During the lockdown the performing arts have embraced streaming as a temporary measure. But they may be forced to continue to stream shows while venues are unable to operate at maximum capacity. So if streaming is to form part of a new normal, artists will need to think about how they write and perform for a device, not the stage.
There’s no doubt that the UK’s arts sector has been hit harder during the pandemic than any other. An industry worth £10bn needs a lot of bums on seats to survive. Lockdown has resulted in closed venues and furloughed staff, while the continued need for social distancing makes any return to full houses unlikely for the foreseeable future. At the time of writing, pubs in the UK are set to open on 4 July, or “Super Saturday” as it is now known, while the future for theatres and music venues remains uncertain. (Proof, if proof was needed, that the pub represents the cornerstone of British culture, and is the real stage on which most stories are told.)
Their venues locked up while their audiences were locked down, the performing arts have turned to streaming shows online to keep viewers and listeners engaged. The National Theatre has aired weekly plays, many of which were critical and box office hits. The Royal Opera House in London and the Met in New York have streamed opera and ballet productions, free to air.
Bands have also turned online, some very profitably. According to Rolling Stone magazine, Korean group BTS (no, me neither), recently earned $20m for a show that was streamed to 750,000 fans. Facebook launched a means for creators to charge for access to their streams back in April, while online streaming platform Bandsintown has hosted over 28,000 live streams during lockdown, and claims that “Livestreaming is a new genre, a new form of entertainment.”
Meanwhile, the lockdown gig has become a feature of many a TV chatshow, delivered against a bay window backdrop, or sung at a kitchen table. The BBC marked the fiftieth year of Glastonbury with socially spaced presenters in empty fields introducing sets selected from broadcast footage over the years. DJs have streamed late-night sets on Twitch from their front room, often to raise money to support the night-time economy on which their lives depend.
Yes, I know there has been no alternative to these online performances during the lockdown, so streaming has clearly been better than nothing. But while some of these streams have worked, some haven’t. And where they have missed the mark, it hasn’t been because the technology has failed to keep up. In fact, most reports suggest the internet has been able to deal with the extra demands placed on it, and there has been surprisingly little buffering of images and dropped audio as a result. No, the misses are not so much down to technology, but to the nature of the streaming format itself.
A theatre stage is a three-dimensional space and plays are directed to appeal to a live audience which, while free to look where and when it wants, is guided around the stage by actors, responding to a director’s commands. And while it should be possible to replicate this steering of the online viewer’s attention through sympathetic editing, it doesn’t somehow make a successful transition when watched as a streamed performance at home.
Those lockdown gigs perhaps work better than plays online, but point to another problem with streaming: the lack of any audience beyond the nodding head of a technician in the shadows.
Watching the recent Glastonbury performances, it was clear that audience feedback is an integral part of the live musical performance; without it, things feel slightly flat. I love the fact that nightclub regulars can share messages on a simultaneous chatroom as a DJ streams a set on Twitch. But if their pupils are dilated at all, it will be from focusing on the constant stream of emojis for hours at a time, not the result of pills alone.
Even the visual arts have got in on the streaming act. Fancy a YouTube tour of an empty art gallery? Not having to wade through crowds of tourists to see what’s on show may be nice, but most visual artists need the white cube of an exhibition space to react to, and against. It’s great that a spellbinding video by Mark Leckey I saw earlier this year at The Tate is free to watch on YouTube, but it’s no alternative to seeing it in a darkened gallery from beneath the artist’s life-size mockup of an M53 motorway bridge.
No, the intangible stuff around performance art, live music and even visual art is impossible to recreate on a sofa at home. It’s about ‘being there’, not seeing there. And it explains why frustrations with lockdown — and the emulated version of life that it has served up over the past few months — have lead to a resurgence in illegal raves. Who knows, perhaps a similar urge for analogue, not digital experiences will give rise to underground theatre performances, guerilla arias, impromptu street gigs, or underground supper club parties, where social distancing is definitely not on the menu?
Mindful of the potential return of further lockdowns to address spikes in infection, it might be useful for artists to think about how they could better meet the challenges forced on them through a lack of real-world venues for their work. And consider how best to use online platforms they are forced to fall back on.
Streaming presents a distinct challenge to artists. How do they present work within the four unforgiving, bevelled glass boundaries of devices that have formed our windows out onto the world, and which may continue to do so for a while yet?
Well, free from immediate audience feedback, streaming might allow musicians to perform more demanding, unknown music from their songbooks. It might provide actors with more space and time in which to tell a story. It will surely encourage artists to be more innovative with the technology that acts as both a restriction, but also a form of release.
Television might show how. Those TV shows that have successfully engaged with the challenges posed by lockdown have put the inherent limitations of a world lived on Zoom, for example, at the heart of programme production and the nature of performance itself. In the case of the BBC’s ‘Staged’, the result is genuinely fresh and entertaining, even for viewers who may have spent all day on video calls.
Will streaming encourage more intimate performances, and force artists to make the developments in form and technique necessary to deliver work of greater depth and nuance? Perhaps. Something about the internal world that many have lived for months during lockdown lends itself to a receptiveness for the monologue, for example. Alan Bennett should not be the only one to get this right. Other, more diverse voices are needed.
Many have developed a new interest in the small details of life during the lockdown; whether noticing previously unheard bird song outside their window, or unearthing visual details in the smaller spaces in which they have been confined. Combined with a commonly-shared longing for escape, I can imagine a resurgence in more natural Andrea Arnold-type productions; bold reinterpretations of existing works of art; and the sharing by artists of influences and inspirations. All these would be interesting departures and would lend themselves well to online platforms.
Judging from Instagram, many people seem to have started creating art themselves during the lockdown. Witness the number of people who have attended an online art course, picked up a long-neglected musical instrument, joined an online choir, or started writing. So perhaps the real lesson from lockdown is not that we should look at new means of getting art in front of audiences, but that participation in art itself should be encouraged further.
“No man is an island”, as your man John Donne once wrote.