Digital Theatre Roll Back Impacts on the Disabled Community

Researchers have found that digital theatre from publicly-subsidised UK theatres is quietly disappearing


Digital performances during Covid was an accessibility breakthrough for live theatre, even if this was not the way it was intended.

During lockdown, producing theatres took to the internet to create live streaming theatre, theatre by Zoom, pre-recorded socially distanced performances and even streamed back catalogues to audiences at home.

This opened up a whole new world for disabled people who struggle to access theatres or often cannot access them at all.

Whilst theatres throwing their doors open to live audiences again has been a a joyous thing for theatre fans and a lifeline to venues, it has left disabled audiences wondering about the future of digital theatre.

Disabled people often struggle with the accessibility of older theatres, particularly those who are wheelchair users. D/deaf audiences and blind or visually impaired audience members can often struggle to find performances suitable for their needs. And neurodivergent audiences can find performances and the theatre environment both hostile and overwhelming.

Whilst there are a limited option of accessible and relaxed performances for those that are able to attend, audience members who cannot afford to attend, are maybe unable to leave the home due to their disability, carers and other vulnerable members of the community will go back to missing out on digital options.

New research by Arts and Humanities Research Council COVID-1,9 found that over half of all publicly-subsidised UK theatres that went online during the pandemic have now returned to live performances only.

Richard Misek from the University of Kent and Adrian Leguina from Loughborough University led the research from a web-based survey of 227 UK theatres that receive subsidis from the Arts Councils of England, Wales or Northern Ireland – or Creative Scotland.

The researchers have also been interviewing staff at around 40 UK arts venues to identify reasons why the digital production has stopped.

They found that theatres did not have the ‘time or energy’ to start new digital projects. Some theatres simply reverted back to their former way of working by bringing audiences back to the venue. Some theatres said there was a ‘lack of clarity’ about how to move forward and engage with digital productions. But researchers also found that there was a sense that digital is an ‘optional extra’ to live activities and seen as an ‘inferior alternative’.

Of 224 theatres taking part in the research, 126 had put together at least one online production in the first 18 months of the pandemic but 98 had not.

For the current autumn season, just 60 have a least one production available online and 164 don’t. Five theatres that did not have any digital productions in the first 18 months of lockdown are putting on their first digital production this autumn.

The biggest obstacle that was repeatedly cited as a reason for swerving creating digital theatre was money. The theatrical medium could not be relied on to make a profit. Those producing digital theatre also found that funding for new work was ‘piecemeal and erratic’.

Researchers concluded that although many organisations were continuing to develop their digital programmes to create sustainable models, there is a ‘digital divide’ between large, ‘well-resourced’ organisations and small to mid-sized ones.

They say that ‘unless all scales of theatre company have the support to experiment and develop their digital expertise, the current digital divide will only get bigger.’

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