Creating a Digital Theatre

CREATING A DIGITAL THEATRE

When I locked the doors of stage@leeds at 4pm on Friday March 20th my first thought was ‘Did I leave my car keys in my office… oh wait… they are in my pocket!’ and my second thought was: ‘what now?’

For the last eleven years I have been the Artistic Director  of stage@leeds, the University of Leeds public licensed performance complex. stage@leeds is a busy venue, programming two seasons of professional work a year alongside, conferences, symposia, community events, outreach, youth theatre, professional development activities and most critically as a University based venue; student assessed work.

When the doors were locked on March 20th 2020 we not only closed a theatre we also closed a laboratory for practical assessment. As I walked to my car, keys in hand, I started to think about how we might be able to facilitate practical assessments without theatres, rehearsal spaces, students or a live audience. The answer was as simple as it was complicated. We would simply have to create a digital theatre. If congregating in a physical theatre was not going to be possible, then we needed to create an environment where we could all congregate virtually. Making the decision was easy but trying to decide what a virtual or digital theatre might actually feel like and how it would function was more challenging.

After a month of trying, testing and trying again stage@leedsDigital was born. Our Digital theatre isn’t a single virtual space but rather a central hub surrounded by a palette of platforms for digital delivery, some of which may seem contentious but bear with me. I’m a great believer in setting up your stall where your customers are. In the case of digital delivery this has meant that in addition to developing a new website with an area dedicated to digital practice we also have platforms for delivery on the major social media platforms. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and twitter. The Facebook/Instagram platforms are somewhat contentious and not universally liked, working in the digital realm comes with some ethical challenges..

If you have a website, why the multi-platform approach I hear you cry…. and given the ethical, data protection, GDPR, copyright and safe guarding issues wouldn’t it have been easier to host everything yourself, on our own servers, within our own website? Well dear reader  the reason for the multi-platform approach is pragmatic and twofold. We need buy in from all users and simply avoiding certain platforms without functional alternatives was never going to be an option. Secondly different platforms present different strengths, functions and opportunities and our aim is promote to constrict creativity. We have taken the decision to embrace the major social networking platforms whilst acknowledging the associate issues. We have created a series of terms and conditions to protect users and ensure we meet our ethical and contractual obligations.

What this means, in practice, is that we aim to host as much physical content directly on our website as possible with social media used as a promotional tool only. Where this is not possible  we will use the stage@leedsDigital Youtube Channel to host video and where neither our website or YouTube are fit for purpose we will use Facebook, Instagram or twitter as long as the rights of our content providers are protected.

At the time of writing we have just begun our digital adventure. Everything written in this article is no more than a working theory. Will people engage with stage@leedsDigital, will artists use our platforms in the way we imagine or even at all? Everything is, at this stage, no more than supposition but that’s okay. stage@leedsDigital has been created because of necessity but our support of digital creativity will not cease when lock down ends. We view stage@leedsDigital as a new and exciting addition to our physical venues and like all of our venues it offers some unique features. The legacy of our enforced isolation and creative separation will, I hope, be the establishment of a new frontier of digital theatre that will become as important and accepted as our other creative arenas.

Steve Ansell, Artistic Director stage@leeds, stage@leedsDigital