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Streaming Theatre: Love It or Loathe It?

Date: Jan 14, 2022

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things


Today's topic: How do you feel about streaming theatre?

During the early days of the pandemic when everything abruptly stopped, many theatre lovers found solace in watching shows online, from professional recordings of big-budget productions at the National Theatre, to live-streamed Zoom readings on Stars in the House. But as the months dragged on, opinions became more polarized. Some audiences and artists embraced the digital realm and its potential for innovation. Others stopped streaming and waited for in-person theatre to resume.

In late summer 2021, theatres in NYC on Broadway and beyond triumphantly reopened, but there were still artists and audiences who wanted digital options. Being able to watch a production at home makes theatre accessible to those who cannot attend in person due to disability or geography. Streaming shows also tend to be less expensive or, sometimes, completely free. That's why we continue to share streaming picks on TDF Stages every weekend since the shutdown ended. We are committed to bringing the power of the performing arts to everyone, even those who can't make it to brick-and-mortar theatres.

Now that the omicron surge has disrupted in-person performances around the country, streaming not only seems savvy, but necessary. Yet many theatre lovers still have a complicated relationship with virtual fare. Christina Trivigno, TDF's Director of Digital Strategy, and Tyler Riley, actor, director and TDF's Digital and Dance Programs Manager, dive into the digital theatre debate!

Christina Trivigno: Are you a big fan of streaming shows?

Tyler Riley: While nothing beats the thrill of being inside a theatre, watching a performance happen right in front of you, I think there's something to be said for the sleekness and access of an archived or live-streamed production.

Christina: I think access is a great point. The shows I find myself most excited to watch are the ones that happened in like, London, that I wouldn't have been able to see in person. Although I had seriously considered flying out to see Jesus Christ Superstar: Live Arena Tour with Tim Minchin in the UK, I completely dropped the ball on streaming it for free on The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel. Thankfully, I was able to watch it on BroadwayHD.

Tyler: That brings up another point about digital theatre: During the shutdown, there was just so much of it that it became overwhelming. I couldn't keep up with everything! Did you feel fatigued by it all?

Christina: Yes. I certainly watched more virtual fare at the beginning of the pandemic, because it was new and exciting and comforting. I think my inability to actually catch Jesus Christ Superstar while it was on YouTube speaks more to how time moves differently in the time of COVID-19—and continues to two years into the pandemic! It's not that I didn't want to watch. I think I went to stream it on Sunday not realizing its run ended that day.

Tyler: That very thing has happened to quite a few people I know. I remember being very excited to see Lucian Msamati in the National Theatre's production of Amadeus when it streamed for free, but I kept putting it off. When I finally did watch, it was the day before the stream was ending. I tried to rally my friends to watch before it was too late. The National Theatre actually cut the stream as one of my friends was watching!

Christina: Oh what a bummer to catch the beginning and miss the end! They should let people who started at least finish, but I guess the technology isn't there yet.

Tyler: I know. Thankfully, the National Theatre ended up launching streaming rentals during the pandemic, so now you can watch individual shows for $10, including Amadeus.

Christina: Did you ever watch theatre on screen before the pandemic?

Tyler: I did. I grew up outside the city in suburban New Jersey. I wasn't worlds away from NYC or even Philadelphia for that matter, but until high school the only way I saw theatre was through PBS's series Live From Lincoln Center and Great Performances. Those broadcasts inspired my love of theatre and my desire to see shows in person.

Christina: How about bootlegs? I've definitely watched a few in my time! They were always terrible and grainy and did not get me excited for digital theatre. Maybe that's why you like these more than I do, you had a better primer.

Tyler: No theatre bootlegs for me, not that I'm above it, I just genuinely had no idea how to find them on YouTube. I'm very thankful for virtual theatre, as a theatre lover and theatre-maker. These productions helped a lot of us stay active and connected to our colleagues during a very difficult time of financial hardship, general unrest and a global health crisis. We had something to focus on and something to do that brought us joy, connected us with people around the world, and gave us a sense of purpose. Even now that in-person theatre has resumed, I still find myself watching and participating in digital productions, especially now, with omicron making everything so uncertain.

Christina: I wanted to go back to this idea of access, because at TDF we definitely value accessibility. What do you make of the shows providing, or in some cases not providing, features like captions in their streams?

Tyler: I think it's extremely important for there to be captioning of these shows. We aim to be an inclusive community and part of that is making sure that theatre is accessible to all. I do think a lot of companies rely on YouTube's automatic captions, which are nice but not very accurate. Accurate captioning takes time (or money), and in some cases I think there is just a lack of knowledge.

Christina: Ah, YouTube auto-captions, I know them well! I watched Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on YouTube and screenshot some of the hilariously bad captions. They're a great shortcut, but you need to fix them. Deaf Broadway provided another great accessibility service in digital fare, performing musicals in American Sign Language alongside the recordings.

Tyler: There is a cost to making shows accessible via closed captions, audio description and ASL interpretation. Because of the financial strain of the pandemic, if there is a free option, that's what companies go for.

Christina: Yeah, that's a two-pronged problem because there's what it costs to put on virtual shows (let alone make them accessible), and then what audiences are willing to pay, if anything, to watch stuff at home. Take Clyde's, which made history this month by being the first Broadway show ever to live-stream its performances to at-home audiences. Yet it got so much criticism on Twitter. People complained about the price: $59, the same as the lowest-priced in-person ticket. They complained about the cap on streaming audiences, which was negotiated by the unions.

Tyler: But some of Clyde's streaming performances sold out, so clearly there's an audience there. It's impossible to make everyone happy, with in-person theatre or streaming! One thing I have loved about virtual theatre is getting a chance to see new work, especially projects created specifically for the digital space.

Christina: I've seen some really nice stuff that was live and/or designed for Zoom. My friend was in a presentation of the two-hander Venus in Fur. I do think shows with smaller casts seem to be more, I don't know, successful seems the wrong word, maybe a more natural fit? I thought Buyer & Cellar also translated well to the format, being a one-person show where Michael Urie could largely talk to the screen in the same way he would talk to an in-person audience.

Tyler: Yes, I agree that in most cases the Zoom shows with small casts tend to be easier to follow and seem less chaotic. We polled TDF followers on Twitter about the type of shows they prefer to stream, and an overwhelming majority favor watching productions that were recorded on stage as opposed to live Zoom events or interactive fare on Twitch. Clearly, the theatre industry is listening. Disney+'s release of Hamilton was followed by American Utopia, Come From Away and Diana, which you could watch on Netflix before it even started its run on Broadway. All of those shows were filmed on stage, they weren't cinematic adaptations.

Christina: Once upon a time, Broadway producers worried that releasing recordings of their shows would diminish audience appetite for in-person performances. I actually think that it increases the desire to be in the room where it happens... depending on the particular show, of course.

Tyler: I hope we see more of these live stage captures, and more live-streaming from Broadway! Clyde's is the first, but hopefully not the last.

What are your thoughts on streaming theatre? Let us know in the comments!


Christina Trivigno is TDF's Director of Digital Strategy. Tyler Riley is TDF's Online and Dance Programs Manager as well as an actor, voice-over artist and podcast host. He can be found on Instagram and on Twitter at @itstylerriley. Follow TDF on Twitter at @TDFNYC.