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Guest Blog: Sarah Henley On How Theatres Could Develop A Collaborative Digital Strategy

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Guest Blog: Sarah Henley On How Theatres Could Develop A Collaborative Digital Strategy
Sarah Henley

I'm one of the founders of NextUp Comedy, a subscription service for recorded live stand-up - essentially a digital comedy club. We strive to be a force for good in the industry, splitting all our revenue 50/50 with acts and showcasing the many fantastic acts with a huge range of personal backgrounds and comedy styles who aren't necessarily 'TV names', but who deserve a platform and a wider fanbase.

Since lockdown, we've been streaming live comedy from comedians' homes - enabling them to earn and remain creative - and have also raised over £100,000 to help comics out whilst they can't earn money on the circuit.

I'm also an emerging writer and I've been working in theatre for over a decade, and, with Tori Allen-Martin, recently founded Burn Bright - an organisation that aims to level the playing field for writers who identify as women. Recently we ran "Better in Person", a series of commissioned plays, performed and set on Zoom from 12 different homes.

With minimal lead time, we sold over 200 tickets, and the response was incredible. Because we commissioned women from different backgrounds, the plays naturally had different and diverse stories at their hearts. I'm passionate about equality and everyone having a seat at the table, and this was a small example of how theatre can still make that happen.

I've personally felt the effect of the crisis on my writing career, with two exciting commissions cancelled for now, and a show that was scheduled for the Park this month postponed until further notice. I had hoped this would be the year I would 'emerge'...sadly not. But I'm fully aware it's been worse for a lot of others.

Guest Blog: Sarah Henley On How Theatres Could Develop A Collaborative Digital Strategy
Sarah Henley's company Burn Bright

The Coronavirus pandemic has made me think about how my experience running a company which records and platforms live events could be applied to theatre. I've watched closely as theatres and companies - big and small - wrestle with some sort of transition to digital. The wonderfully creative Pins and Needles, for example, have created an online adventure game for kids; the National have (for a windowed time only) made some of their archive available free on YouTube; and there are many other varied and differing responses - with varying degrees of success.

I've personally found the National's approach fairly frustrating, as I've missed a lot of the work; running a company in lockdown with a toddler has meant working and parenting, with not a lot of time in between. I'm absolutely gutted to have missed Barber Shop AGAIN. It could also be argued that if the National aren't charging for content, with their high production values and star casts, it makes it much trickier for those further down the pecking order to ask people to pay.

The great benefit of these initiatives is that demand has been unequivocally proved, far beyond the audiences who would have afforded a ticket, with The Stage recently reporting that apparently "tens of millions have watched theatre shows during lockdown" - with the National Theatre equating it to three of their spaces being filled for 11 years. If only they had had a pound for every view, the challenges theatres are facing right now may look a little less bleak.

Since you've read this far, perhaps you'll allow me to hop onto my soapbox and share what I would do if I were in any position of power in any of these big theatres or NPOs. Firstly - call all the other top boys (well..they are in the main, aren't they?) and get around a table. Agree between us to pool financial resources to create a new, united, collaborative SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand) channel for theatre.

I would solicit archive footage from all theatres and companies to start it off, with each theatre or company having their own branded space/channel/playlist within the platform. I would allow smaller companies to have their work on the platform as well. In the future, I would help those smaller companies with funds, crew and kit to film their work to a decent quality - opening up off-West End theatre to a global audience. I would have space for the live streaming of theatre too, so everyone can share in a closing night - regardless of scarcity of tickets, price or location.

I would charge in two ways: subscription (monthly or annual with discounts for union members, theatre practitioners and others) and also pay per download/stream. I would do what we do at NextUp which is to share revenue according to minutes watched - such that if audiences sign up to watch a mega-star playing Hamlet, but are brave enough to explore and discover perhaps one of the New Diorama's incredible companies, those companies get a cut of the revenue, enabling them to keep going.

Oh, and I'd caption all of it and explore other ways of making the work as accessible as possible to a many people as possible. Imagine for a minute if the 10 million who have watched digital performances during lockdown had all paid a tenner for a month or two's subscription...or even 50 quid for the year.

Would it negatively affect audiences for the live, in-theatre experience? My opinion is no. It certainly hasn't with NextUp and comedy - in fact, fans now know about comics they would never have otherwise discovered, they share their praise on social media having watched an act's special, and can't wait to catch them live.

Personally, I love going to the theatre - nothing beats the live experience - but on my budget and balance with parenting and work, I definitely consider it a treat. I would absolutely still go when I could, and then watch on catch-up when I couldn't. I think so many more people on limited funds and not in the region, or even country, where the live show is happening would buy, in addition to the live audiences. It could create a whole new audience for their work, and a new generation of practitioners - educated by seeing a lot, and excited to develop the form for the future.

And why not make it international? The brilliant Nastazja Somers has been promoting the 'European Theatre Club' whilst in lockdown, where incredible and often radical theatre from Europe is shared and discussed. And there are so many Off-Broadway shows I would love to have seen. Surely allowing international theatre onto the platform would bring the international theatre communities closer together and enable (some might say 'much-needed') learning, development and cross-pollination.

Whilst what has happened to theatre as a result of Coronavirus is devastating, there is also a chance for a pause, a coming together, and a new collaborative and generative way forward.

I'll hop off the soapbox now and go back to whatever the opposite of emerging is. But if any of the top boys want to use this idea, feel free to get in touch...or just go for your lives if you don't need more info. Would love a credit though, obvs ;-).

Find out more about Burn Bright or NextUp Comedy

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