Is there a downside to theatres streaming past shows?

Barnham-based theatre director Joe Harmston admits he is very dubious about theatre’s big online leap into the world of streaming.

Monday, 1st June 2020, 10:14 am
Theatre director Joe Harmston
Theatre director Joe Harmston

Big venues, particularly the National Theatre, have reported huge viewing figures for their weekly streamings.

But Joe, who has worked extensively in the commercial sector, fears such streamings could prove counterproductive in the long run: “The National Theatre has been doing it absolutely for the right reason, but I do think that sometimes being quiet is not necessarily a bad thing. We can’t at the moment provide the right experience, the real experience, and to a great extent we should wait until we can provide that real experience in the theatre again.”

Joe was resident director at Chichester Festival Theatre from 1994-97 working under Patrick Garland, Duncan Weldon and Sir Derek Jacobi. He is currently associate creative director at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

“I am not against NT Live in any way, but I felt that at Coventry we have had a shift in audience behaviour. We have had great audiences for NT Live and other streamings.”

But Joe’s experience is that it makes selling home-grown, genuinely live performance on the actual stage all the more difficult: “People start to think that they want the ‘proper drama’ from London, the ‘real stuff’, the streamings from the National.”

And that’s missing the point.

“I worry about people thinking it is an acceptable substitute to put out One Man Two Guvnors on screen. There is a danger that you start to suggest that the thing that is unique about theatre is not the thing that it is most important about it. One Man Two Governors might be great fun on screen, but the really important, the really unique thing about theatre is the great communion in the moment. The key to theatre is sharing that physical space and that physical time together. There is a kind of knowledge in that moment on both sides – the performers and the audience – that this is live and that anything can happen.”

Joe cites Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. He watched a preview – and there was a moment when in kneeling, the knee part of Branagh’s armour locked with the rest of his leg armour, leaving him unable to straighten his leg: “And the rest of the scene he did hopping on one leg being supported by Brian Blessed. The whole thing was brilliant. Very few people would have realised it, but the wonderful thing was that you had Henry leaning, exhausted, on his uncle Exeter the whole way through… and it was tremendously affecting, but it was tremendously affecting because something went wrong.”

And that’s what Joe means by the in-the-moment live magic of theatre – something streaming can never give. Of more value today, Joe believes, is – say – a radio play which has been recorded right now with the actors in isolation: “Things that have been created in the moment are more valuable than looking through your back catalogue and saying ‘We did this a few years ago and filmed it so let’s put it out now.’”

It’s theatre on the smaller scale that might see us through. The challenges are just so complicated to us returning to theatre on a larger scale, Joe believes.

“Until there is a vaccine, social distancing will be key to everything, and so theatres would have to cut seating capacity by at least 50 per cent if they are even going to be thinking about doing something. But theatre is pretty much financially unviable most of the time. If you have only got half the audience, you would have to increase the ticket prices, but you won’t be able to do that when people’s earnings have gone down so much. And transport costs will have to go up too. If you are social distancing, you will have fewer passengers and so again the prices will have to go up.”

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