Can a live digital theatre show be a substitute for the real thing?

The Company of ‘A Separate Peace’, 2020

Last week we achieved what we believe to have been a world first. Having cast, developed, technically refined, rehearsed and produced a piece of theatre entirely remotely, we performed it live via Zoom to an audience that would have sold out most West End or Broadway theatres.

The cast, crew, creatives, and producers all joined together afterwards for a combined first preview, press night and last night party — this was a one-off show. We shared messages from friends, loved ones and even the news of our first 4-star review. We joked about how our stage manager had stolen the show right at the end when her camera appeared for a couple of seconds on the feed. And then reflected on how apt that actually was — this was live theatre, after all.

The Company of ‘A Separate Peace’, 2020

The actors said how weird it had been to perform in isolation, yet how connected and supported they had actually felt throughout the show, and the whole process. This had felt like theatre and the live performance element was crucial. We have all been in this together, and it has been such a levelling process learning and figuring out how best to do this.

As producers, John and I had set the initial boundaries of what the production should be — a one-off, live experience, with a full creative and production team working behind the scenes. The team was crucial and indispensable. Each person had their role, as they would within a traditional stage production, and we were all working together towards an end goal. We had also decided on the fact that it should be presented through a chosen medium — in this case, Zoom. All rehearsals, technical conversations, production meetings and creative briefs were delivered through the now ubiquitous video conferencing platform.

For us the main goals, apart from creating jobs for creatives, technicians and charity, were to test the feasibility of doing this and show the world that live theatre can still exist and be developed remotely. The context of a global lockdown was an extraordinary coincidental backdrop.

The process itself was hugely challenging for all involved whilst also being one of the most rewarding things any of us had done in a long time. We were all doing this together, learning as we went, and finding solutions to multiple technical challenges that would best present our director Sam Yates’ vision. Our now infamous aforementioned stage manager was positively jumping with excitement after the first full technical rehearsal. This felt just like ‘real’ theatre.

As we got closer to the day and time of the performance, each creative, actor, technician and producer sat in front of their respective computer in different parts of the world. I for one could not stop pacing up and down, biting my nails and pausing only to shove copious amounts of food into my mouth, as the countdown to show-time got agonisingly closer.

This is not for the faint of heart, and the overwhelming reality of what we were attempting to do started to sink in. The first few seconds of silence and white screen lasted forever! Then the first line was delivered, and I took a breath. We were live, and there were over a thousand people watching this production.

As soon as the credit slide was shown, we were inundated with messages, tweets, emails and questions. How did you do it? Was it really live? What we had not expected was the overwhelming amount of positivity and love being shared in reaction to it. The reviews started to come out the morning afterwards, including several 5 star reviews from prestigious outlets like The Guardian.

5 star review from The Guardian (UK)

As a small fish in a big pond, we could largely go about this with lower expectations of the outcome. I am sure that larger theatres, entertainment and production companies will now be figuring out how they can produce performances that generate the same buzz, energy, excitement and magic that live theatre does. We’re here to say that it can be done.

Not only can it be done, we believe that this can also open up the development process for new scripts, television series, films, and rehearsals.

Through this process we have learnt how to develop, rehearse and perform without being in the same room. The world is different now, and what we had thought were the only ways of doing something are no more. The future of live entertainment is uncertain, but maybe it is just the concept and perception of what live entertainment means that has changed, because live digital is here to stay.

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The Remote Read is a series of live streamed theatre productions with a full team of creatives and production technicians behind the scenes. Visit theremoteread.com for more details.