Volume One: IT'S A GAME CHANGER
in conversation with Lyn Gardner
Back in May I was lucky enough to sit down and talk to renowned theatre critic Lyn Gardner. Once I got over my stage fright and the bizarreness of the fact that I was interviewing someone who does that for a living. We had a wonderful chat about digital distribution, the importance of interactivity and her optimism for the future for theatre. (Reading not your thing? Don't worry, you can listen to our conversation here)
Madeleine: During this pandemic we’ve seen lots of companies making digital work, obviously in person theatre is beginning to open up again, do you think that digital theatre will remain?
Lyn: Oh God yes! I believe very strongly that moving forward, that digital theatre will continue and will be a thing in the way that theatre ‘in-person’ is a thing. I think that there will be lots and lots of companies out there, who will choose to make digital work and
I think that’s a fundamental difference - that they are choosing to make work digitally, not just flinging some dusty tape of something they had onto the internet because they can’t put on a live performance.
And I think that many companies and theatres will make work that is hybrid. By that I mean work that is both digital and in-person or indeed it’s hybrid in the sense that it crosses in between the two: so you might do part of the show digitally and part of the show live.
Madeleine: How do you think the last 15 months or so has changed the way we view digital theatre?
Lyn: I think there has been a real shift and I think it’s a really helpful shift. It’s less about digital, it's about distribution, because everything is not digital, some of the best stuff I’ve experienced [since the pandemic] has been via phone calls or postcards.
So I think it’s about distribution. Theatre for thousands of years has operated on the basis that it happens at a certain time, in a certain place and in order to experience it, you have to turn up. I am not for a moment saying that I don’t think that will [continue to] go on for thousands of years, but I think one of the things the last 15 months has made us do, is to think that there might be other ways and means of distribution.
For many theatre companies I think they were afraid of thinking about those issues. The dominance of the NT Live model and the fact that it has been very expensive to set up, meant everyone went “Oh if we want to do digital theatre that’s the way we have to do it” and I think the last year has made people absolutely realise that there are many, many different ways that you can do it and many of them do not require huge amounts of technical knowhow and they don’t require lots of flash, fancy equipment and I think that’s a game changer, yeah?
It’s a game changer in terms of access for audiences, about the fact that someone can sit in Peru and watch your show as well as somebody who is just down the road. It’s a game changer for companies in terms of the fact that their work can be seen more widely. It increases access because despite brilliant initiatives like Jess Thom working with Battersea Arts Centre to create a venue which is entirely relaxed, there are going to be lots of people [for whom] simply going out to the theatre [might be difficult] because of their particular circumstances.
I also think it’s a game changer in terms of the question about how we distribute theatre. There is something enormously wasteful and in a time of climate emergency, irresponsible, about the idea that we take work with lots of company members around the world and we take the set and we take everything with us.
So I think the potential for it is enormous. Another potential is that [it allows artists to showcase their work]. Artists often do not have access to buildings and stages. They’ve either got to knock hard on the door of an institution and keep on knocking or their other option is that they go to Edinburgh and rent a space, or they go to one of the other fringes and shell out huge amounts of money in order to show their work. It is the only way that they can show their work. Suddenly, artists have access to digital space and they can show their work to anyone who wants to turn up and watch it.
And I think the great thing about that is quite simply that it might appeal to those would not in a million years go near a theatre, and I’m not saying for a moment is that what we should do is inveigle the entire population to going to the theatre without them realising that’s what happening to them, but it opens up a whole area of audience who would never go to their local theatre down the road but would be very interested to do something online.
[There are lots of] really good reasons for digital, but I think the danger is, in particular for institutions, that they get hung up on this and the excitement of being able to reach people in Atlanta or wherever. And that can’t be at the expense of not serving your local community really well, and responding to what [their] needs might be. And that might actually be that they don't have much interest in digital or can’t access it because of digital poverty. So though I am in favour, I think there are also potential pitfalls and downsides.
I think it’s a different thing if you are a small company and I think the benefits are great, but I think if you are a local theatre then you have to serve your local community. That doesn’t mean you can’t also serve many more people in other places but I think in one’s excitement about the possibilities of this and the potential financial benefits of this, that the local community should not be lost sight of.
Madeleine: Are there other potential pitfalls of digital theatre?
Lyn: I think this depends to some degree how the pandemic develops but will we end up where what producers do is that they make a copy of their show and the people who can afford basically premium tickets will go and get the ‘in person experience’ and the rest of us will have to pay a much smaller amount to watch it online? So I think the potential for actually creating inequality is there, as well as the benefits.
Madeleine: I just want to come back to what you said about liveness, about it being a really key ingredient when creating work for the digital sphere?
Lyn: I would be careful about liveness, because I think theatre has been very hung up on liveness, yes? It can be a bit of a red herring, it’s more about the fact that my presence matters. There's an awful lot of theatre that claims to be live and actually is half dead and completely inert.
If the entire audience weren’t there it really wouldn’t matter and I think it’s just the same with digital. Does our presence actually matter? I’ve seen some very good things, but I’ve probably had slightly less or fewer really good experiences of simply watching a theatre show online and I’ve had better experiences online when the work has been interactive in some way.
I’m not saying we have to have agency or the ability to change things, I think digital’s rush for a ‘choose your own adventure’ kind of work is not actually the most interesting aspect about it. It seems to me, it’s never real agency, we can never genuinely stop Romeo and Juliet dying, they are still always going to die at the end of the play, whatever decisions that we make, but I think that there are shows where our presence genuinely does matter and without us the show can not go on.
Madeleine: Is there a piece that you remember watching that made you suddenly think “Oh hang on, maybe this form has legs”?
Lyn: Yeah, I would come back to a flawed but very interesting show called The Lucky Ones, by a Leeds company called Riptide. When we talk about distribution, we talk generally about that idea in theatre about people coming to one place at a certain time and because of all sorts of constraints like; how long people are prepared to stay in one place and public transport, it is unlikely that your show is going to go on for more than about 3 hours. One of the things digital does is it changes our relationship with time. So it’s possible to have a show that goes on over a week or 2 weeks or even longer and The Lucky Ones was an example of a show like that. It took place over the period of a week and during that week you engaged in various ways digitally but also through phone calls as well.
You had to solve puzzles, there was an element of mystery, you had to make moral decisions that might come back to bite you [but most interestingly]….if you dropped out at any point everyone’s individual experience would have been different in some way.
It was interestingly reminiscent of those early days of immersive theatre with Punchdrunk, where one of the most exciting things was always in the bar afterwards because everyone was going ‘and then I...” “and then this happened to me , and then…” and everyone’s experience of the show was different and this would be the case in [The Lucky Ones].
So what I’m interested in about this work is its potential and I think again as a young company who are enormously savvy and digitally competent that actually in the longer term they will make some work in a live, in person sphere, some work in a digital sphere and some work that crosses over the two. So you will do some of it online and some of it might take place in a specific place, [in the initial live version of The Lucky Ones, you were sent to explore an empty flat to discover some things] and I think that’s potentially interesting.
Madeleine: One final question, as this is The Future Project, how are you feeling about the future of the theatre industry moving forward?
Lyn: I am concerned that the actual structures of theatre itself are so utterly… fucked, is the word, that we really, really have to radically rethink working practices and how funding operates. There is an enormous difficulty with the fact that many people that work in theatres have been salaried during the last year and have been furloughed, and therefore have had, maybe a lower income, but a consistent income. But the people who actually make the art are 75% of the workforce, and they have no say in those buildings, they do not have salaries and their lives are precarious and I think that needs to change. In order to make those changes, I think we are only tinkering around the edges, unless the funding system substantially changes.
Do I believe that buildings and funders themselves, really have the appetite for the kind of change that will be necessary? And what that would mean? I’m not sure that they do because it would require absolutely astonishing bravery. We would have to kind of begin again almost.
I think we will see change in terms of funders, but how much change I really don’t know, I mean I think there are big questions anyway, about whether or not the Arts Council survives this. I think the role of the DCMS will become so much bigger and the danger there is we lose the arms length principal which is so crucial.