When you imagine ‘going to the theatre’, an image of you in your dressing gown, sitting on the sofa and eating popcorn probably doesn’t come to mind. When I watched the NT Live recording of One Man, Two Guvnors, it was an experience of theatre that fought with these expectations: free, easily accessible online and available globally for anyone to watch. In an age of Covid-19 with our communities affected at every level and the world facing an unprecedented amount of human loss, the arts have become essential. They allow us to creatively immerse ourselves, escaping momentarily from the challenges of everyday life: but above all, to do this knowingly, together. In an interview for The Stage, the NT’s executive director Lisa Burger said the new NT live screenings were intended to “lift the spirits, bring people together and become something to talk about”. Chris Whitty, the government’s Chief Medical Officer, said that he expected society to cope with the coronavirus with “extraordinary outbreaks of altruism”. It would be fair to say that providing world-class theatre for free is a significant gesture of goodwill, especially as venues for an NT Live screening charge roughly double the price of a normal cinema ticket.

Britain’s National Theatre Live, or NT Live, is an initiative established just over ten years ago that, on its most basic level, broadcasts live theatre productions directly to cinemas across the world. Unlike earlier forms of theatre recording, it represents an attempt to recreate the typical experience of seeing a play performed, with camera angles following the drama live as it plays out. According to a 2011 report by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), “until NT Live…it was felt that theatre could never benefit from the transition [of theatre to film], that acting for the stage and screen were different disciplines, and that previous examples of live recordings had been cold and static”. According to NESTA’s survey, this was not the case; “eighty-four per cent of NT Live cinema audiences ‘felt real excitement’ because they knew that the performance they were watching was taking place live that evening.” The popularity of NT Live, and other initiatives like it such as The Met: Live in HD, is not unique, nor only due to the current crisis. Many such schemes are well established and globally successful. According to The Stage, the streaming audience for the coronavirus broadcast of One Man, Two Guvnors was 209,000 people, four times the initial cinema audience for the first-ever NT Live screening of Helen Mirren as Phèdre. But the fundamental difference now is that there is no longer ‘liveness’ in watching these productions; NT Live has, for the first time, made the decision to make some of their previously closely-guarded recordings accessible, releasing videos of productions every Thursday at 7pm BST for the next two months.

These recordings – distributed via Youtube – are prefaced by the statement “theatres around the world are closed and facing a devastating impact from coronavirus. Theatre and the arts are a positive force for our community in turbulent times. As you enjoy this recorded performance, please consider a donation to support this great industry.” This made me wonder whether such large – national – theatres have any kind of moral duty to make such recordings of shows accessible, or even free. What’s lovely about student theatre is that in a world of comp tickets, low-budget costumes, and learning lines at the last minute, productions usually have less at stake; those involved are not relying on the play as their sole source of income. But being a professional in the theatre industry, whether an actor, stage manager, costume designer, or any of the other workers involved in a production, inevitably comes with managing unstable earnings. For audiences, it is often also the financial difficulty that prevents theatre from becoming a more pervasive cultural presence. With online streaming services rising in commercial power, with content instantly available and at affordable prices, how can the mass cultural value of theatre compete? Netflix charges a minimum of £5.99 per month for access to “unlimited films, TV programmes and more”. In comparison, to watch a show at the National Theatre audience members pay between £15 to £70 a ticket, depending on the quality of the seats. When NT Live first started broadcasting productions, the primary focus was expanding financial accessibility. According to the NESTA report, “NT Live appears to have drawn in larger lower-income audiences than those at the theatre…A quarter of the [NT Live] cinema audience earned under £20,000 per year’. Twice as many people earning over £50,000 per year saw shows in the theatre rather than via NT Live. More than a decade later, it seems that many of the aims of NT Live remain the same in a world affected by coronavirus. Alice King-Farlow, director of learning at the NT, said that “given the unprecedented challenges we are all currently facing across the globe, we want to ensure that pupils, teachers and academic institutions are supported during this time and can continue to have access to a range of learning resources during the school closure period.” In a statement on their website, NT Live announced that “the National Theatre Collection, including 24 full filmed plays, will now be available to pupils and teachers at state schools and state-funded further education colleges.”

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NT Live is not the only initiative that aims to make theatre freely, and digitally available during the Covid-19 Crisis. In terms of theatre now available for free, according to Chris Wiegand, “Hampstead theatre and the Guardian have teamed up to stream a series of acclaimed productions for free” available to stream on the Hampstead Theatre’s website, and Emma Rice’s adaptation of Wise Children is available on BBC iPlayer for three months “as part of the Culture in Quarantine programme.” Even though Shakespeare’s Globe has rentable recordings on its ‘Globe Player’ website, Wiegand reiterates that on the Globe’s YouTube channel, the theatre is broadcasting “a series of free streams, each available for a fortnight”. This is significant, as the costs of producing material for broadcast, securing rights to distribute it, and covering marketing and satellite broadcast fees are substantial and out of reach to all but a few international companies. This type of charitable response is not feasible for all theatre companies; some smaller, independently funded organisations are struggling to respond to the economic damage caused by coronavirus that threatens its future productions and staff. Despite this, some venues are committed to the financial safety of their artists. As well as furloughing the majority of its staff, the Cambridge Junction, an urban arts centre, is attempting to compensate artists who would have been performing: “we remain committed to supporting artists and as far as we can we will be paying fees to them for cancelled performances.”

It is inspiring that as a response to the virus, many big-brand theatres and organisations, like NT Live, have offered up their creative content freely (or at least at low costs). This generosity, often funded by philanthropy, not only ensures that theatre and the arts remain relevant in an era critically dependent on scientific and medical advances but that by using new technology, often represented as a dominant threat to the arts, the internet can become an instrument to allow everyone, regardless of financial status or previous knowledge of theatre, to experience high-quality drama risk-free, from the comfort of their homes. It is hard not to imagine the cultural benefit to us all if this access was the theatre’s usual role in our lives.

Image credit: Marc Brenner