Art is Adapting: exploring digital opportunity

Feb 10, 2021

Martha Buss

Martha Buss

Opinion

2020’s fluctuant and unpredictable lockdown measures provided unique challenges for all and these seem set to continue further into 2021. Since theatres were knocked into darkness last spring, performing artists have been faced with immense employment pressure whilst industry leaders face the awkward task of planning multi-faceted business recovery for an ambiguous future: all alongside the strain of navigating the very real health and social worries that the pandemic brings.

In early lockdown the consumption of creative content across digital platforms filled our days in substitution for social interaction. Television, radio, film, online streaming and production portals rose to support the public’s mental health and demonstrated how utterly impossible it is to avoid the performing arts when seeking entertainment. Companies scrambled to find ways of utilising online space as their audience became solely channelled with unforeseeable speed. 

Popular archived content from institutions such as the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House became accessible from our sofas within days. We could view such work with no stipulations other than an encouragement to donate: which when your audiences are negotiating their own financial pressures understandably didn’t seem to generate much revenue. Most organisations have had an online presence for years but as existing profit channels dwindled many did not have the infrastructure to produce and share digital work in the unforgiving timeframe. The halted market forced the question as to how the industry could quickly establish new avenues, balancing the provision of digital content in a model that would generate worthwhile return. This is a particularly difficult task considering the price of a ‘screen ticket’ cannot match that of an auditorium experience when the quality of liveness is taken away.

As it becomes increasingly familiar to engage with the performing arts from home, an awareness of digital archives and performance hubs (such as Marquee Arts TV) is growing. These pockets of the industry, usually overshadowed by live experiences, now have the opportunity to thrive. Additionally, leading dance companies are also demonstrating the potential uncovered by this period of uncertainty with, for example, the launch of Rambert’s Home Studio and English National Ballet’s specifically commissioned digital seasons. Of course, the return to what we know as ‘normal’ theatrical experiences broadly remain an audience’s first choice, but there is resemblance to a workable structure for the performing arts whilst under constraints and the potential of online engagement continues to push the industry towards new digitalisation heights now, nearly a year on.

Many performance artists are unable to secure tangible work until venues gain more clarity on opening. The prolonged wait for these announcements cuts deeper when many slip through the financial eligibility net for Government grants, which are simply ill-equipped to support the context of performing arts careers. Yet, seeing how the creative industries are made up of motivated and ambitious individuals, many have paired determination with the time given to explore how the digital market can work for them. Utilising video editing software, exploring site-­specific choreography and building a social media presence are just a few ways in which performers are establishing new platforms for their work. Pouring energy into your digital brand requires a strong and enterprising attitude, but with audiences expectantly exploring new content on their devices, the interaction is there to be had.

There is no certainty that we will be back to full auditoriums by mid 2021 as the industry continues to suffer from new waves of COVID‐19 restrictions. As challenges remain around programming, we keep our eyes firmly on the digital world whilst it allows some companies to at least ‘tread water’. Even once venues can stage productions and host audiences, recovery relies on a number of stipulations such as the financial stability of companies and confidence around returning to enclosed spaces. 

Performance artists will have to remain adaptive and resilient for the foreseeable future whilst the industry continues to refine its opportunities at this time. Ultimately, it is clear that the arts need audiences and audiences need the arts and any contexts that are able to safely facilitate this relationship (digitally or in person) are crucial to promote and preserve.

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