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Digital Ash In A Digital Urn: Does The Digital Age Mean The Death Sentence For Live Theatre?

Jun 10, 2008
With so much content beaming freely across the web, consumers have never had such unfettered access to entertainment. Dilating bandwiths have meant data transfers have shrunk to infinitesimal speeds and, as entire fleets of pirate P2P websites and media data streamers career off all over the place, the notion of actually paying for entertainment is quickly becoming rather odious.

With a West End theatre seat costing you easily in excess of 20GBP, the economic future of live drama is looking decidedly well, shaky. Pair this with the increasing dependence that West End shows have on celebrity and many have forecasted murky waters ahead.

Matt Wolf from the Guardian describes the recent Hollywood invasion of the West End as the "visiting celebrity cavalcade" come to rescue the dwindling audiences dribbling through the gate. A few years ago, Sheriden Morley described in the New York Times how the influx of celebrity had "turned London audiences, once the best and most perceptive in the world, into mindless stargazers."

Pretty stern stuff isn't it? But then, that might not be the whole story. After all, can we really declare that traditional theatre has lost its bite?

It certainly hadn't just over ten years ago, when Sarah Kane's Blasted premiered at the Royal Court. The fury that splashed over the front pages of nearly every national newspaper the next morning was burnt into the mind of anyone that dared to assume that theatre had lost its power to shock. The violence in the play is no worse than is found in the tamest of Tarantino flicks so why the outrage?

Quite simply, in the cinema, on television or on DVD, the action happens elsewhere, in a shifting world behind a screen. In the theatre, the action is right in front of you; you can hear it, feel it and, if you were really so inclined, you could reach out and touch it. You can watch actors enact the most brutal or intimate scenes on hi-res plasma screens anywhere, but only in the theatre can they watch you right back.

What's more, It might not just be the available 'experience' that saddles defiantly in theatre's corner. Theatre, it seems, has quietly started embedding itself within popular culture. Although slightly fewer than its predecessors, Ofcom insists that the BBC's hunt to cast a new West End version of Oliver!, "I'd Do Anything", steadily attracts over 5 million viewers. Match this with the recent crop of copycat shows like "Hairspray: The School Musical", which is currently preparing to air on SkyOne, and it may look like there's fight in the old girl yet.

To many, theatre may not seem like the most viable economic prospect; who would want to pay for entertainment when they can get huge budget content streamed to their home for next to nothing? But then that may be the whole point, where as 'content' can be zipped, transfered and then unzipped at any computer the world over, theatre cannot.

Theatre will be affected by technological advances, of course it will, and it may need to change in order to progress, but it cannot be trampled over by the digital stampede because it is a totally different entertainment animal. Streamers may supersede television schedules and force licence fee funded institutions into remission, but it cannot replace what it cannot do to begin with. Theatre is temporal, magical, immediate, personal and not, under any circumstances, available to download.
About the Author
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here London Shows, Dirty Dancing and Joseph.
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