Over half of UK theatres have now abandoned digital performances

When the pandemic hit, theatres were forced to move online, opening up new experiences for many people who would not normally visit playhouses and show venues.

Living rooms around the globe suddenly became the upper circle for The Old Vic, with stars such as Richard Armitage performing The Crucible for brand new audiences,

However, as auditoriums now begin to welcome back live crowds, digital performances have more than halved – once again putting stage shows out of reach of many vulnerable, disabled and housebound people.

Research by Loughborough University and the University of Kent found that 71 (56%) of the 126 theatres that had at least one online production in the first 18-months of the pandemic have none scheduled for the autumn season.

It means that just 60 of the UK’s 224 theatres will live stream performances.

Staff from 40 venues were interviewed about the reasons for ditching their digital programme.

The reasons they gave included:

  • Money
  • Not enough time and energy to initiate digital projects
  • A tendency to default back to their traditional work of filling venues (for example, one recent interviewee said: “We need a good reason to do a digital performance”)
  • A residual sense that digital is an optional extra (and an inferior alternative) to live activities
  • A lack of clarity about how to best to engage with digital (another recent interviewee said: “We haven’t seen a sustainable model for digital performances, beyond the National Theatre’s famous faces”

Dr Adrian Leguina, of Loughborough’s School of Social Sciences and Humanities, said: “Theatres appear to be reluctant to keep productions online because, firstly, they won’t make as much money from digital performances as they would from live shows.

“And secondly, the funding available to producers for online plays and events is very difficult to secure, so there is little economic motivation to invest in a digital future.

“The problem is, many remote and disabled audiences have found the new online format very appealing because of the new experiences it has enabled them to enjoy.

“To suddenly axe more than half of the entertainment available to them is a real loss.

“The question we must answer now is what are the implications for remote, disabled, vulnerable and elderly audience members who feel that going to theatre is not for them?”

“He added: “Despite proving its potential for success over the past 19 months, using digital media to make arts and culture more accessible hasn’t seen the investment it needs.

“To truly make the theatre experience available to everybody, funders and arts organisations must be willing to invest in digital development or many of the advances that were made during the pandemic will be lost.”

The research was carried out as a part of a 12-month Arts and Humanities Research Council project, ‘Digital Access to Arts and Culture Beyond COVID-19’, led by Dr Leguina (Loughborough University) and Dr Richard Misek (University of Kent).


Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 21/218

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