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 We are currently carrying out a piece of impact evidence collection work focused on finding out how our work has been used by the 100+ industry professionals who have downloaded our report and provided their contact details. We will be able to report on the outcomes of that piece of research in our next report. But there is already 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.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

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