More than half of UK theatres that offered online performances during the Covid pandemic have reverted to in-person shows this autumn, raising concerns that improved accessibility for disabled audiences could be lost.
Research has found that 56% of publicly subsidised theatres that had at least one online performance during the first 18 months of the pandemic have none scheduled for the autumn season.
“Digital programming has led to significant access benefits, especially for geographically remote and disabled audiences,” said Richard Misek, of the University of Kent, who carried out the survey with Adrian Leguina of Loughborough University.
“The suddenness and the extent of this snap back to in-person-only performances raises an important question: what are the implications not only for remote and disabled audience members, but also for D/deaf and neurodivergent audience members, vulnerable, elderly and housebound audience members, carers, night workers, those who can’t afford to visit a theatre, those who feel going to a theatre is ‘not for them’, and many other potential audience members for whom physical attendance may be difficult or impossible.”
The research, carried out as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council project on digital access to arts and culture during the pandemic, found that 126 out of 224 UK theatres and theatre companies had at least one online production in the 18 months from March 2020.
For the autumn season, 60 have at least one online production. However, five theatres that had no digital productions during lockdown have their first scheduled for this autumn.
Jamie Hale, a disabled theatre director and playwright, said many people were not ready to return to packed auditoriums. “It just doesn’t feel safe,” Hale told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. “During lockdown, I’ve felt far more able to experience theatre … I feel very concerned that as the auditoriums fill up, theatres will decrease the amount they offer for live streams and it will become less possible for people living in rural areas, people with caring and parenting responsibilities, not just disabled people like me, to access the theatre we want to.”
Hale’s show, CRIPtic Pit Party, which opens at the Barbican next month, will have both live and online performances.
Misek is conducting several “best practice” case studies, including an opera company using digital to overcome historical cultural barriers to the art form, a performance duo making a show specifically for housebound audiences, and an art gallery using digital to diversify their artist community.
The most common reason for theatres and theatre companies reverting to in-person productions is financial. “Digital productions cannot yet be relied on to make a profit. At the same time, funding to initiate them is piecemeal and erratic. So theatres often lack any economic motivation to put work online and invest in digital capacity-building,” Misek said.
Some big companies, including the National Theatre, the Young Vic and the RSC, were working to develop sustainable models for digital theatre. “Most of the theatres and theatre companies continuing digital activity this autumn are large, which provides further evidence of a digital divide between large, well-resourced organisations and small and mid-sized ones,” he said.
“In order to capitalise on the advances of the last 19 months, it’s important that funders earmark money for digital development and arts organisations continue experimenting with new forms of digital programming.”