On the 17th March, it will be exactly one year since UK theatre came to an overnight standstill. Every day as we approach the anniversary, Theatre Bubble will be releasing personal accounts from theatre makers across all areas of the industry, telling us what this unexpected and unprecedented year has been like for them. See the full series here: Hands Face & Empty Space
Joe Strickland: theatre maker, creative technologist, and digital producer
In March 2020 we were just finishing up with Glitch, our VAULT Festival show about Autism, grief, small towns, and video games, when lockdown came into effect. At that point my company, Chronic Insanity, was in the middle of a 12 shows in 12 months project, having so far staged seven shows in the six months between September 2019 and March 2020. We had plans for a show at the end of March (Pull by Emily Holyoake) as well as for various other productions over the following months. We had slots booked at the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes. We had partnerships with venues and museums. We had ACE funding to make sure everything would work. All of that got turned upside down.
For us, turning to digital theatre was a no brainer. Theatre’s lack of acceptance of the digital world had always puzzled me, but the fact that people were now so wary of turning to a different stage for their performances felt even weirder. I’d grown up with the internet, spent a huge amount of time online, made friends I’d never met in person, laughed and cried, been inspired and terrified by things I’d read or seen online. The online world was present for me, it felt live, it felt immediate. Also, given the archival nature of the internet, it catalogued liveness across the whole of its history, freezing it in place for all to see. The idea that anyone who is familiar with the internet can look at it and consider it not-live boggles my mind. It is live, and it is so much more than live too. After taking a month to plan, and re-jiggle some ACE funding, we carried on with our 12 shows in 12 months project.
We finished our project in August of 2020, with 12 finished productions under our belt, 18 if you count scratch nights, revivals, R&Ds, and rehearsed but postponed shows. We’d worked with over 100 creatives and theatre makers, from Nottingham, the East Midlands, the rest of the UK, and even the US and Greece. We’d had an online reach of 40,000 and a host of incredibly lovely reviews about our productions. Personally, I’d also started several jobs in digital producing as a result of the attention our digital theatre received. Digital theatre allowed us to work with artists from, and tell stories to, a much wider pool of people than we would ever have had the chance to. It allowed us to work, to learn, to grow and develop as theatre makers. It allowed us to provide opportunities for other people who needed work during the pandemic. It allowed us to make work sustainably, accessibly, and affordably. It allowed us to keep being storytellers and artists.
Digital theatre is here to stay, period. The thought that it won’t be necessary when the pandemic subsides can only be born out of theatrical puritanism, ignorance about the importance of online spaces, or the financial or professional privilege of being able to wait for in-person performances to begin again and to not need to engage with the medium. Since I’m reaching my word limit for this article, please read my latest blog post, Digital Theatre = Cheesecake to explore this thought in more detail
Anyway, we’re going to keep making digital theatre at Chronic Insanity, alongside our in person programme once that can get up and running again. The puritans, luddites, and privileged can carry on with their traditional theatre making, their shrinking audiences, their out of touch storytelling, and their eventual begging for us to help them connect with a world they don’t understand anymore. To everyone who is walking beside us into the world of theatre’s future (a world full of sustainable, accessible, and affordable digital theatre coexisting with innovative, diverse, and unmissable in-person performance), we look forward to creating the future with you.
The pandemic f**king sucked, but if a silver lining can be a more democratic and accessible theatrical landscape then at least that will be something. Some venues will continue to embrace digital theatre while others will forget about it, maybe even actively fight it. Let’s give it 10-20 years and see who comes out on top, I think we all know who’ll win out in the end.
Joe Strickland is a theatre maker, creative technologist, and digital producer from Nottingham. They are the Artistic Director of Chronic Insanity, who’s most recent show, 24, 23, 22, is a digital gig-theatre piece where the audience casts the show for themselves with characters performing on your computer and phone at the same time. Tickets are available here
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