How to create cultural content for online audiences: A case study of Big Telly’s Zoom theatre
There is currently a lot of discussion, and some concern, around the amount of digital content being released into a saturated market and the long-term ramifications of this when audiences are able to come back to venues. Most of this content has also been offered to audiences for free. Numerous surveys and substantial research have been carried out since the start of the lockdown to evaluate the exact challenges theatres, museums, art galleries and music venues are facing, but also their needs to thrive now and in the future. Most findings highlight the necessity for these institutions to change their business models and combine digital activities to their traditional physical offer as one package. It can be overwhelming for some and exciting for others, but overall, it is not insurmountable. I’ve decided to take a closer look at what one Northern Irish company has been doing to see what lessons we can all learn from.
Big Telly Theatre Company are based in Portstewart and specialise in immersive theatre, set in traditional venues as well as in unusual spaces. Unable to tour their plays due to Covid-19, they quickly found an alternative to continue to work and perform in front of audiences during lockdown.
Zoom theatre with Big Telly
I’ve heard so many positive comments about Big Telly’s Zoom plays that I had to go see for myself what it was all about. I booked a ticket for ‘Operation Elsewhere’ for £20 per device (handy if you have a family or in a shared household) and embarked on the adventure, not sure what to expect. I’m not a regular theatre attender so this was new in all sorts of ways. I loved every minute of it from the details in the pre-show ‘boarding pass’ to the inventive use of green screens and the interaction between the audience and the cast. I decided to investigate and had a chat with Zoe Seaton, artistic director at Big Telly.
“To pre-record our work wasn’t going to work because our work is so much about the audience.”
When Northern Ireland went into lockdown, Big Telly had already been experimenting with isolation theatre, which is when performers are isolated but visible and audible to the audience. The circumstances pushed them to go forward with the concept, literally. Zoe also wanted to keep the immersive experience feel that defines Big Telly’s physical plays so pre-recording their work wasn’t an option. The question then was to find the right platform that would allow them to display each actor at the right time, but also let them be creative with backgrounds and effects. When Zoe noticed the speaker view followed the person who was speaking during a Zoom meeting, she realised that was it.
As the company was rehearsing ‘Operation Elsewhere’, which was already in place pre-lockdown, to adapt it on Zoom, they quickly realised it had to be entirely re-written to fit the online platform. Indeed, Zoom allows you to create things that can’t be done in physical theatres such as featuring as many backdrops, costumes, objects as you’d like with the use of a green screen, clothes or sharing images and videos. When they ran test shows with test audiences, they assessed how and when to mute audiences and how to guide audience behaviour in relation to the technology. They also realised then that audiences were really eager to be part of the play and how the introduction of short pre-recorded film killed this appetite. So they cut all of them out and included more interactions between actors and audiences. “We are theatre makers, not film makers” says Zoe, reminding us that we should stick to what we know best.
We shouldn’t be scared of Digital
Switching from the traditional format of a play to a new online stage can be daunting for some, but Zoe assures it isn’t and that it comes with more pros than cons.
Showcasing your work online allows people to view and experience it who wouldn’t have visited your venue otherwise. Big Telly have been able to share tickets with food banks and key workers for families interested to attend who couldn’t afford it. Furthermore, in the case of Zoom, the platform works well with accessibility apps like Talkback and Voiceover and is captions-friendly.
Reach of new and international audiences
‘Operation Elsewhere’ was watched in 13 countries. Zoe shared an example of a family who purchased 6 tickets, for themselves and for other relatives living in Canada, Scotland and Japan.
Actors are not usually rehearsed more than 2 hours a day, as we all know how exhausting video meetings can be. This leaves more time for them to think about the project and come up with ideas. It also proves to be a quicker process between the start of rehearsals and the premiere – about 2 weeks for Big Telly – as it is more flexible.
On the other hand, the biggest challenge appears to be the Internet connection of actors, crew and audiences. On this island, you only need a bit of wind and it becomes unstable. Each party involved can be kicked out quite easily. But it remains a minimal issue.
Monetising the digital cultural offer
For their first two online shows, ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Operation Elsewhere’, Big Telly partnered with Creation Theatre, a company based in Oxford with a large and loyal following. Collaborating with an organisation with a broader reach enabled them to be more confident in their pricing. ‘The Tempest’ tickets were priced between £20 and £30 and Zoe was concerned that this might be too much for an online experience. Creation assured that as audiences didn’t know what to expect, its price will indicate its worth. As well as emphasising its value, it will also help both companies to pay its actors, stage manager, designer and director. While it is not a secret that arts and culture organisations’ current situation is incredibly difficult and that they will struggle with social distancing measures and reduced capacity, it turns to be even more imperative for all to become self-sufficient.
Creating theatre with Zoom is also less expensive. It offers the opportunity to allow yourself to be more creative and pay everyone equity rates. In terms of payment, Big Telly has opted for a democratic process and pays everybody the same regardless of their role within the company. This change of business model could well be one way to remain sustainable after the current crisis.
Tips for NI organisations
- Be audience-centred. We would never say otherwise.
- Be bold and think outside the box. You’re in a lucky position when there’s nothing else to compare your product to.
- Collaborate with your peers. We need to help each other out as we’re stronger as a sector when together.
- Don’t look at Zoom or other digital platforms as discouraging tools. They are opportunities for you to reach out to new and old audiences and to create things you can’t do in the physical world.
- Technology isn’t the barrier. The question you should ask yourself is how can you respond to your audiences’ needs and flex to be able to meet them.
- Make your digital offer part of your programme for the long-term and not only as a way to cope with the present situation.
We are currently running the ‘After the Interval’ survey in NI and ROI to capture audiences’ intentions to come back to cultural venues after lockdown and booking tickets now and in the future. We will be launching Act 2 in the next couple of weeks to look more at audiences’ appetite for digital and willingness to pay.