Technology & Innovation

Beyond the scenes

August 01, 2022


Beyond the scenes

August 01, 2022

Matt Terry

Senior analyst, policy and insights

Matt Terry is a senior analyst on the policy and insights team at Economist Impact. He is a quantitative economist by training and specializes in developing custom modeling and forecasting scenarios and designing policy assessment frameworks. His areas of focus include longevity, infrastructure, technology and innovation. Matt has recently led research initiatives across programs such as the Longevity Economy® Outlook, the Infrascope index for infrastructure PPPs, and the intangible economy of Ontario. He holds a master's degree in economic policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and also has a background in journalism and editing.

Few sectors have been worse affected by the pandemic than theatre—the intimacy of live performance rendered impossible by social distancing and lockdowns, and audiences slow to return as new variants emerge. From February to June 2020 alone, the European Theatre Convention estimated 5,000 performances were cancelled across their member theatres in 26 countries, equating to over 1 million audience members and €61m of lost income. The sector has always navigated tight margins, given the economics of live performance, but these were worsened exponentially by the pandemic. Freelancers and small companies especially have struggled financially.

Yet, finally, signs are emerging that theatre-goers are feeling more confident. A found that theatre attendance in London, a global cultural centre, has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, with 28% of city dwellers reporting seeing a play or musical in the previous three months, compared to 29% in March 2020 prior to the pandemic’s onset.

Elsewhere, as the worst of the crisis recedes, a plethora of stories of agility, creativity and resilience shown by the theatre industry are emerging. In the US, an archival initiative, the project, is gathering digital materials documenting how the global theatre community responded to the pandemic. It will serve as a digital archive for future generations to understand the events of 2020 to today, much like the personal and organizational archives, publications and correspondence that have been gathered from the bubonic plague or the 1918 flu.

In those difficult times, the sector adapted and found resiliency as theatre companies used streaming platforms to continue creating content and generating revenue. The hope is that the pandemic could provide ideas and innovations that will both increase access and create new tools for dramaturgy.

Although theatre is fundamentally an in-person, live-performance format, the popularity of virtual plays during the pandemic has accelerated the arrival of digital technology as part of the medium and format of storytelling. The digital thrust builds on other recent projects, including the 2015 Broadway show , which famously pioneered binaural technology to create an immersive environment of sound effects transmitted directly to the audience via headphones; Robert Lepage’s solo autobiographical play , which used screens and projections to create a ‘memory palace’ of the actor’s childhood home as a way to explore the theme of memory in a digital age; and a West End production of George Orwell’s 1984, which has used live projection to bring to life the theme of .

These digital innovations are not just augmenting how drama is conveyed to an audience, but they are also increasing their participation in it, as with mobile phone-based voting to , for instance. Digital technologies have helped theatres expand inclusion across borders too; , a Belgium-Romanian collaboration between theatres and scientists, has created real-time speech-to-text subtitling for a performance staged by actors from five different countries, aiming to increase intercultural dialogue.

New digital tools are also being developed that could help the sector improve its environmental performance. By 2024, as part of a ‘zero travel’ experiment for the sector, British director Katie Mitchell’s latest project, “A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction,” will have been shown in ten countries using an online handbook with detailed instructions on production, handed to local artists in theatres in each location. The experiment is part of “”, an initiative of the Vidy-Lausanne Theater in Lausanne, Switzerland, in partnership with ten European producers.

Other innovations in sustainability across the sector have likewise accelerated during the pandemic: major theatres in 25 countries in Europe have committed to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by as part of a plan co-ordinated by the European Theatre Commission. The industry is stepping up its performance by utilising reclamation, upcycling, and repurposing. The National Theatre, for instance, used 90% reused or recycled materials in a recently produced play, Trouble in Mind, as part of the ideas laid out in the Theatre Green Book initiative, a free resource to help UK theatres develop common standards and best practices for a more sustainable sector. Expect climate change itself to become a greater theme on stage too, as the medium continues to respond to the great societal issues of the day.

To read more Economist Impact analysis about the past, present and future of the creative industries, .

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