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The present and future of digital theatre

This chapter outlines the accessibility and inclusion implications of the widespread ‘pivot to digital’ by UK performing arts organisations during COVID-19, and provides a summary of the key findings that emerged from the Digital Access to Arts and Culture project’s quantitative and qualitative research. In particular, it highlights the significant benefits experienced by d/Deaf and disabled, older, and geographically isolated participants, but also notes various areas in which the potential of digital technologies to improve accessibility was not fulfilled. It then explores the reasons underlying many theatre’s’ return to in-person- only programming in 2022, and the implications of this shift back to exclusively venue-based performances for accessibility policy and practice. It concludes by identifying a potential shift in interest within the UK theatre sector from streaming video to immersive experiences. Like video streaming, immersive technology provides the potential for significant improvements in accessibility, but has so far also fallen short on delivering on its potential.

The first two years of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic saw two seismic shifts in how the performing arts were delivered in the UK. The first was the shift online that followed the first wave of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. This led to a range of accessibility benefits, as well as providing an impetus for many in the arts sector to look at accessibility in a new light – as something that extends far beyond physical access to venues. Yet within 18 months another shift, this time back towards venue-based performance, was all but complete. For all the discussions about accessibility and new perspectives on social value that the pandemic prompted, at first glance it appears as though the UK’s performing arts have now mostly reset back to how they were at the start of 2020.

Is this so? If not, what has changed? In this chapter, I summarise some of the findings of the ‘Digital Access to Arts and Culture’ research project and use these as the basis of a critical reflection on both the short-term and longer term results of the intensified digital experimentation that took place during the peak of the pandemic. I also look at the implications of this work on the future of accessibility within the sector. I do so by focusing mainly on the performing arts, and theatre in particular. Though many of our project’s findings are relevant to other fields of arts and culture, our research skewed towards theatre in part because it was in this field that some of the greatest ambivalence towards online activity was evident and the most work needed to be done to highlight its potential (Childs et al., 2021). This remains the case at the time of writing in late 2022.

By contrast, though not without its own challenges, the museum sector’s ‘digital turn’ during the pandemic fitted more easily within a longer term process of engagement both with its social role and with emergent technologies (NEMO, 2021). For example, in addition to renewed interest in serving communities beyond their walls (something that the internet can play an important role in), there is ongoing enthusiasm across much of the sector for providing public access to digital collections through ‘OpenGLAM’ (Open Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) policies. It is notable that, though the AHRC COVID-19 project ‘Museums, Crisis and Covid-19: Vitality and Vulnerabilities’ noted various ongoing challenges to be faced if the museum sector is to capitalise fully on its pandemic-driven digital activities, the overall tone of its ‘Museums and Digital Media: Innovation, Engagement, and Practice’ report is largely positive about UK museums’ digital innovation, and optimistic about how this may develop.1

Within the performing arts, however, there seems to be a greater baseline of suspicion towards digital activities; the creation of works for online consumption in particular has often been regarded as somehow inimical to performance, or at least an awkward fit with it, not least because it problematises traditional notions of physical co-presence. Of course, this could also be seen as a creative opportunity, and many practitioners, as detailed in Chapters 24 in this volume, embraced the potential of Zoom and other platforms of telepresence during coronavirus lockdowns. Yet across the performing arts as a whole, digital performance remains viewed with ambivalence. On the one hand, there is a widespread acknowledgement that work and leisure are hybrid and will only become further hybridised in the future. For example, many of the sector workers that we interviewed as a part of our project expressed wholehearted enthusiasm for digital innovation across all areas of their organisations. On the other hand, for a mix of cultural and economic reasons, this in-principle enthusiasm has not always translated into consistent practice. In light of this seemingly contradictory situation, in this chapter I also ask: what next for digital theatre? In addressing this question, I focus on theatre’s use of streaming and immersive technologies.

Digital access: quantitative and qualitative research

Accessibility and diversity have become priority issues within the cultural sector over recent years, a move that has been reinforced by the requirement by Creative Scotland and the three Arts Councils that grant recipients gather equality, diversity and inclusion data, and by the incorporation of equality, diversity and inclusion into their fundamental investment criteria (e.g. ‘inclusivity and relevance’ is now one of Arts Council England’s four investment principles). Yet many publicly funded cultural institutions remain limited in their social reach. Extensive research on cultural consumption has suggested that higher levels of public engagement with the arts over recent decades have not necessarily gone hand in hand with greater diversity (e.g. Miles and Sullivan, 2012). Well-known differentials in access based on economic and cultural factors (Brook et al., 2020; Leguina et al., 2022) are amplified by complex regional divides (Leguina and Miles, 2017), and intersect with ethnicity, disability, and age effects (Widdop and Cutts, 2012; Brook, 2016). Pre-pandemic studies focusing specifically on online cultural consumption suggest a similar pattern. For example, while online participants in arts and culture have generally been younger than in-person attendees, their socioeconomic profiles have tended to be quite similar (Leguina and Miles, 2017; Panarese and Azzarita, 2020; Weingartner, 2020; Mihelj et al., 2019). Drawing on extant research, one could argue that the socially advantageous position of arts consumers who attend in person has historically made them more likely to engage online as well.

Research carried out by our own and other AHRC COVID-19 projects suggests that online provision continued to have limited success in diversifying arts consumption during the pandemic. For example, the longitudinal Cultural Participation Monitor surveys carried out by the ‘Impacts of Covid-19 on the Cultural Sector’ project in partnership with the Audience Agency suggested that the demographics of participants who engaged with arts and culture online at the height of the pandemic were overall fairly similar to those who had previously attended in person (Walmsley et al., 2022; Feder et al., 2022). Our own sector-wide research comprised an equality-focused analysis of the full dataset of the largest COVID-19 arts and culture survey, Indigo’s ‘Culture Tracker’, which featured 58,880 responses gathered from attendees of several hundred UK cultural venues between October 2020 and July 2021. This too found that online provision did not significantly diversify arts consumption during the pandemic, though our analysis suggested there were some small positive effects in attracting new participants from younger and minority ethnic demographics.

However, digital provision did lead to significant accessibility benefits for many existing cultural participants. Over the last two years, widespread evidence has emerged of the extent to which many d/Deaf and disabled people in particular have benefited from online arts and culture. The numbers here are unambiguous: the Audience Agency research cited above suggested that 57% of disabled people in the UK engaged with culture online during the pandemic, compared to a figure of 35% across the entire UK population (Torregiani, 2021). Our own project’s quantitative research also provided clear evidence of the benefits for d/Deaf and disabled participants. For example, our demographic analysis of Indigo’s Digital Experience survey found that 64% of d/Deaf and disabled arts participants remained interested in future digital offerings in autumn 2021, compared to 53% of non-disabled participants.

To gain multi-faceted insight into cultural production and consumption, top-level quantitative research needs to be complemented by focused qualitative research. For this reason, our project aimed to complement the statistical work already being carried out by the Audience Agency, the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC), our own project partner Indigo Ltd. and other organisations, with insights gathered from individual arts institutions via interviews and surveys about who their online activities were benefiting. Working at organisation level also allowed us to explore in detail how effectively cultural providers were shifting their programmes online, and learn about the opportunities that were opening to them as well as the challenges that they were facing.

As already mentioned, large-scale surveys of online arts provision suggest mixed results, finding significant accessibility and inclusion benefits among some demographic groups but limited benefits among others. This top-level finding raises an important question: were the accessibility effects of digital provision similar across organisations, or do the above sector-wide surveys conceal a diversity of accessibility outcomes from organisation to organisation? If the answer to the above question is that all theatres witnessed a similar pattern of accessibility improvements in some areas (e.g. for d/Deaf and disabled participants) and lack of improvement in other areas (e.g. for older or minority ethnic participants), then this suggests that there may be an innate limit to the ability of digital provision to improve accessibility across multiple demographics. However, if the answer to the above question is that there was a significant disparity in the ability of different organisations to engage particular demographics through their online programmes, then the lack of sector-wide increases in engagement among certain demographics (e.g. older participants) cannot be assumed to be a consequence of digital provision in itself, but must result from more specific and nuanced causes.

Though limited in scope, our qualitative research suggested that there was indeed a significant disparity between the ability of different organisations to engage audiences online. A key element of our research comprised interviews and follow-up surveys with 40 organisations, most of whom operate in the performing arts. Organisations were chosen to reflect a wide cross-section of scales and types of activity, and of geographic location; our interviewees were typically artistic directors, digital managers and marketing managers. Across this sample, digital outcomes were drastically divergent: some organisations reported significant accessibility improvements across a wide range of demographics, while others struggled even to achieve double-digit views on YouTube. This disparity foregrounds the possibility that many of the perceived ‘failures’ of online provision to improve access and to diversify participation may have resulted from many organisations finding themselves unable to maximise the opportunities afforded by digital production and/or distribution – for example, because of lack of funding, lack of expertise, lack of technical infrastructure or lack of interest.

However, gaining detailed data about specific organisations’ activities proved highly challenging for our project. Many organisations did not gather detailed data about their digital activities: in 2020 and 2021, arts funding agencies including Arts Council England eased their reporting requirements in order to take the pressure off struggling arts organisations; the result was a dearth of data at precisely the moment when we most needed it. Nonetheless, a small number of the more digitally mature organisations that we interviewed had extensive data on their digital activities (notably Opera North, Darkfield Radio, Tank Museum and Pitlochry Festival Theatre), and we also initiated audience surveys with four further organisations (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), Imitating the Dog, the Lowry and the Barbican). Our findings from this data pool highlighted diverse accessibility benefits emerging from digital activity, though these benefits were unevenly distributed among organisations. For some (often smaller, less well-resourced) organisations, accessibility benefits remained latent; for others, the benefits were immediately apparent. For example, our survey of over 500 live and online ticket holders for BSO’s 2020/21 season found that twice as many online viewers declared themselves disabled as compared to in-person audience members.

One key finding of both our quantitative and qualitative research was that one of the most important (and often overlooked) variables in digital success is quality. Our quantitative research into Indigo’s sector-wide Culture Restart surveys revealed a direct correlation across many thousands of respondents between the quality of their digital experience and their willingness to continue engaging with digital content post-pandemic. Strong engagement was directly related to quality of experience, which was itself closely connected to the effort that arts providers made to remain connected with their communities. Our qualitative research into BSO’s in-person and digital activities in turn shed light onto the work required to achieve a high quality of experience. For example, as well as their success in serving d/Deaf and disabled participants, BSO also achieved startling success in migrating over-65s online in 2020; our survey revealed that 87% of BSO’s online audience were over 65; 67% of this online audience were new to digital arts and culture, of which 85% found BSO’s concerts ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ to access. BSO achieved this unusually high engagement among older participants by going far beyond the minimum required to mount a live stream. Aware of the age of their core audience, they ensured that the entire user journey involved in experiencing their live streams was as intuitive as possible across the various platforms involved in digital delivery – from providing a simple and easily navigable website, via simplifying the journey through the Spektrix ticketing interface, through to providing videos to view. In a context in which accessing digital performances can often involve progressing through over a dozen web pages, BSO’s membership packages allowed for two-click viewing. Quality of experience also of course depends on the content of the streams themselves. To provide the best possible experience, BSO invested in a high-quality remote-controlled multi-camera system that allowed them to live edit their concert videos (e.g. moving between close-ups of individual musicians at relevant moments in a performance), adapting for their orchestra the techniques and conventions of multi-camera television broadcasts.

Qualitative research can also complement quantitative research by revealing the personal experiences of digital participants. In order to gain some sense of the human impact of this change, I worked as a co-creator between January and March 2022 on Mystery Trip, a Lowry Digital Now! commission by Nigel Barret and Louise Mari, made in collaboration with a self-selected group of d/Deaf and disabled, and clinically vulnerable creators. The project used an adapted version of Zoom as a performance platform to provide a series of ‘mystery trips’ for online participants unable to travel. Week by week, I witnessed co-creators articulating the joy, the creative satisfaction and the sense of connection that this remote collaboration was giving them. Disability activist Kerry Underhill, for example, noted: ‘This is the first time in 10 years that I’ve been able to collaborate on a performance. Before this, I’d given up on ever having the chance again’ (Misek et al., 2022).

Indeed, a key learning outcome of our project was that many participants with accessibility needs now see streaming arts and culture not only as a conduit for accessibility features (including closed captions, BSL interpretation and audio description) but also as an essential accessibility feature in itself. Online productions lower the physical, economic and social barriers faced by d/Deaf and disabled creators and audiences alike when visiting physical venues. Understanding online distribution as an accessibility feature opens the door to a more inclusive approach to accessibility that also addresses previously invisible barriers to engagement with arts and culture. For example, one of the biggest barriers is travel: the effort, the time and the cost (Brook, 2013). For many who are d/Deaf and disabled, older, vulnerable, low income, overworked, geographically remote, chronically ill, dependent on local transport, time-poor or carers, this can form such a hard barrier to participation that no on-site accessibility features can make the trip to a physical venue feasible. In our post-interview survey, 100% of organisations that responded noted ‘widened geographic reach’ as a benefit of online arts and culture. Widened geographic reach in turn provides a strong foundation for organisations to reach new and more diverse audiences. For example, a 2020 live-streamed production of Fidelio by Opera North reached new bookers in widely spread UK cities including London, Bristol, Edinburgh, Stockport and Rochdale, and in 16 countries across four continents. The reduction of geographic barriers to engagement is not in itself sufficient to diversify audiences, but the experience of the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that – though previously overlooked – it can play a crucial role in facilitating diversification.

Unfortunately, despite the willingness of many (especially d/Deaf and disabled) participants to continue engaging with digital content beyond lockdown, as well as the widespread enthusiasm of many of our interviewees towards future digital projects, the intense digital activity of 2020 and early to mid-2021 did not last. By late 2021, theatres across the country were downscaling or abandoning their digital programmes.

The present and future of digital theatre

The balance of factors relating to why many organisations have now returned to exclusively in-person performances remains open to interpretation, but the extent of this ‘snap back’ is clear. In the first 18 months of the pandemic, of the 219 publicly funded theatres and theatre companies in the UK, 123 (56%) streamed live performances, offered digitally native performances or offered online workshops. For the autumn 2021 season, this figure went down to 60 (28%), and in the winter/spring 2022 season, this figure declined further to 35 (16%).

The above statistics also demonstrate that many theatres never went online in the first place, lending support to the argument that historically apprehensive attitudes towards technological innovation rooted in a traditional live/digital binary are still deeply ensconced within the performing arts (Manninen et al., 2021). At the same time, as previously mentioned, many of our interviewees expressed great enthusiasm for digital content. Many progressive artistic directors in particular looked forward to a hybrid future in which different forms of arts activity could coexist, and the traditional hierarchisation of venue-based performances could, at last, be challenged. For example, in our project interviews, Kris Bryce, Executive Director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre, highlighted the importance of being ‘platform blind’ and open to the possibility that streaming and social media platforms could sometimes be even more effective tools for delivering content than physical theatres. Jess Thorpe, Artistic Director (Engagement) at Dundee Rep, similarly highlighted the importance of combining in-venue, public and online activities in whatever combination worked best for achieving her organisation’s main goal of community engagement. Meanwhile, Sanjit Chudha, Marketing and Communications Manager at Talawa Theatre, saw his organisation’s digital pivot as an opportunity ‘to unthink the transactional relationship’ of conventional venue-based theatre altogether.

However, the widespread enthusiasm for digital theatre during successive lockdowns seems not to have had a lasting impact on how performing arts organisations have allocated their budgets since. How to explain the paradox of widespread enthusiasm for digital accompanied by widespread retrenchment in online activity?

A key answer is cost. The high levels of digital activity seen during successive lockdowns were made possible by the UK government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund and by budgets diverted from live activities (Bradbury et al., 2021). As most of our interviewees noted, production costs for digital content are typically high – often in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds – and digital projects rarely break even. The only way to generate a profit from streaming content is by reaching a mass viewership, something that only the very largest organisations with international brands can realistically hope to achieve. Unsurprisingly, as venues reopened, and emergency funding for digital projects dropped away, the high costs and low revenue potential of typical digital projects militated against continued online activity (Holcombe-James, 2021). In the face of an economic landscape that is now generally inimical to digitally created and/or distributed performances, many organisations’ enthusiasm for digital provision no longer translates into specific projects.

Another possible explanation for the paradox that many organisations’ enthusiasm for digital seems to be generating limited online work is that this enthusiasm has not abated but is instead following a new trajectory. Though live-streaming of venue-based performances is significantly down, and online native performances utilising Zoom and similar platforms have all but disappeared (with notable exceptions, see Chapter 5 in this volume), much digital exploration continues – especially in the field of immersive technology.

Attention within and beyond the tech sector has increasingly focused over recent years on extended reality (XR) technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), and their role within the emerging metaverse. Major UK funders of Arts and Humanities research, UKRI and the AHRC, have been quick to direct funding at this potential growth area – not least because, with the combined pressures of pandemic recovery, a war in Ukraine, a domestic cost-of-living crisis and government debt, framing the arts as a form of R&D for the creative industries is more likely to lead to funding than is arguing for their social value. Notable developments include the establishment of the UKRI-funded StoryFutures Creative Cluster, a national centre for immersive storytelling based at Royal Holloway, University of London, whose partners include the National Gallery, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and virtual reality system Vive, which forms part of a £120 million UKRI creative clusters programme. Another development is Innovate UK and the UKRI’s £39.3 million ‘Audience of the Future’ project, with beneficiaries including the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and Aardman Animation. Most recently, UKRI has announced funding for a £75.6 million CoSTAR (a hub focused on the gaming, screen and performance sectors). Tellingly, accessibility, inclusion, diversity, social value and community engagement are not referenced at all in CoSTAR’s application guidelines.

The paradox of widespread enthusiasm for digital accompanied by widespread retrenchment in online activity can thus perhaps be resolved by suggesting that organisations’ short-term focus is on survival, which means a return to venue-based core activities, while at least some of the last three years of this enthusiasm is being channelled towards immersive experiments. Due to their intensive use of emergent technology, these experiments may not always be suitable for widespread online distribution, and so are unlikely ever to achieve the kind of visibility of high-profile streaming arts programmes like the National Theatre’s NT at Home initiative. They also typically require workarounds to accommodate the fact that VR headsets are still ‘early adopter’ technologies and far less widespread than phones and laptops. For example, StoryFutures’ StoryTrails project, made as a part of the UK government’s controversial £120 million Unboxed festival in 2022 (see Weaver, 2022), featured seven AR and VR experiences that were based in local libraries and depended on loanable iPads and VR headsets.

In short, while in 2020 and much of 2021 the prevailing wind was directed towards online experiences, at the time of writing in late 2022, it has shifted towards the use of ‘cutting-edge’ immersive technology in venue-based experiences. Interestingly, many organisations (including big players like the RSC and the Royal Opera) who showed ambivalence towards streaming seem to be more open to immersive technology. This is perhaps not entirely surprising. The pivot to streaming video was an externally imposed necessity that often did not fit easily with existing processes and some saw it as an instance of the tail wagging the dog. By contrast, XR is a creative tool that can be embedded within the stage-based rehearsal process. Crucially, it also leans into performers’ embodiment, the performing arts’ basic constituent. For example, the use of social VR technology in Dan Strutt’s ‘Dancing into the metaverse’ (see Chapter 2 in this volume) offers a way for dancers simultaneously to engage with their own bodies and those of the remote dancers with whom they collaborate, as well as their technological mediation.

Immersive performance in English Touring Theatre’s Museum of Austerity: a new frontier for digital access?

The increased use of XR technology within the performing arts brings many new accessibility features within relatively easy reach. For example, one of our case studies, Museum of Austerity, a mixed-reality installation by Sacha Wares and John Pring produced by English Touring Theatre, featured a jaw-dropping array of accessibility features. Museum of Austerity recounted the personal stories of disabled benefit claimants who died between 2010 and 2020 and invited participants to reflect on the human cost of austerity. Wearing HoloLens 2 mixed-reality ‘smart glasses’, participants could walk around a room, encounter volumetrically captured life-size images of individual victims of austerity, and hear their stories as told by surviving friends and relatives. Accessibility options included in-headset captions (the result of an extensive process of experimentation into how to position text in virtual space); multiple options for controlling sound and integrating the installation with hearing aids, including the option of experiencing the work without background audio; and the option to bypass narrative elements that featured specific trigger content. The astonishing level of innovation involved in some of the work’s accessibility solutions is exemplified by the audio description for blind and partially sighted participants. The installation featured verbal testimony that was triggered when participants approached each holographic figure. The audio description therefore needed to be cued by the user’s position and to trigger a delay in the narration of each story until the audio description itself was complete; the audio description also needed not to repeat if a user returned to a figure that they had already visited. All of these accessibility solutions were so innovative that no model for their implementation yet existed, and each had to be developed by the creative team themselves, as a part of the production process.

Particularly impressive is the fact that none of the digital accessibility options offered by Museum of Austerity were mutually exclusive: users could choose any combination from a wide menu of choices. Many of the technologies incorporated into this work are still emergent, and not yet ready for sector-wide implementation; the diverse accessibility features embedded within Museum of Austerity only came about because the director pushed for their inclusion and applied for additional Arts Council England funding to implement them. Nonetheless, it is exciting to imagine a near future in which all venue-based arts are routinely accompanied by a menu of digital accessibility options similar to that of Museum of Austerity. For example, instead of having to wait three weeks for an audio described performance and another three weeks for a captioned performance, the time is near when every performance will have these options available. It is possible that one of the most lasting effects of the digital experiments of recent years may yet end up being the normalisation of accessibility features previously reserved for streamed performances across all areas of the performing arts.

At the same time, although the potential for XR to facilitate the integration of accessibility technologies into the next generation of digital arts and culture is immense, this future promise is counterbalanced by the present reality that XR is currently among the least accessible consumer technologies available. If the accessibility benefits of digital arts and culture during the pandemic often failed to extend to people on the wrong side of the digital divide, then with XR this challenge returns with a vengeance. Immersive XR experiences typically require high-end headsets and base stations, as well as expensive gaming computers to experience. They also require technical proficiency to set up and troubleshoot. Additionally, the many challenges around how d/Deaf and sight-impaired users can engage with VR remain unresolved, and in contrast to Museum of Austerity, most VR experiences still lack even basic accessibility features such as captions.

In partial mitigation of these various exclusions, many performing arts organisations that create work using immersive technologies also exhibit such work on-site, where they can provide users with hardware and support. This was the case, for example, with Current, Rising, a collaboration between StoryFutures and the Royal Opera House (ROH) that was exhibited at the ROH’s Covent Garden venue in 2021. But rather than overcoming VR’s accessibility problems, creating work for a sited exhibition just pushes them onto curators and programmers. Every user needs their own computer and headset, as well as someone watching over them. As a result, VR installations are resource-hungry, yet can only be experienced by tiny numbers of people. Unsurprisingly, the costs of these elaborate exhibition logistics are typically passed on to the user. For example, Current, Rising cost £20 for a 15-minute experience. Per minute, that is just slightly less than the cost of a top-priced Grand Tier seat for a performance on the Royal Opera House’s main stage. In this way, the pre-existing barriers to engagement associated with live performances at (often metropolitan) arts venues are compounded by the default inaccessibility of VR experiences themselves.

Even Museum of Austerity, though a best practice in accessible XR storytelling, found itself enfolded within various external barriers to access associated with its exhibition conditions. To experience it, participants needed to be in London during the 2021 London Film Festival; buy a ticket for one of the (over-subscribed) 90-minute limited-entry slots to the festival’s immersive exhibition; travel to the South Bank; queue up outside the exhibition venue beforehand; and then – having gained access to the venue – be fortunate or ruthless enough to secure a slot for Museum of Austerity itself, whose capacity was about three users per half hour. I wonder how many wheelchair users would have been able to race to the back of the exhibition venue as I did, as soon as the doors opened, in order to get their names down on the booking sheet. The multiple barriers associated with physical installations remind us that, to fulfil its potential, accessible technology needs to be folded into a much larger, holistic approach to accessibility that looks at the entirety of arts participants’ journeys – for example, from social media ads, through exploring organisations’ websites, to navigating ticketing systems and accessibility schemes, through to experiencing the work itself.

The second factor that should prevent anyone from feeling sanguine about the recent shift of resources from streaming to immersive performance is that the latter is not only inaccessible to most users, but also inaccessible to many organisations. The fact that VR installations are resource-hungry but can only be experienced in small numbers makes them particularly difficult for small and mid-sized organisations to utilise. Already before the pandemic, commentators were beginning to notice digital inequalities between cultural organisations, typically based on organisations’ size and prestige (ACE and Nesta, 2019; Mihelj et al., 2019). Our own research and that of others suggests that the disparity between many organisations’ ability or willingness to embrace digital activity while COVID-19 mitigation measures were in place has confirmed, and further exacerbated, these inequalities (Leguina et al., 2021; Holcombe-James, 2021). Without intervention, inequalities increase, as those with resources are able to pull ever further ahead of those without.

Judging by the beneficiaries of AHRC digital innovation funding so far, this seems to be exactly what is happening. Sector leaders including the National Theatre, the RSC and the Royal Opera have been most able to dedicate significant resources to immersive technology, so they have also become de facto centres of expertise in immersive performance and now have an advantage when it comes to gaining additional digital innovation funding. This compounds previous advantages that come from partnerships with Nesta and other innovation funders, the Arts Councils, industrial partnerships and so on (Aebischer, 2020: 85–87). It is perhaps no coincidence that the AHRC has recently awarded the RSC Independent Research Organisation (IRO) status, opening the door for it to collaborate in more funding bids and to apply directly for research funding. Top of the RSC press release’s list of activities that this change in status will enable is ‘immersive technologies in performance’ (RSC, 2021). It is hard to imagine the RSC not playing a key role in the forthcoming CoSTAR super-project (UKRI, 2022).

In short, the gradual shift of focus away from streaming performance towards immersive tech risks exacerbating existing barriers to engaging with arts and culture, with digital innovation increasingly becoming the preserve of elite institutions making works that are shown at their own metropolitan venues, in exhibitions that require familiarity with these institutions to access. As a result, digital theatre currently finds itself in a double-bind. ‘Lo-fi’ lockdown-inspired digital solutions with relatively low barriers to engagement (e.g. Zoom performances) have largely disappeared. However, the radical accessibility promised by emergent technologies remains in the future. The result, for now at least, is a further dilution of the promise of digital access.

Conclusion

The example of Museum of Austerity suggests that there is no ‘either/or’ in digital access, just ‘both/and’. Overall advances in access emerge from an incremental addition of accessibilities – from reserved parking and step-free access to phone-based caption apps and streaming performances. Why choose between these, if all are possible?

For much of 2020 and 2021, digital programming was mostly necessity-driven, and the focus of discourse within the performing arts was on how to use digital as an alternative to venue-based performance. This led to extensive discussion about the relative effectiveness and value of venue-based versus online activities, resulting in an artificial binary in which liveness and digitality were somehow seen as existing in competition with each other. This binary is no longer useful. To maximise accessibility, the future of the performing arts needs to be neither venue-based nor online exclusively, but both, in tandem: it needs to be hybrid. True hybridity entails overcoming historical preconceptions that equate ‘theatre’ as an artform with physical theatre venues.

Effective hybridity also necessitates being open to multiple digital production tools and distribution platforms. For example, many of our interviewees often expressed views about the relative merits of live streams (good at creating a sense of occasion) and on-demand video (good for convenience), as if the two options were mutually exclusive. However, they are not. Our research suggested that the most accessible option for an organisation is to have both. Live streams are more popular with older viewers used to live television broadcasts, while on-demand videos are more popular with younger viewers used to playlists.

So how to ensure that the performing arts’ emergent hybridity also maximises accessibility? The answer is very different for creators and organisations. Creators need to be free to create work using whatever technologies they choose and present it in whatever way works best for their project. For a creator, hybridity could be seen as the opportunity to choose freely between the diverse forms, platforms and technologies currently available. Of course, all artists have a responsibility to consider accessibility. Certain forms of accessibility are a legal requirement, others are a moral imperative. However, if a work really needs to be experienced by a few users at a time, so be it. For example, the power of Museum of Austerity stems from users standing next to its life-sized holograms of people who died as a result of austerity and listening to their stories; it could not work without the unsettling combination of presence and absence that the Microsoft HoloLens 2 creates.

However, on an organisational level, hybridity should perhaps be seen not as the option to choose between forms and technologies, but as the practice of working across as many forms and technologies as possible, in tandem. For organisations, the answer to the question of whether to provide live performance or online performance, live streams or on-demand videos, online-native performance or digitally augmented venue-based performance, is to do both, all six, and more besides. The best way for performing arts organisations to maximise access to their work is to include as many combinations of liveness, asynchronicity, ‘sitedness’ and remoteness as possible across their programmes. Diversity requires not only diverse content created by diverse artists but also the presentation of this diverse content through diverse means. Artistic programmes that include a diverse mix of hybrid activities allow organisations to meet their communities wherever they are, rather than expecting people to come to them. Now as ever, the more routes that exist for engaging with arts and culture, the easier it is to engage with and the more inclusive it can become.

Note

1 See Elizabeth Crooke and David Farrell-Banks, ‘Crisis and Engagement: The Emotional Toll of Museum Work during the COVID-19 Pandemic’ in Knowing COVID-19 in this series.

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