Theatre and Digital: More experimentation please!

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Some thoughts on Live from Television Centre

Marcus Lilley provides some thoughts on why we should keep experimenting and innovating theatre.

A Sunday evening in November often conjures up images of the dreaded going to back to school / work on a Monday morning. The Sunday evening time slot has often be a place for programmers to schedule television programmes that offer us escapism.  As someone who loves the relationship between theatre and technology ‘Live from Television Centre’ on BBC Four on Sunday 15th of November was something that peaked my interest.

Live from Television Centre’ was a collaboration between the BBCArts Council England and the Battersea Arts Centre which featured five theatre companies showcasing specially produced theatre pieces that were streamed live on BBC Four over two hours and then available to watch on the BBC Iplayer.

The five theatre companies were:

You can view the show on BBC iPlayer – Live from Television Centre.

Technology is encouraging innovation in theatre

This article isn’t a review of the show, there are excellent write ups from The Stage and The Guardian.
I’ve been involved with theatre in one way or another as a student, youth theatre member, theatre maker and workshop leader since the age of 10 and I’ve been fascinated at how particularly in the last few years how the spirit of innovation, largely developed by the technology sector, has been working in collaboration with theatre to develop some really interesting outcomes.

Live from Television Centre’ is a really interesting starting point because its use of such an iconic institution such as BBC’s Television Centre for decades a pillar of culture consumption to be a platform for a theatrical experimentation.

Site specific work is nothing new and nor is live streaming but the inter-disciplanrly nature of the event delivered something that is very much becoming a mainstay of our viewing habits. With live streaming comes the additional audience who are able to watch, comment and interact with the performance as it is happening rather than the traditional model of a select audience who watch, discuss it amongst themselves in the post show bar and return home.  The online conversations are public and a left online as a permeant record.

Bringing the ‘Hack Day’ concept to the arts

In the era of the ‘always on’ on demand audiences we have so much choice, its incredibly important to have theatre work that responds to the times we live in. Creating innovative work needs to have experimentation at the core. Not knowing the answer is as important as the work itself.

We need to have a spirt of innovation which leads to generating new answers to new questions. The technology sector does this in fantastic ways such as ‘hack days’ and releasing information in beta. Within the arts and particularly theatre we have started in this mode but we need to do more.

‘The Vote’ – An election night experiment

‘The Vote’, shown on election night this year, was an example of a simple idea that needed to be tested to see if it worked. ‘The Vote’ was a specially commissioned piece by The Donmar Warehouse set in a fictional election booth and followed voters deciding who they were voting for as the voting booths closed.

It was shown in real time on More4 and finished as the voting booths closed at 10pm. Watching ‘The Vote’as an audience member was incredibly exciting because it captured the energy of a unique day in real time. It could of easily been recorded on another day before or after the General election but the fact it was shown at real time and finished at the time the voting booths closed gave it a really identity.

Other pioneering digital theatre projects

Other projects such as National Theatre Live and pioneering digital projects such as the RSC’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ shown over a weekend with live performances and online characters show there is a real appetite for innovation and bringing together different cultural forms based around the ‘live experience’. The ‘live experience’ is not just unique to theatre, in music live performances have always been the cornerstone.

We live in a really exciting and innovative time culturally and the power of digital technology, I believe, is still being underused. As a society we are more in tune with the power of technology than ever before. Our consumption of websites for example is more on mobiles than desktop computers. Instead of watching the traditional terrestrial channels we are watching services such as Amazon Prime and Netflix. Both of these services are not just replaying tv series, they are specially commissioning there own work. Some of it is only pilots and doesn’t go anywhere, but we only have to look at shows such as House of Cards which are the tipping point for further exploration.

Live performance and broadcasting

The essence of live performance can and always will be preserved as something that can’t be repeated. However, it should be reflective of how as a society we are broadcasting our lives more and more in real time (as if we are performers) sharing our personal thoughts, feelings and interactions with the world.

Live from Television Centre’ shows the power of theatre to capture audiences attention and the real innovation that can happen from simple ideas. In the last few years Theatre has done some fantastic things to innovate such as Digital TheatreNational Theatre Live‘The Vote’ on More4 and countless others. We need not be afraid but foster a sense of experimentation. It can bring audiences closer to the experience than ever before and hopefully we can see many more of these experiences in the months and years to come.

More experimentation please!


Written by:

marcus lilley

Marcus Lilley

Founder, FutrSocial

Marcus runs FutrSocial, a company that helps organisations in the Creative Industries understand and utilise social media and online content.

Image Credits: Cover Image: “Future Theatre”; Top Image: “Live from Television Centre” (Battersea Arts Centre); Middle Image: “Twitter feed of responses to Live from Television Centre” (taken by Marcus Lilley); Bottom Image: “The Vote” (The Donmar Warehouse)”.

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