Digital Theatre Transformation: A Case Study and Digital Toolkit for Small to Mid-Scale Theatres in England

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: English


This project aims to provide a roadmap for local and regional companies that will enable them to bring furloughed staff back onto their payroll and develop new ways of working, in terms of administration and creative output, that are less building-dependent and that enable flexible modes of working to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 on local and regional theatres.

The project investigates and learns the lessons from the success of Creation Theatre (Oxford), together with Big Telly (Northern Ireland) in rapidly transforming their business model and theatre practice from local/regional face-to-face immersive location-based performance to a distributed home-working model that brings the interactive and immersive elements of their theatre work online through the Zoom platform, with a national and even international reach.

Through a quantitative analysis of existing digital audience datasets, supplemented by new qualitative questionnaires and audience interviews, the project explores the impact of Creation Theatre's Zoom production of The Tempest on its audiences and its ability to impart digital skillsets along with a sense of well-being and community. A comparative analysis of audience responses to pre-recorded and live performances will furthermore answer vital questions about the relative commercial value of the live experience. The outcomes of this research will rapidly be published and disseminated through professional associations.

Working with representatives of Equity (UK trade union for creative practitioners), our team will moreover develop guidelines for digital home-working that take account of the technical and ethical impacts of the change in working practices and environments on staff.


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Description Business model and company administration:
• Adapting The Tempest (and subsequent productions) for Zoom, charging per-device for
tickets, and significantly reducing overheads has allowed the company to pay
freelancers Equity wages and even to make a modest surplus during Covid-19.
• Online work has resulted in reduced expenditure and increased productivity and has
reduced the company's environmental impact.
• It has also presented opportunities for audience development, increased opportunities
for more diverse casting practices, has created new professional networks and creative
partnerships and has opened the company up to new sources of funding.

Working Digitally:
•Working remotely has been mostly positive for company and creative staff with greater
flexibility contributing to better work/life balance, increased concentration, productivity and
sense of wellbeing.
•Working online facilitates multi-tasking and new ways of working creatively but working and
rehearsing on Zoom is significantly different to in-person working and requires adaptations to
working practices, with additional focus on welfare.
•It is imperative to be aware of the ethical and equality issues presented by working digitally.
Companies should be mindful of potential issues and should ensure that technical training
and/or equipment is provided.

The Audience:
•The Zoom production of The Tempest reached an estimated audience of 2800 across 17
performances and attracted audiences from a wider geographical area than the 2019 analogue
version of the production, both nationally within the UK, and internationally.
•Audiences for the Zoom production were similar in age to those for the 2019 analogue
production, with the data indicating that the Zoom audience may have been slightly older than
the analogue audience.
•Existing audience networks were important for marketing the Zoom production, with email and
social media the most common ways that audiences heard about the production. However, the
Zoom production also attracted audiences who were new to Creation.

Value for money and willingness to pay:
•Audiences felt that paying £20 per device for The Tempest represented good value for money and
indicated a willingness to continue to engage with, and pay for, Zoom theatre experiences.
•Audiences who initially thought the ticket price expensive described changing their mind once they had
seen the show. Audiences distinguished the Zoom experience from recorded theatre and placed extra
value on the fact that the production was created specifically to be watched online, that it was live, and
that they were able to actively participate.
•Audiences were not necessarily aware of the costs involved in producing online work, which influenced
their perception of value. Greater transparency regarding the labour involved in producing online work
may increase willingness to pay.
•There was a large amount of variation in terms of what audiences deemed as 'good value' (especially
between international/US audiences and UK audiences). Tiered offerings and/or concessionary prices may
increase willingness to pay for a wider audience.
•Covid-19 continues to influence the decisions
Audience Experience and Impact:
•Audiences tended to watch in small groups but viewed the experience as a social rather than an
individual experience. Liveness and audience participation were especially important in creating
a sense of community and connection.
•Audiences described finding the experience engaging, uplifting and emotionally moving.
Maintaining mental health and wellbeing, reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness and
feeling more engaged with the arts were key impacts of the production on audiences.
•The production provided hope and inspiration about the future of the theatre industry,
especially for those audience members with a professional interest in theatre.
Exploitation Route The outcomes can be used by creative industries professionals to change their approach to digital performance; they can be used by employers within the creative industries to adapt to staff working from home and using digital media; they can be used by policy-makers to inform creative industries policy and funding for the arts.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Over 100+ industry professionals have downloaded our report and provided their contact details. A piece of impact evaluation carried out in 2021 found evidence that our work has been read by a broad range of professionals within the creative industries, from actors to directors, technicians, producers and also stakeholder representatives in Arts Council England. Summary of Impact Evidence Research: This impact evidence research was conducted from April to the end of May 2021 and involved nine participants from the creative field: directors, art consultants, development managers, stage/ set manager/ builders and more. The overall feeling gathered from my interviews is that the Digital Theatre Transformation paper and toolkit are invaluable as the theatre industry shifts towards a digital era. Commended for being easily readable, 'shareable' and user friendly, the report has been shared between professionals reaching California, Berlin, and Italy where it had 'great impact in the developing of an online class on Performance Art and Post Dramatic Theatre, allowing us to perform through many cams an online event'. Many professionals noted that the arguments articulated in the paper perfectly reflected their everyday conversations and experiences and were glad to have them in concrete writing. For some the report has been inspirational, helping companies see the almost forced shift to digital as a 'new challenge, which has resulted in quite far-reaching changes to our traditional stage-focused approach to Theatre.' It served to instil confidence in creatives, for example one respondent who 'already used Zoom, but [found] the technical improvement done reading the report was unbelievable'. For other practitioners, they felt that they 'have a much clearer understanding of what our online audience wants and expects, something that we have struggled with in before times.' Impact seems to have been most felt in two principal ways: the report is extremely useful as a starting point for creatives and plays a large role in securing funding and it correctly emphasizes new opportunities for casting and wellbeing. In relation to business practice, one respondent working for a theatre school states that 'it has been a useful companion piece alongside business materials and academic theory to begin to think about how [the theatre] moves into a hybrid IRL/digital future and what that means for our processes and finances' and that they 'intend to share widely with our supported artists and alumni companies, as well as recommending our own marketing and audience development take a look at the content.' A freelance artistic consultant noted that when writing an Arts Council project grant application for a client's Zoom-based piece, they received 'the response: "we suggest that you read this toolkit report based on Creation Theatre..." which I had already sent them. As it happened, I referenced Creation in the application, and the company is hiring one of Creation's freelancers to manage the Zoom side of the production.'. He identifies the report as a useful document to quote in applications, as it shows a company follows good practice, thus making their funding application more likely to be accepted. Moreover, it provides a company with a tick box list of requirements which ensure they maintain standards and again aid their success. The report was found to be 'very specific' in outlining 'who does what, who you need and what you need' (Beckwith) as a performing company. Importantly, it highlights how a person's role changes when it becomes digital. For a theatre company, this has 'led to [them] approaching [their] own internal drafts of employee advice (our handbook) and looking for areas of improvement and greater depth. In particular, sections looking at shifting responsibilities and workflows, have led to an interrogation as to expectations of our freelancers, and vice-versa.' Lastly, the report has aided shifts in marketing, for example one New York-based respondent stated that previously much money would be set aside to get seats booked and critics in, this will now be redirected to digital tools and social media marketing. Not only because of the given circumstances and the need to have an online presence, but also because a zoom production can reach many more people that those who can 'get to 52nd street at 8' o clock'. In relation to wellbeing, casting and employment many practitioners have enjoyed the freedom of the digital, that the 'logistics of getting everyone to meet in one specific location, and the resulting problems it causes, is now consigned to the dustbin. The report gave us an early heads-up of this and helped us get there much quicker'. This freedom has allowed further inclusivity in a field notorious for being exclusive, one respondent notes that they 'had a student with disability and for her [it] was difficult to communicate online, sure this new approach has helped her, so that her performance was really astonishing', other practitioners has revelled in the easier inclusion of disabled people, and this extends to the audience. For example, one actor had never had their family attend a show, due to disabilities, and during the pandemic they were able to see them in theatre for the first time. One respondent was delighted to find that 'working in audio has freed [them] off from having to cast 100% to specific requirements such as gender, age, race etc.' and that they 'now cast internationally, something [they] would not ever have considered before.' A member of a different company lamented that they hadn't received the report sooner, for if they had they would have been more 'proactive' as the report encourages a transformation rather than a continuation of normal practice.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

Description Contribution to POSTnotes
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Title Digital Theatre Transformation: Audience Questionnaire (anonymised) 
Description 177 survey responses to Digital Theatre Transformation audience survey 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Enables audience researches to understand the monetisation potential for digital theatre 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Des Fitzgerald speaks to Lucy Askew and Pascale Aebischer. Pascale and Lucy were collaborators on a recent AHRC-funded Covid-19 rapid response project that investigated the way that Creation Theatre and their collaborators, Big Telly Theatre Company, adapted their in-person production of The Tempest to a digital production delivered via Zoom in the early days of the pandemic. They reflect on how the company faced the challenges of the pandemic, the impact the digital production had on the artists and audiences, how the research transformed Creation Theatre's practice, and the future of digital performance.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Telematic Laser: All the World's a Screen 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact On Thursday 2 December 2021 at 4:00pm GMT the Telematic LASER will present the online panel discussion ALL THE WORLD'S A SCREEN with performance, Shakespeare and technology specialists Pascale Aebischer, Lucy Askew and Sarah Ellis. They will discuss the impact of the pandemic on the performing arts, reflecting on the histories, contemporary practices and futures of online theatre that creatively engages remote performers and audiences.

The panel will be co-moderated by Paul Sermon and Satinder Gill from the AHRC Covid-19 Response project Telepresence Stage. The Telematic LASER (Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous) is co-hosted by the University of Brighton's Centre for Digital Media Cultures and the Third Space Network.

This Telematic LASER brings together three leading performance, Shakespeare and technology experts, who have each confronted the effects of the pandemic on the performing arts through distinctive and innovative approaches to online theatre. The panel will provide a unique opportunity to present, contrast and discuss their results, as well as the conceptual and technical challenges they faced in pursuit of newfound digital aesthetics that define a language of online theatre. How is it possible to convey tragedy, comedy and magic through code, 3D modelling, live audio-video streams and interactive systems? And how have online theatre audiences learnt to suspend disbelief in new and necessary ways? Overlooking the occasional technical glitch or even embracing it as the authenticity of liveness, negotiating latency, navigating time zones, and identifying with a mirrored image of self, are all new online phenomenon. How do we overcome them or turn them to our advantage? All theatre is essentially technical, but what are the advantages, disadvantages and distinct differences between online and physical theatre? Whilst online theatre has presented new forms of dramaturgy and choreography through new paradigms, structures and experience, is it essentially reframing how we touch, how we feel intimacy and experience proprioception, for both performers and audiences or is it extending our understanding of their essential qualities?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021