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BWW Interview: Caroline Friedman Talks SCENESAVER

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Caroline Friedman Talks new theatre streaming site Scenesaver

BWW Interview: Caroline Friedman Talks SCENESAVERIn 2019, when we were all blissfully ignorant of the impending pandemic, award winning theatre and film producer Caroline Friedman had the idea to create an online platform to showcase fringe theatre performances. Her streaming site Scenesaver could not have arrived at a better time.

While such things as National Theatre Live have proved immensely popular in recent years and even more so since lockdown, Friedman is the first to offer a wide audience the opportunity to see some of the hidden gems and exciting new work that until now might have been off their radar or simply inaccessible. The Scenesaver founder spoke with BroadwayWorld about the new service.

Tell us about yourself and how theatre has been a part of your life and career.

One of my earliest recollections as a small child was going to the theatre. It opened up a world of wonder. How could it be? I was entranced and what held my attention was not just the story playing out on stage, but also the way things happened: clouds rolled across the sky; one minute we were in a room, the next moment we were in the countryside. It was magical! And that feeling of wonder remains with me to this day.

I originally trained as a journalist and then decided to apply to Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and my MA was in Advanced Theatre Practice. I still stage events, not in theatres but larger scale public events, and I am a super assessor for Offwestend, the organisation for London's 100+ smaller theatres.

London is of course known for its West End, but there is also an incredibly vibrant fringe scene with numerous pub theatres and other small venues showcasing new talent. Was the idea of making fringe theatre available online something you were toying around with for some time, or did inspiration suddenly strike?

I think it was a bit of both! There were two things that struck me. Firstly, how fortunate I was to be able to see wonderful performances staged in diverse places: up rickety staircases, in subterranean cellars or hidden in the back of a shop. I realised how many people were missing out on seeing this innovative and exciting work because they could not get to these venues, whether it be for reasons of disability, finance, childcare, work commitments or even geography.

Secondly, I saw all this amazing talent, yet when the performance ended, everything disappeared - the play was lost and the creatives had nothing to show for their work. I felt there had to be some way to capture this and preserve it so that other people all over the world could enjoy it. And I guess that was when I had my lightbulb moment- Scenesaver!

Scenesaver has been referred to as a Netflix for theatre but in a nutshell, how would you describe it? Who is it aimed at and what does it offer?

It is the go-to site for anyone who loves theatre, for people who want to see cutting edge performances from the world's little theatres. There are all genres: drama, dance, fringe, comedy, puppetry, magic, opera. The site is easy to use and the selection is so diverse that you are sure to find something you can enjoy watching, whatever your age and taste. We want to open people's eyes to exciting, innovative, thought-provoking performance. Everything is in one place so Scenesaver saves you from trawling across the internet trying to hunt out these performances. Theatre is not just about Shakespeare!

Did the pandemic prompt you to launch Scenesaver earlier than originally planned?

Yes. I had been working on Scenesaver when the lights went out in the theatre world. Everyone was in shock and I realised that Scenesaver could play a valuable role. We could become the means of bringing theatre into people's homes; keeping the love of live performance alive; giving people their fix of theatre. We could also provide a revenue stream for creatives by asking Scenesaver users to buy a virtual ticket, a donation that could go entirely to the performers. And we could also host the OnComm theatre awards to incentivize creatives to keep on making work.

Scenesaver is free to access but you do encourage donations. How are these used?

Donations are tremendously important and really it is a matter of honour. If you were to go to the theatre you would have to buy a ticket, so it is only right you should pay to see a show on Scenesaver, especially when the theatre companies are unable to work and earn any money. But we understand that not everyone can afford to pay for a ticket. So, there is no set price, what we say is, please, do the decent thing and contribute whatever you can, because all of this money is handed over to the creatives whose work you are viewing.

When you initially approached smaller venues with your idea for Scenesaver, what were their reactions to the concept?

Pre Covid, some people were quite disparaging - they insisted that theatre had to be live. But I countered this by explaining that, yes, live theatre is amazing, but this is the next best thing. If you have had your successful run and sold your tickets, why not share your work with people who, for whatever reason, could not go to the theatre to see it? And also, surely you want a record of something on which you have lavished so much care in its creation. You stage a performance in order for people to see and enjoy it. Scenesaver is an extension of that, a worldwide stage taking your work out to new audiences.

There are many positives of filming productions - firstly it captures the performance for these new audiences to enjoy. It is also a permanent record, and a showcase of the talent of, not just the performers, but also of all the other creatives involved in the production. A recording can also function as a brilliant educational tool for theatre students all over the world, to help them learn about the innovative and exciting work being created internationally.

There is a huge difference between recorded theatre footage and cinema. In a film, if you need a mountain, you just film one. But if you are in a black box in East London and you want your audience to believe in and see that mountain, it is up to you to use performance and creativity to make it happen. That is the excitement of theatre, and it isn't diminished by being recorded.

What has the reception been from audiences and theatre makers since you launched?

Amazing! On day one, when we launched, we had no users and no footage. We now have 170+ performances and thousands of users. We are on Time Out internationally; Mumsnet has featured our work for young audiences, as they are immensely popular with children; and we have performances from the UK, Europe, USA, Canada, Africa, South America and the Middle East. We are partnered with OffWestEnd, the Reading and Wandsworth Fringes and have more fringe festivals in coming months.

The pandemic has changed our viewing habits with more and more of us watching things online. Once theatre is back up and running, do you think there will still be a place for online performances?

Most definitely because, the reality is, you cannot see everything that is on everywhere. If you are seeing work in London then you are missing out on the performances in off-Broadway and fringe theatres in the rest of the world. And, unlike larger venues, many of the companies playing in smaller theatres do not have the resources to take their shows to international audiences. The people who cannot physically go to the theatres should also still be entitled to enjoy the performances.

Since launching Scenesaver, have you been impressed with the level of creativity people have shown in making new theatre during such trying times?

Absolutely. For example, the people who have won the OnComm theatre awards have used every ounce of creativity to produce their work. It is wonderful to see how they have triumphed using a mobile phone, or Zoom or whatever technology they could lay their hands on during lockdown, to produce wonderful new work. It is a great tribute to them. It is also a beacon of hope and shows that the theatre world is very much alive and can and will adapt to whatever life throws at it.

You have a vast catalogue of theatre available on Scenesaver. How often is the viewing library updated?

We are updating it all the time, as new work comes in. As the word spreads on social media about Scenesaver, new creatives contact us asking us to feature their work. Users can choose by category and genre and, if they are short of time, also by length of performance.

Many have suggested theatre might adopt a back to basics approach once it finally reopens. How do you think it might change following the pandemic? Creatively speaking, could any good come from such an awful situation?

I think it's very hard to answer this because the reality is that none of us actually knows what will happen. For example, if social distancing remains in place, then it is going to be particularly difficult for the smaller venues: their financial models will have to change. Paradoxically the smaller venues may fare better than the larger theatres, because they run on much smaller budgets; they do not rely so heavily on tourists; and also their audiences are prepared to put up with a bit of discomfort to see a good show.

Having said that, things may well change as it will not be easy to stage a musical with a large cast, the logistics and finances will not stack up. Maybe the players will be static and the audience will move. There have been some wonderful site-specific pieces in places such as hotels, where the cast stay in one place and it is the audience that moves from room to room. It may well be different but I feel confident it will still be exciting.

It's still early days for Scenesaver but have you been happy with the response so far and do you have any ideas to expand or develop the site in any way in the future?

The response we have received has been fantastic. And we appreciate the emails we receive from people who say they love the site - it means a great deal to us. And when we hear from disabled people who tell us that this is the first time in their lives that they have been able to see work from small theatres, it makes it all worthwhile - and we see accessibility as key in the future. We have an accessibility button on the site and because it is very important to us that people with disabilities can enjoy the performances, we are now encouraging our creatives to produce subtitled, signed and audio-described versions of their work. They lavish so much attention on their work, and these features should be standard, not afterthoughts.

We are building a Scenesaver community, and if people need help, a recommendation, someone to film their work or some advice, we can point them in the right direction. For example many newer theatre companies have told us they wish there could be someone who could look at their work and give them informed advice and constructive criticism. We have been doing this on an ad hoc basis and want to expand this now and offer this as a service to our performers.

We're growing all the time and, as we forge new partnerships and more people find out about us, we hope theatre lovers worldwide will enjoy Scenesaver - the go to place to see wonderful performances from the world's little theatres.

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