Pascale Aebischer
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Reboot. Upskill. Rethink
A case study of digital adaptation in the creative workforce

This chapter revisits the infamous ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’ ad which questioned the viability of creative professions in October 2020. It concentrates on the experiences of the creative workforce (freelancers and permanent staff) employed by Oxford’s Creation Theatre, often in partnership with Big Telly (Northern Ireland), throughout the lockdown periods. Interviews and surveys shed light on the longer -term consequences of the values-led adaptations and innovations that have made Creation Theatre emerge as a leading digital production company and an example of how ethical employment practices within the industry might enhance a company’s resilience. For the creative team involved in producing a digital Tempest at break-neck speed in April 2020, digital work offered hope, structure, income and significantly better mental health outcomes than those reported by freelancers who did not benefit from such a safety net. The chapter explores the rapid adaptations this group of theatre workers made to pivot to digital formats as they upskilled within their chosen professions. Live digital performance, the interviews show, is technical and physical and draws on hybrid skills sets drawn from theatre, television and radio. While requiring adaptation to demanding physical regimes, it also has significant wellbeing and accessibility benefits for the creative team, along with sustainability benefits for the company. The agility with which the company used its technological innovations to pursue new partnerships in turn unlocked new funding opportunities that made it possible to offer fairer contracts, more inclusive working practices and increased financial stability for the workforce.  

In October 2020, an advertising campaign by the UK government showed a young black dancer, hair pulled back into a tight bun, sitting on the hard bench of a scruffy studio, her right leg elegantly lifted mid-air to allow her to tighten the straps of her pointe shoe. Branded with the logos of CyberFirst and HM Government, the slogan on the ad read: ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (she just doesn’t know it yet). Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.’. Although apparently commissioned by the National Cyber Security Centre before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (Dawson, 2020), the ad appeared against the backdrop of the Winter Economy Plan that was focusing the financial support of the Job Support Scheme on ‘viable jobs’ (Gov.uk, 24 September 2020), and so seemed not so much to ‘encourag[e]‌ people from all walks of life to think about a career in cyber security’, as the then Secretary of State of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden hastened to explain (Dowden, 2020), but to specifically target artists and compel them to rethink their life choices. More than that, as Marianka Swain was quick to point out, choosing a woman of colour to be the ad’s ‘Fatima’ seemed to specifically take aim at those members of the artistic community who, because of their race, gender and socio-economic background, were already facing multiple structural barriers, suggesting that they ‘must not entertain aspirations above [their] station’ (Swain, 2020). Within hours of its publication, and overshadowing the announcement of the allocation of ‘£257 million to save 1385 theatres, arts venues, museums and cultural organisations across England’ (Gov.uk, 12 October 2020), the ad thus became a lightning rod for the ‘“viability” rhetoric’ concerning financial support for freelance artists during the pandemic which Sarah Price, Stephanie Pitts and Renee Timmers have shown to have been profoundly damaging to the mental health and morale of the artistic community (see Chapter 4).

Crucially, the campaign ignored evidence that many creative practitioners had flipped the slogan on its head and had indeed rebooted, reskilled and rethought, and had done so within their professions to work towards building a more inclusive, secure and resilient industry. During the lockdowns of 2020, many freelance theatre artists and smaller production companies stepped up to produce new work, often repurposing digital social media and videoconferencing platforms. This chapter focuses on the agile digital transformation undertaken by the creative and cultural workers associated with the OnComm Award-winner for online platform-based shows: Oxford-based Creation Theatre.

This mid-size theatre production company collaborated closely with Big Telly in Northern Ireland in 2020 to produce several shows performed live on the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Their Tempest, which opened a mere three weeks into the first UK-wide lockdown, offered its permanent staff and its freelancers – director, designer, stage manager, performers – financial independence, dignity and the chance of a future in their chosen profession. In the summer of 2020, Creation Theatre and Big Telly worked together again to produce Alice: A Digital Theme Park, a show for which they collaborated with charisma.ai to involve an artificial intelligence-operated Cheshire cat that chatted with the audience and to move beyond the Zoom platform as viewers were invited to download an app on their smartphone (designed by Foxdog Studios) that allowed them to design a hedgehog with which they could race through croquet hoops. By the end of the year, Creation Theatre had secured an Innovate UK grant that allowed it to hire a company of five performers for a six-month season of digital shows (January–June 2021) and to collaborate with a tech company to design a new digital performance platform, Auditorium. It is with members of this company that, in 2021, Creation Theatre enjoyed a virtual residency with the Telepresence Stage project (see Chapter 3).

The purpose of this chapter is to examine the impact that the company’s rapid adaptation to digital modes of working had on the working conditions of the performers and production company staff, both in terms of physical regimes and in terms of the mental health and wellbeing of the creative workforce. The evidence for this chapter is drawn from a survey of 13 Creation Theatre and Big Telly (NI) workers carried out in June and July 2020 as well as two sets of interviews with the workforce involved in producing and performing in the 2020 Tempest and subsequent digital shows. The survey and first set of interviews carried out at the start of July 2020 were part of the AHRC-funded ‘Digital Theatre Transformation’ project (July to October 2020). Follow-on interviews with the company’s Chief Executive and four performers who worked for Creation Theatre and their occasional partner Big Telly in the Digital Repertory Company of 2021 were carried out in September 2022, to gather evidence of the longer term impacts of the pandemic on the theatre workers who were in Creation Theatre’s employment in 2021.1

The sample sizes on which this essay is based are correspondingly small and the study participants’ comments impossible to anonymise, but they complement the larger datasets collected by Price, Pitts and Timmers (Chapter 4) and by the team led by Ben Walmsley at the Centre for Cultural Value in Leeds (Gilmore et al., 2024) in providing an in-depth insight into how an early digital adopter in the theatre industry shaped the experience of its workforce, and how a group of creative practitioners have found their feet in a hybrid performance environment. In doing so, this case study, alongside Dan Strutt’s work (Chapter 2), adds to the still limited evidence base regarding ‘how performers and artists are affected by digital technology’ (Cîrstea and Mutebi, 2022: 4). It also provides a vivid example of how the pandemic triggered, for this corner of the industry, a far-reaching and visionary rethinking of how to do theatre more resiliently, fairly, inclusively, and sustainably.

Reboot

Creation Theatre is Oxford’s largest professional theatre production company. From 2012 to 2023, the company was headed by Chief Executive and Creative Producer Lucy Askew. At the time of the coronavirus pandemic it had nine permanent members of leadership, administrative and front of house staff and did not benefit from being part an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. Without such a financial safety-net in place, when the lockdowns were announced, Askew drew on her prior experience of a season when poor weather and poor sales had brought the company close to closure and, as she recalled,

moved very quickly knowing that we had to reduce everything that we could from our overheads. So we gave notice on our office, we cut subscriptions to … all kinds of things that are relatively small costs but they all add up. We put two members of the team [the marketing and social media managers] straight on furlough, and in addition to that we’ve had two members of the team [the general manager and education manager] go on maternity leave. (Askew, July 2020)

To match the financial impact furloughed staff were experiencing, all remaining permanent full-time staff members reduced their working week to four days, with Askew (who had taken the same salary cut herself) filling all the jobs and gaps that could not be covered by her staff. Despite the substantial impact on her own work-life balance, she ‘[c]‌onsciously … made the choice that there were too many people’s jobs at stake to worry too much about my own work-life balance. It’s very difficult for anything else to feel important when the stakes are so high for so many people’ (Askew, July 2020). While ‘survival mode’ during the pandemic for many theatre companies involved ‘quietly’ losing casual staff and freelancers (Gray and Walmsley, 2024), for Askew looking after her staff was what survival was about.

To achieve some financial stability for her staff and their families and to honour the contracts of freelance performers hired for scheduled analogue shows, the company had to produce a new show fast. With Zoë Seaton of Big Telly (NI), who had directed Creation Theatre’s 2019 site-specific, immersive promenade production of The Tempest, Askew rebooted that production online, on a ‘stripped-back survival budget’ (Askew, July 2020). Director and designer agreed to a reduction to their usual fee, the freelance actors were paid the Equity rate and the core backstage team was shrunk to the roles of director, designer, stage manager and the production manager, who also doubled as a cast member. Over a rehearsal period of just two weeks (one week’s rehearsal time spread over two weeks to ease ‘Zoom fatigue’), roles were cut, the script was adapted and the company went from no prior acquaintance with the Zoom platform to producing a professional show. The digital Tempest included a mixture of rudimentary and highly sophisticated green-screen backgrounds – including, in a memorably outrageous scene, Caliban in the maw of a rampaging dinosaur (Figure 5.1). The company approached the medium and its proneness to glitches with a sense of irreverence and fun that helped defuse some of the audience’s medium-related anxieties and fatigue.

No doubt helped by the dearth of new material for theatre reviewers to write about so early in the first lockdown, the show was picked up by reviewers in the UK and USA and found audiences in 27 different countries. Our project report documents how a sizeable proportion of its audience joined in from the USA, Ireland and Canada and how within the UK, too, the digital production had a significantly wider reach than its analogue predecessor, enabling the show to make a modest profit (Aebischer and Nicholas, 2020: 33; see also 88). As a result, the company was able to reboot fully as a producer of made-for-digital theatre, but its survival hinged on the ability to rapidly keep producing new shows. This, in turn, depended on taking full advantage of the affordances of online working, which allows theatre makers to move much more quickly through the previously time-consuming processes of casting, design, rehearsal and performance, but without the expense caused by travel and accommodation, physical set design, lighting, front of house presence and accommodations for physical access.

Upskill

Creation Theatre’s extraordinary capacity to reboot at record speed comes down to the agility of the entire team. For Al Barclay, who played Alonso in The Tempest, there is a clear connection between Creation Theatre’s specialism in site-specific theatre and the ease with which the company pivoted to digital modes of performance: ‘Creation don’t have a building … so they immediately shifted because of course they make [theatre] wherever, so they made it online, that’s their new building … It is “adapt or die,” we’re at that stage, unfortunately’ (July 2020). Creation Theatre’s workers were willing not to reskill by formal training in a new profession, but to upskill in a creative, ad hoc and solutions-focused manner within the framework of their prior professional identities – as actors, production manager, stage manager, designer, director. They were not unusual in this: a survey of 397 freelancers carried out between November 2020 and March 2021 revealed ‘a widespread move’ among this UK-wide group of respondents, ‘not to “retrain”, but to upskill and diversify their ability to work in creative fields’ (Maples et al., 2022: 63; see also Feder et al. 2024).

Unlike this survey, however, which found that the highest rate of reported ‘upskilling’ was amongst directors, of whom 92% ‘claimed to have developed new skills during the lockdowns’, followed by 76% of actors and a mere 53% of stage managers (Maples et al., 2022: 63), our analysis of Creation Theatre’s digital transformation revealed that, while all staff had acquired new skills, by far the most marked and rapid upskilling was undertaken by stage manager Sinéad Owens, who was appropriately credited in shows as ‘Zoom Wizard’. That upskilling was recognised more widely within the industry and the press, with Owens marvelling about how she ‘started being mentioned in reviews for the first time ever’ (July 2020).

In our interviews, cast members and production team alike stressed that Owens had not only played a central role in the company’s initial adaptation to digital practices, but continued to be the technological and human backbone of several early Zoom productions: in effect, she transferred the stage manager’s traditional technological and technical facilitation role and duty of care for the cast to the digital working environment. As she recalled, at the start of lockdown she’d ‘never even heard of Zoom’. Although she maintained that she ‘really just learned through rehearsals’, further probing revealed that much of the learning happened independently, through googling or, as she put it, ‘playing’: ‘it was really just learning as we go. If [the show’s director] Zoë [Seaton] said “it would be really cool if this could happen”, then I would just go on google or Zoom and play even more to see whether it could happen’ (July 2020). By the time we talked to her, Owens was simultaneously using multiple technologies during live shows, combining video feeds and changing virtual backgrounds remotely by using ManyCam and vMix software while mixing the sound via QLab. She had also designed a step-by-step guide on using Zoom for performers and was involved in training others – a concrete example of the kind of informal peer support networks that sprang up in the pandemic (Maples et al., 2022: 166–176; Gray and Walmsley, 2024).

Not far behind in terms of upskilling were the rest of Creation Theatre’s team: Askew, as Chief Executive and Creative Producer, suddenly found herself learning to use Zoom and ManyCam and attempting basic coding, while also running the company and keeping an eye on rehearsals. Giles Stoakley’s production manager role, too, expanded and shifted significantly. For the 2019 Tempest, he had overseen the budgets and, taking over some of the traditional roles of the stage manager, had helped with the building and striking of the physical set, carrying out major repairs and checking its safety. For the digital production, his production management work on the Zoom production involved ‘just monitoring things’ and being there in rehearsals to ensure the financial and technical feasibility of ideas. Other aspects of the job, however, became

much more difficult, just because you can’t access people, because it’s incredibly difficult to teach an actor who isn’t technological and has no basis of knowledge of this, to use a relatively complicated software programme and to not only teach it to them, but to teach it to them remotely. (July 2020)

The production manager’s remit now also extended to organising the logistics of shipping costumes, props and elements of set design to performers’ homes, finding solutions to unreliable broadband and devising new strategies for remote risk assessments. Additional new challenges arose to square the production’s budget with performers’ needs for loans of technical equipment.

It was also the production manager’s role to think through the unforeseen impact of rehearsals and performances on performers’ lives and the people with whom they shared their homes. These impacts could be significant: both our survey and the interviews revealed that, for some cast members, being able to access a space suitable for rehearsal and performance within their shared quarters, to monopolise broadband width in the household and have the surrounding silence requisite for performance required the cooperation and rigorous discipline of several turn-taking adults (and, for one performer, avoiding a nightly clash with the evening bath time of the neighbour’s children). All the freelance cast members had to transform a space in their own homes into an impromptu performance studio, rigging up green screens, laying cables and finding ingenious solutions to technical problems as varied as lighting themselves so that they would not create shadows that might interfere with the chromakey technology, positioning webcams, getting the sound right and being able to reach their keyboard to hit the correct commands to change backgrounds, or switch between different cameras while continuing to perform in a scene. For many, this complex technological setup had to be disassembled after each rehearsal and performance, to make room for everyday lockdown life, and reassembled meticulously day after day.

In this, as in the approach to costume design, the performers relied on the kind of ‘bricolage’ technique of crafting and assembling impromptu solutions with the resources available to them which Heidi Lu Liedke, following Claude Lévi-Strauss, argues characterised the approach of audiences, who similarly became ‘bricoleurs as they tinker[ed] with the new and yet everyday situation’ of watching theatre on their home devices (2023: 169). Bricolage is probably the best term to describe the approach performers took to solving technical performance challenges. P. K. Taylor, who played Caliban, recalled:

During The Tempest, there were points at which I had to change the lighting positions and the mike positions in my off time for the setup for the next scene. There was a point when I came out of a cellar in Prospero’s cell. [What looked on the screen like a trapdoor (Figure 5.2)] was a stupid piece of wood. So while I was in my off time, this required changing camera height, changing camera angle, so I could get just the top of the wood, not lose the bottom of the background, keeping it far enough away that you get full length or half-length of your body, but not losing the edge of the green screen. (July 2020)

Similar bricolage solutions made it possible for Annabelle May Terry’s Miranda to ‘reach through’ the edge of her Zoom screen to grasp Ferdinand’s hand in a spine-tingling moment of physical connection in the depth of the first lockdown (Figure 5.3), or for Ferdinand, amid the tempest, to be pelted by flying objects. As Terry pithily pointed out: ‘a good performer will use what they’ve got even if it’s nothing’ (July 2020).

The upskilling, however, was also more seriously technological. Like the stage manager and Creation’s leadership team, the performers, too, spent hours searching and watching online video tutorials to acquire the skill sets that would allow them to perform effectively in this new medium. Ryan Duncan, whose steep learning curve resulted in his producing new Zoom shows of his own, explained how, when performing Ferdinand, he also had to ‘be a director of photography, basically, because you’ve got to set up everything to make sure the lighting is correct, and the framing is right’ (June 2020). Help with these elements came from within the Creation Theatre team but also from friends and colleagues in the industry. Ultimately, however, the performers were on their own, literally and figuratively: unable, unless they had a separate computer set up for that purpose, to see the other performers or the audience, and having to perform their role alone in an often cramped space full of cables, green screens and lights. Although all the performers spoke of the comfort (often mixed with survivor’s guilt) they derived from working in theatre during the pandemic, and of the joy of virtually being with others, a note that ran through many of the interviews had to do with how working in this way was ‘quite solitary’ (Terry, September 2022), especially for elements of the job that had previously been communal.

For performers, therefore, the biggest upskilling involved technical acting skills and the ability to multitask to integrate their body with the technology. ‘Digital performance’, in the end, came down to the actors’ ability to combine purely technical actions, such as hitting a mark or a keyboard command, or matching a sightline by looking at exactly the right spot on their wall with the correct focus, without loss of physical embodiment and commitment to their part. This is what Dani Snyder-Young et al. describe as ‘the entanglement of technology and live performance practices’ in digital theatre (2023: 172). It is clear from the interviews that juggling multiple information streams and levels of activity while staying in character was cognitively demanding. Rhodri Lewis, who evocatively described the multitasking required as ‘like playing tennis but you’ve got a dog with you on a lead’, also explained how his prior experience of radio work had prepared him for the intimacy of directly speaking to an audience, while television had taught him to perform for camera and be aware of sightlines and continuity across different shots. Madeleine McMahon, too, found that acting for television had to an extent prepared her for performing on Zoom, especially in relation to the ‘volume’ of the performance, which required ‘paring down the way that you perform the character while at the same time being aware that the interactive nature that the director wanted was for a theatre crowd’ (June 2020). Stoakley concurred: ‘Just wrestling with Zoom is a skill in itself but we have all learned a completely new style of acting that is a curious combination of screen and stage acting’ (June 2020). Performing on Zoom thus required the development of a hybrid performance method that combined theatricality and an awareness of the live audience with the ability to perform for a small screen.

The follow-up interviews held in September 2022 showed that performers who had spent a lot of time performing on Zoom found that handling these technical demands had become easier because the technology itself had evolved in such a way as to require ever less technical work from the actors. This is a point Annabelle Terry, who became a member of the Digital Repertory Company in 2021 that was set up specifically ‘to be a learning experience’ (Stoakley September 2022), stressed: for her, the biggest leap came with the advent of vMix, which enabled performers to share the screen space (Figure 5.4). No longer being in ‘separate boxes’ was exhilarating for the performers, with the virtual proximity on a shared screen affording Terry the comforting sense of ‘getting back to some sense of ensemble’ (September 2022; see also Chapters 2 and 3).

Most of the performers I interviewed have now returned to working primarily in face-to-face settings and relish the ability to connect physically with fellow actors and audiences. That does not mean, however, that the upskilling has not left a trace in their working lives: with casting now often taking place online and actors expected to produce self-tapes, the equipment and performance craft digital theatre requires is still regularly in use. Beyond this, as Terry explains, having had to perform Juliet in her own home to a camera standing in for Romeo, she does ‘see a difference in my performances now, because in my head I’m going: “I’ve got no excuse not to commit to this scene because I have an actor stood in front of me. … it’s so easy … compared to what I was doing digitally”’ (September 2022). Even when working on physical stages, the performers who have been part of the company’s journey through the pandemic continue to benefit from their new skill sets.

While for the freelancers employed by Creation Theatre during the lockdown, the buzz and sheer relief of making theatre and the relative financial security this gave them clearly outweighed the strains of their accelerated upskilling, their responses also reveal that Comunian and England were right, in 2020, to suspect that such resilience and upskilling came at a personal cost (p. 121). Even with Creation Theatre’s generous approach to training, loaning equipment, paying for data and organising repayment plans for performers’ kit purchases (Askew and Taylor, July 2020), some of the burden of upskilling and equipment purchase was inevitably borne by the freelancers themselves. Of the 13 respondents to our June 2020 survey, 11 rated working from home as ‘a mostly positive experience, with some challenges but also positive changes’: they enjoyed not having to travel to work and not having to stay in ‘digs’. Only one respondent, who found it hard to manage their own time, rated the experience as ‘difficult, mostly negative’.

Working from home, however, also had clear downsides, including a financial impact as energy bills went up (an element which Creation Theatre compensated for through a one-off payment). Furthermore, with no clear end to the working day and international collaborations creating unprecedented pressures as teams started to work across time zones, a healthy work-life balance could be hard to maintain. Stage manager Sinéad Owens, for example, was ‘able and willing to work all day every day if needed’ and reported being ‘always on hand to work’ (July 2020). Performers also reported that having to provide elements of props and costume design made them feel somewhat under pressure. One cast member also simply could not work with the Zoom technology. Ingeniously, the director and designer helped her build an analogue set in her own home, turning the problem into a creative feature of the show that contributed to its critical success (Aebischer and Nicholas, 2022: 96–99). In our interviews, all the performers furthermore alluded to the strains on their mental health of having to work in isolation. Simon Spencer-Hyde’s comment is representative: while digital performance ‘has opened up a world of creative possibilities it has taken away the greatest joy of my work, which is face to face social interactions with audience and colleagues. … I wonder if [lack of direct interaction] is felt more acutely by us theatre lot whose work is centred around social interaction’ (June 2020 survey response). Al Barclay spoke of the sadness of ‘going back to my living room’ at the end of a show. Through Taylor’s remark that performing in The Tempest was a profoundly ‘emotional event’ because it made him feel that he was ‘with people’ shines a sense of the emotional fragility of some members of the cast in lockdown who threw themselves into this new way of working because the alternative, of total isolation without work, was too awful:

Being able to have contact with those people that you work with and talk to … to have that back, even though it’s not physical, was gorgeous. And then seeing the pain, the hurt at times, and desperation on the fellow actors’ faces that do live on their own, that haven’t seen another person for three months … (June 2020)

Unsurprisingly, by September 2022, Taylor had turned his back on digital performance and was looking forward to the premiere of a show which had been in the works for two years but had suffered repeated coronavirus-related setbacks. The follow-on interviews revealed that the effects of the pandemic are far from over: not only do digital modes of working continue to be a prominent if sporadic feature of casting and rehearsals that remains invisible to the outside eye, but even years later shows were still regularly delayed or cancelled and rehearsal periods interrupted because of ongoing COVID-19 infections and the increased incidence of other physical illnesses within the workforce (Askew, September 2022). Together, these factors greatly exacerbate the mental health and financial pressures on this group of cultural workers.

Rethink

What started as a relatively straightforward exercise to ‘reboot’ the company on a digital platform soon became something more fundamental and wide-ranging for Creation Theatre. On the one hand, the medium itself was put front and centre. The types of experimentation which had, over the preceding 20-odd years, been on the fringes of artistic and academic research and development in telepresence (see Dixon, 2007, for precursors) became much more widespread as ‘the cultural sector quickly realised that lockdown presented an extraordinary new laboratory situation in which to carry out a giant, arguably long-overdue experiment in designing digital and hybrid experiences’ (Mantell et al., 2024; see also Part I of this volume). On the other hand, there has been a ‘heightened awareness of structural inequalities and of economic precarity resulting from the combination of national and global pandemic impacts and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements following the murder of George Floyd’ (Gray and Walmsley, 2024). Additionally, there have been long-standing calls for increasing access to live performing arts for people with disabilities and for a reduction in the carbon footprint of theatre. All this has prompted a ‘rethink’ not just of the medium of theatre, but its structural, technological and financial underpinning, too.

The question, then, was no longer simply about how to ‘pivot to digital’, but about how doing so might provide opportunities for a shake-up of the industry that would put the wellbeing and financial stability of diverse creative and cultural workers at its heart and that would, in doing so, have additional accessibility and environmental benefits. After all, as Katherine Nolan points out, ‘In the COVID moment, … issues of care, interdependence, labour and mortality became heightened concepts, bringing them into sharp focus’ in a way that was felt by many to be a call to action (Nolan, 2022: 9). Financial stability and survival may have been the principal drivers of the company’s digital transformation at the start of the pandemic, as Barclay recognised when he summed up the changes as: ‘That’s what Creation did so beautifully. They said: “how are we going to make work for freelancers, and how are we going to make work for ourselves and continue to connect and to make and create this environment?”’ (June 2022). By the time we carried out our research, however, this simple goal had grown into something more akin to what Kathleen Gallagher has described, in relation to applied theatre, as ‘a hopeful practice in precarious times’: ‘theatre … is not a question of whether we will live or die, but rather how we will live and die. And until we do die, we should make a work of living well. And equitably. And joyously, playfully, and simply’ (2023: 36).

For Creation Theatre, such a ‘hopeful practice in precarious times’ involved seeing digital technology not just as a temporary tactic adopted for immediate survival, to be dropped as soon as infection rates receded (Gammel and Wang, 2022: 6), but to recognise digital performance as a potential means of solving some long-standing problems in the industry. One of these was accessibility for audiences (see also Misek in Chapter 1). Creative producer Crissy O’Donovan explained how their 2019 in-person site-specific promenade version of The Tempest posed serious accessibility issues as it spread across woodland, a coffee shop, a bus and a large hall. Despite the provision of ramps and a mobility scooter there were serious physical challenges for disabled people. Digital theatre, she explained, ‘takes that pressure off, when something is so available to everybody’ (July 2020).

In July 2020, the company was thinking hard about how to integrate not just captioning but also possibly a BSL interpreter for some shows. Additionally, their work on Alice, which attracted niche audiences, made the company realise that the accessibility gains extended to neurodiverse audience members, who were now more able to participate in live shows. On the digital stage, neurodiverse viewers could interact with the performers in ways impossible in a shared space, where, as Kirsty Sedgman (2018) has shown, theatre etiquette is still often rigorously enforced by neurotypical audiences. While acutely aware of the ‘digital divide’ that was continuing to prevent audience members without a digital device or stable internet from participating, the company was also mindful of the real gains of digital performance for young viewers from diverse backgrounds. It therefore made complimentary tickets available for such audiences (Dharmesh Patel, September 2022).

For performers and backstage staff, too, digital modes of working opened new possibilities. One of the barriers to inclusion in the industry has long been the working culture of long hours and needing to be physically present in a shared space. Holly Maples reports that research participants for ‘ Freelancers in the Dark’

emphasised the need for schedule adjustments to provide access for freelance theatre workers with chronic health issues, caring responsibilities, and other work/home obligations. Such concerns had far greater impact on marginalised and disabled theatre workers. … the rigidity of the schedule for work that occurs in the theatre industry needs to become more flexible to be more inclusive. (Maples 2022: 32)

This was also clear from our conversations with Creation Theatre staff: Askew was excited that shifting to an online platform for meetings meant that they were able to work with a far more diverse set of colleagues, both in programming roles and as performers. She saw bringing in new talent as key to tapping into the needs of more diverse audiences. Terry, meanwhile, described how casting on Zoom could contribute to ‘virtual equality’:

This way of working is more accessible and inclusive as it’s available to anyone and everyone at any time. I had the privilege of sitting in on Creation’s Alice auditions in which they were actively seeking to diversify their casting and broaden their pool of actors of colour. (July 2020)

Creation Theatre’s online shows have featured markedly diverse casts, with many performers of colour cast in leading roles. Dharmesh Patel, who joined Creation Theatre’s Digital Rep Company at the start of 2021, considers the ability of digital theatre to ‘level the playing field’ for diverse audiences and performers to be the most important gain of this mode of working (September 2022).

One of our research questions, regarding the environmental impact of digital transformation and working from home for theatre workers, additionally sparked a deeper reflection and separate piece of research on the carbon footprint of digital performance. Our research had shown not only that remote working benefited freelancers’ family lives and wellbeing, in countering the London-centricity of the industry, but that there were obvious carbon benefits from the reduction in performer travel for rehearsals and shows. For audiences, too, not needing to leave their homes to watch a show had a positive impact on carbon emissions. In her foreword to the report in which the findings of Creation Theatre’s analysis of the sustainability gains achieved by the Digital Rep Company of January–June 2021 were shared, Askew writes:

Across all industries we need to think bigger, we need to be more selfless and we need to make drastic changes to the way we live our lives, to preserve the planet for future generations. I’ve pondered how we could reduce our environmental impact at Creation for years. … Our digital work over the past 15 months has shown us a route to making far more meaningful carbon reductions in our industry. (Creation Theatre, 2021: 5)

While this report does not calculate the carbon costs of data centres, which is one of the great challenges in assessing environmental impacts of digital media and data and represents an urgent research gap, it does measure individual performers’ and audience members’ energy usage, transportation needs and changes to set design and lighting requirements. The conclusion is striking: the company’s digital work resulted in ‘an overall 98% reduction in the emissions associated with a performance’ (Creation Theatre, 2021: 32).

Creation Theatre’s ‘hopeful practice in precarious times’ also involved countering the discourses of resilience in the creative and cultural industries that had in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 put the onus of resilience on freelancers in the industry (Comunian and England, 2020: 116–117). The company is explicit about how job security, decent working conditions and workers’ rights should be the foundation for creating a more resilient future. Against the backdrop of ‘the collapse of different forms of the resident repertory theatre system particularly in England [which] had made it more difficult to enter the theatre workforce outside London, creating an uneven and unsustainable landscape’, which was known to be ‘particularly damaging for local communities, working-class theatre workers, and especially, for the design and technical theatre work force’ (Maples et al., 2022: 33), Askew decided to swim against the tide. As she explained: ‘We have to really start changing the business model, and we have to really start saying we’re not going to do this anymore, and we have to change the way we contract actors’ (September 2022). Building on the positive experience of working with a Digital Rep Company in 2021, Creation Theatre announced on 8 November 2022 that they would hire a repertory company of six actors for an initial period of two years.

The aim is in part to create financial stability for company members and model how basic employment rights might be structurally embedded in the operations of a theatre company. As Creation Theatre’s press release states, the evidence base for the move came from the reflective work they had engaged with through working with our Digital Theatre Transformation project and other researchers studying the wellbeing, pay and conditions of freelancers:

With no other UK theatre company offering such a radical solution to the financial insecurity of freelancing, Creation hopes to provide significantly increased stability for performers. Along with the mental health benefits of secure work, the company will gain increased employment rights, support returning to work after maternity leave or sickness, greater flexibility for holidays and compassionate leave, and the ability to live locally and not travel for work. (Creation Theatre, 2022: 1)

Beyond those motives and hopes, the aim was also to build a diverse team of performers and technicians who would have the skill sets to adapt flexibly to analogue, digital and hybrid stages and who would be able to be deployed between scheduled shows to work with academic researchers on funded projects that require a team of performers to workshop scenes, do play readings or perform entire plays.

Creation Theatre’s pre-pandemic business model, which used to be dependent on live in-person shows with freelance performers, supplemented by an education provision focused on holiday club activities, has thus been overhauled. At the time of writing, the company provides stable employment to a group of actors who perform in-person for site-specific and often outdoor shows in summer and indoors for the Christmas show. Between those seasons, the cast perform digital shows that reach an international audience. This ticket-sale-based income is supplemented with both an education provision that can be either in-person or online and with grant-based income from collaborative work with academics and tech companies. This may, as Askew admitted, be ‘a mad gamble’, but she is confident that ‘we’ll make it work because it’s the right thing to do’ (September 2022). Therefore, amid the all the evidence of the industry returning to a ‘new normal’ that looks disappointingly like the ‘old normal’, Creation Theatre stands out as a model of what might be possible if the lessons of the pandemic regarding care for the workforce, equity, inclusivity and sustainability are learned. If the pandemic acted as a rocket booster for digital theatre and for its potential to rethink the industry, then Creation Theatre’s work since 2021 has been dedicated to ensuring that the rocket would not fall back into the sea along with the booster but continue to travel into a better future for the creative workforce.

Note

1 Ethics approval for this research was granted by the University of Exeter’s Ethics Committee in 2020 and 2022.

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