x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

All the web's a stage

A new company is being called the theatrical version of iTunes for making British productions available to online audiences.

A new company is making British theatre productions available to online audiences. Andy Pemberton reports "We're only just at the beginning," says Robert Delamere. "Theatre's never been made available this way before." Delamere, a 41-year-old theatre and television director, has reason to be excited. He is one of the founders of a new web phenomenon, the site Digital Theatre, which makes video of plays available for download. The goal, he says, is to make British theatre accessible to people who, for geographical or financial reasons, can't see as much theatre as they might wish.

"The aim is for people to hear of great landmark plays, and think: 'Wow, I can have a copy of that,'" he says. "I think there is a real interest in British theatre. We'd like to take the richness of British theatre far and wide." According to Delamere and his partner, the production expert Tom Shaw, 29, previous videos of plays have not done the productions justice. Generally shot from one, fixed angle with poor sound quality, they were used to simply make a record of the play rather than as entertainment in themselves. Digital Theatre's approach is different. They use lightweight, high-definition cameras - as many as 13 for one production - the latest sound equipment and a painstaking editing process to faithfully capture the essence of a live performance. Each production costs around £50,000 (Dh306,000).

"We talk to the director and make sure in the edit that we leave the viewer in the same place as the live audience," Delamere says. "We are following the director's intention, capturing the play with minimum interference. "Hopefully we blend the technical finesse of filmmaking with the rough immediacy of theatre and a live audience. When people watched The Container [a play about human trafficking at the Young Vic, London that has just been uploaded to the site], at the end they said: 'Oh, there was an audience there too!' There was a certain thrill that it was recorded live."

Reactions to Digital Theatre's early efforts have been encouraging, Delamere says. The Sunday Times called the early work "superb". The Daily Telegraph calls it "an exciting new breakthrough". But how they shoot live productions is only half the story. Digital Theatre takes full advantage of distribution opportunities afforded by digital technology and the web, which is why it has been dubbed "the theatrical version of iTunes".

Anyone interested in watching a production can download a specialised player from Digital Theatre's website (www.digitaltheatre.com), then download high-definition, digitised versions of productions. Encoding ensures these films cannot be copied to other users, but they can be stored in a user's digital library and watched as often as the user wants. "It should build into quite a resource," says Delamere. "Ultimately, we are capturing a cultural legacy that is available to everyone."

Five British theatre companies - the Young Vic, Royal Court, Royal Shakespeare Company, Almeida Theatre and the English Touring Theatre - are participating and will share in any revenue that Digital Theatre generates. As well as The Container, first plays available are Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, the Almeida production of Parlour Song, and the Young Vic's Kafka's Monkey, each for £8.99. Others are soon to follow. Digital Theatre has the backing of the theatre unions Bectu and Equity, thereby settling any digital performance rights issues.

It took 18 months and £1 million (donated by investors) to launch the London-based Digital Theatre, and its founders say they expect sales in the "tens of thousands". Schools will be among their biggest customers, and their audience is international - plays can be downloaded in 50 countries, including the UAE. "A distributor said to me that the only two continents that can't get Digital Theatre are the Arctic and Antarctic," Shaw says. "People are downloading plays from Malawi to New Zealand."

While its current theatrical partners are all government-subsidised theatres, Digital Theatre expects to partner with commercial theatres in the future. But, Delamere says, their overriding concern is to reflect British theatre as a whole. "We want to be a mirror of living theatre," he says. "So we could shoot a play above a pub in London or shoot Cats. But what we do has to be representative. "From what we have seen so far, there is a real interest in British theatre. We want to be a true complement to that."