What does live theatre and entertainment look like in lockdown?

Phoebe Waller Bridge performs Fleabag at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London — Photo © Matt Humphrey
Phoebe Waller Bridge performs Fleabag at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London — Photo © Matt Humphrey

This is a question that has been weighing on a lot of people’s minds over the past few weeks since theatres, venues and studios around the globe closed down. This is obviously not the most pressing issue when compared with supply of PPE or finding a vaccine, but it is a question that affects hundreds of thousands of people who work in live entertainment and who no longer have jobs.

The answer has so far come in various forms.

Whilst a lot of these are excellent innovations as to how to keep engaged with audiences, there has been little production of new material. Largely this is an infrastructure issue and I personally believe this will come in due course. It is natural that there is a delay whilst people figure out how to develop and produce new collaborative content.

There is some irony in that the world is consuming Netflix and other pre-recorded content at a vast rate, yet the same creatives and technicians that worked on these productions, shows and events being streamed and downloaded are all out of work.

We have set out to see if we can find another answer. An answer that brings the creatives and technicians together to work on a project again. A project that has the same spirit, energy, enthusiasm and passion to succeed in a way that only live entertainment can provide.

What if we were able to produce a live production completely in isolation — when no two people involved even shared the same physical space, let alone had to social distance themselves.

Is this still theatre? Well, of course it is.

Creative storytelling is at the heart of theatre, and so is collaboration. Since I walked through the dock door of The Old Vic to work on my first production as a member of the stage crew over 14 years ago, I became immediately fascinated by the collaborative effort of putting together a show. As an audience member, I had no idea as to the extent of work that goes on behind the scenes and was immediately conscious of the importance of each individual role that contributes to the whole. This is at the heart of every production, where the team buys into a single vision, and then puts their own specific skill-set to the test to make that vision a reality.

Here’s how we are doing it.

Our primary goal from the outset was to provide the opportunity for out of work creatives and production technicians to get working again, with others, to produce theatre. Through The Remote Read, we plan to share a blueprint or infrastructure, if you like, that enables others to continue to develop and produce live entertainment remotely. All the same parts of the production creation process are there, as are the people involved. We have a full creative team of designers working on the director’s vision, a fantastic stage manager and production manager, as well as co-producers and equipment partners.

Luckily there are a whole host of free or inexpensive tools to use that provide solutions to manage the project and communicate between team members. Email is ubiquitous, providing the baseline channel of communication. We hold meetings via Google Meet or Zoom, we send quick back and forth messages via Slack or text message, we read and annotate the script in PDF format, we watch videos on how to host and control video conferences and webinars, we use Asana to manage project timelines and tasks. We sell tickets electronically, the whole show is being marketed online, and our audience is growing.

The director and design team are being inventive and creative within the parameters that we are working to — largely using what is available in the actors’ own homes. We don’t want to reveal too much before our production airs, but there are answers to every question that has arisen so far, and we are working through this together.

Of course there are challenges involved in this ‘new’ way of producing theatre, and hurdles to overcome, but technology will catch up and we will be able to find answers to these in due course.

Could there actually be an upside to this?

Absolutely. We believe this infrastructure will help creatives reach potentially bigger audiences than a traditional theatre production. Surely this was the original appeal of the NT Live shows and other streamed entertainment channels.

In the longer term we hope to build a platform that allows for writers to get their work seen at a lower cost, by a larger audience. If we can help creative teams get together and get at least an ‘MVP’ of a show seen by producers, then we can help this ecosystem get back on its feet.

And that is why we are doing this.

The UK government is backing initiatives for innovative companies to come up with ideas that solve these problems, and we are exploring every avenue to help industry professionals get back to paid employment as quickly as possible.

Of course there is no substitute for physically sharing the same space, feeding off one another’s energy, sensing the hysteria, or danger, or hype, or deep bass sound — but in the meantime, we can still collaborate, and with the right processes in place we can continue to tell stories and share them with an audience.

This lockdown will not be forever. And we are not changing theatre forever. We are just exploring what is possible. And actually through doing so, there has so far been an incredible democratisation of the process. We’re all in the same boat — we all work in front of our screens, we carve out time to do so, we are juggling this with other life commitments, but we’re doing it together. We’re all learning new skills, and it is all just as nerve wracking and exciting and as groundbreaking as any new theatre piece should be.

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The first production of The Remote Read is being performed live on Saturday 2nd May 2020 — it is a production of Tom Stoppard’s short play ‘A Separate Peace’, directed by Sam Yates.