By Leyla Resuli: Arts Columnist
Theatre has been a part of human culture for longer than most entertainment we enjoy today, with the earliest known performances dating back to the 5th century. Throughout history we have indulged in performance, enacting comedy, tragedy, and everything in between, touching audiences across the world. And yet now, more than ever, the world of theatre is struggling, from the challenges that Covid-19 has created. In many countries, live performances are not yet allowed to take place, and even if they were, in many cases the drastic reduction of audience members due to social distancing measures means the revenue from ticket sales wouldn’t cover the costs of being open. Some theatres are relying on donations in the hopes of staying afloat. In these circumstances, an often rejected consideration steps into the spotlight: should recordings of theatre shows be available to purchase?
It’s a practice that has become commonplace for other art forms; live music albums and recordings of concerts have been on sale for decades, and are available to purchase as DVDs or through online streaming services. Theatre, however, has lagged in this department, with the common argument being that releasing recordings of shows would jeopardise ticket sales, and thus the productions themselves. After all, the cost of a DVD is far from the average cost of a theatre ticket.
Live stage performances are incredibly expensive to produce; consider not only the actors who must be paid to perform each night, but the musicians, technical staff, front of house team, and administrators, to name but a few. As theatres are typically historic buildings, they are often expensive to run in any capacity, even when no shows are running at all, with some venues having to pay as much as £150,000 a month, according to The Stage. With costs so high, would selling digital performances be a help or hindrance?
Theatre recordings, regardless of quality, are already in distribution; as with any form of entertainment, piracy is an inevitable issue. Illegally recorded videos of theatre productions, known to most as ‘bootlegs’, are available online, for free or for a price. You don’t have to search very deeply to find these recordings on YouTube, including the most popular West End and Broadway musicals. The practice is often condemned as damaging the industry and harming creators, and of course, this is no issue to take lightly. However, where there is demand, somebody will supply. Since virtually no theatre companies sell recordings of their performances (despite the fact that they often already exist, either for library archives or advertising purposes), bootleggers take it upon themselves to distribute their own recordings online.
According to sales data for the West End, audience numbers and gross revenue have continued to grow in recent years, with gross revenue increasing by around 4–8% each year. Despite these bootlegs being easily available online, the theatre industry continues to profit. There is much anecdotal evidence of people watching bootlegs, having their interest peaked and going on to buy tickets for the live show, producing revenue that might not have existed had they never viewed the recording at all. After all, many people would not be comfortable paying upwards of £30 to see a show they can’t be sure they’ll enjoy. Surely, then, the industry would profit further from releasing official, high-quality recordings for the public to buy and enjoy from the comfort of their own home?
Selling official theatre recordings online would also likely see a decrease in piracy. Following the introduction of Netflix, piracy of film and TV shows was reduced, as it became easier to access affordable, high-quality entertainment, rather than trawling through a myriad of virus-infested sites to find a decent video. With this in mind, it’s reasonable to conclude that theatre piracy would also see a reduction if this content was available through official means.
Some suggest that official recordings could still be a detriment, as the quality could match that of live shows, and dissuade people from buying tickets. However, a study conducted for Arts Council England which involved streaming theatre performances found that the streamed performances did not affect attendance to live shows. In fact, those who streamed the shows were more likely to see live performances more often than the average theatregoer.
Music fans listen to albums of live shows and still go to concerts to enjoy that same music
.Cinemas host showings of films that have been released years ago—examples including Lord of the Rings marathons—and people happily part with their cash to enjoy them once again, for the experience. That is the key here. No recording can replace the experience of live performance.
Sharing the same air as the performers and other audience members, feeling the tone of the entire room shift with a gut-wrenching line of dialogue, seeing the actors’ faces sometimes metres away: it’s an incomparable experience. Anyone who has been to the theatre can contest that, and those with the finances and ability to go will undoubtedly still do so. In these uncertain times, countless businesses have adapted or even completely transformed themselves to survive and continue to profit. Perhaps it’s time that theatre did, too.