The pandemic robbed us of that for so long, but what was taken from us this past couple of years with one hand has been replaced by something unexpected: a fast-forward button on the march towards crossing theatre with technology.
We are blessed with some extraordinary creative minds in Yorkshire’s theatre industry and when we couldn’t go to the theatre, those minds got to work creating another way. Digital was always on the way, but the pandemic forced Yorkshire theatre makers into a position where they had to embrace it.
The results have been impressive, for all of us, and last night another theatre company entered the digital fray for the first time. The always brilliant, boundary pushing Common Wealth, a company born out of Bradford, is releasing – for this weekend only – a filmed version of its recent production Peaceophobia. From a purely selfish point of view, I’m delighted – circumstances meant I had to miss the show.
Evie Manning, the company’s co-artistic director, says: “We staged Peaceophobia, a play about Islamophobia and modified car culture, in a Bradford car park for ten days in September and we sold out within a couple of weeks. It showed us the appetite for political, relevant theatre that is about people’s lives.
"Filming the show and releasing it online will never be the same as the live experience, but as a political theatre company we always believe the message is the most important thing and sharing the film online for free means the message reaches more people. We’re releasing the film as part of Islamophobia Awareness Month, so hopefully we’ll reach national and international audiences and be part of bigger conversations – something which feels more important than ever in light of Azeem Rafiq’s testimony this week.”
Manning is right – while in person cannot be replaced or replicated, the digital space allows the stories made here to travel further than before.
Andy Brooks, aka Testament, is a Leeds beatboxer, rapper and playwright. His one man show – accompanied by an orchestra, Orpheus in the Record Shop, was staged at Leeds Playhouse with Opera North. It has also reached a worldwide audience thanks to being filmed for the BBC in lockdown.
“For me having Orpheus in the Record Shop on telly on BBC Four and then on the iPlayer has broadened the audience enormously. The original show was created specifically for a limited capacity socially distanced audience. Because of COVID precautions Leeds Playhouse and Opera North had to be cautious of audience numbers because of necessity, so being able to make the piece accessible to those who were shielding, or those who couldn’t get tickets with the limited capacity had a lot of value.
“For me as an artist it’s been invaluable as I’ve been introduced to new audiences, including audiences outside of the region, even getting responses from people internationally.
“Translating a live theatre experience to the screen is a hard task, and to introduce cinematic elements to connect with people at home was fantastic. I rewrote the show and parts of were edited and adapted specially for the transfer, including some new underscore.”
The innovative Lawrence Batley Theatre has found a digital champion with Henry Filloux-Bennett, who has now brought a number of shows to the screen as hybrid stage-screen productions.
Another Bradford company, Freedom Studios, attempted something similar with its latest production Aaliyah (after Antigone). Alex Chisholm, co-artistic director of the company, says: “It was always imagined as a digital/live hybrid piece, one of the benefits of which was to reach out to more people.
"We performed in a non-theatre site in Bradford with only a small live audience capacity. By live streaming each of the nine performances we had 172 people watch in person and 506 watch online. The majority of our digital audience was from Yorkshire, but with a significant number from across the UK and a few from India, US, Canada and Brazil.”
Leeds company Imitating the Dog recently scored a big hit with Dracula: The Untold Story.The company’s producer, Julie Brown, says: “We initially made the decision to create a video on demand version of our production to give audiences a choice – if they chose to see the production live at the theatre, great, but if they preferred not to venture out yet then we had an ‘at home’ solution.
“It was reassuring to know that if we had to cancel or curtail the live tour (as the company did when the first lockdown happened) we had the filmed version in the can. Making the film was a brilliant learning curve for us. It’s pushed us on creatively and we’ve made a quality product we are really proud of.”
Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director Paul Robinson agrees: “Filming our productions to make them available online was something we’d been thinking about for a long time, but was accelerated by the pandemic. The response has been phenomenal. We can’t promise to film every one of our shows in the future – but we will keep them coming.”
Pandemic or not, digital theatre is clearly here to stay.
Digital Theatre to enjoy at home
Common Wealth’s Peaceophobia: Available until November 22, via commonwealththeatre.co.uk
Aaliyah After Antigone, available via freedomstudios.co.uk
Dracula: The Untold Story: available until January 22, 2022, via imitatingthedog.co.uk
Testament’s Orpheus In the Record Shop, developed with Leeds Playhouse and Opera North, is available on BBC iPlayer for five months.
There is also still time to catch Leeds Playhouse’s digital version of Oliver Twist, available to view until November 20, via leedsplayhouse.org.uk