate Modern could be used for art during the day and as shelter for the homeless at night. This form of hybrid is a step on from theatres being used as vaccination centres, places to give blood and operate as food banks. They have welcomed the many, not the few.
For freelance artists, having spaces to make and present is an endless battle – and even more important at a time when project funding is heavily oversubscribed, with only about 20% of applications being successful in some parts of the country. That’s why initiatives such as London’s NDT Broadgate, available for freelancers to use free of charge, are so important.
At Is the Future Hybrid?, Barnett explained how during the pandemic the smallest organisations often proved the most agile and able to serve their communities best. He pondered whether in the future we might see an arts landscape in which larger, better-funded organisations recognise their responsibility to use their power and resources in service of smaller and more responsive organisations.
Many of those small organisations are better placed to hold the space for local people and communities and freelance artists. In giving up their space, larger theatres would demonstrate that their commitment to change is more than empty words.