James Haddrell: Is technology bringing an end to the theatre?

Is technology threatening to bring about an end to live theatre?

While theatre obviously takes advantage of technological innovation – in anything from lighting and sound to projection and pyrotechnic effects – the march of technology is often cited as a major threat to live performance.

James Haddrell artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

With cinema becoming ever more technically impressive, from CGI animation to 3D screenings, will it eclipse (or has it already) the experience of sitting in a theatre?

Or will the advent of streaming services and the thousands of channels available to us in our own home mean that audiences go out less? Or with the rise of initiatives like NT Live showing theatre productions in the cinema, or the early Netflix foray into broadcasting plays, will audiences opt for that rather than seeing a show in a theatre?

The answer to all of these, to my mind, is maybe – but not necessarily. Cinema technology is certainly marching on, but it still represents an experience of watching a story unfold at a venue that isn’t your home with other people that you don’t know.

If audiences will go to the cinema then they’re happy to go out for their entertainment, so maybe they’ll keep going to the theatre as well.

Television has experienced an explosion in content, but with streaming replacing the importance of the live broadcast, people are far less likely to feel the need to stay at home on a particular night to watch the latest episode of their favourite programme.

And NT Live means that audiences can see theatre affordably, and may then be inspired to go and see a live performance. So while the threat is there, it may be just as likely to make it easier or more likely for people to go to the theatre to see a play.

However, there is one development in technology that does make me nervous about the future of theatre, and that is the targeted way in which news and information is delivered to us now.

With so many people finding their news on social media and online platforms, which track our every search and click, we are being presented with news and cultural information that appears to match our preferences.

If we already search for theatre news, we will be presented with it. If we do not, then we will not. A newspaper or a traditional news broadcast will cover what the editorial teams want to tell us.

A social media news digest will tell us what the algorithms sitting behind the technology think we want to read about.

Which is great, if you’re already engaged with theatre and actively read about it. You will be bombarded with news and marketing material about theatre.

But if you are not, if you are one of the many people who has not yet discovered theatre, then the chances of you being exposed to information about what’s on, what the theatre world is excited about, even what audiences are talking about, is relatively slim.

This is the echo chamber syndrome, with social media creating a world where the things in which you are already interested in are reflected back at you, and the chance of making new discoveries is limited – so where do the new audiences come from?

How do we attract new people into theatres, so that these buildings have a lifespan which extends beyond that of the current audience? If you pick up a newspaper and read the news pages then you may end up in the arts pages and discover something you would like to see.

If you watch the news because you want to hear about today’s events in Parliament, you may also hear about the new theatre opening near you.

But if you let a computer programmer decide what content is most likely to lead you to click a link or subscribe to a site, you may miss a host of alternative discoveries.

I don’t know the answer to the problem, but somehow we need to escape the rise of the echo chamber.

If not, our politics, our opinions, our experiences, our circle of influencers, our gossip, our news and our entertainment are all destined to become bland and predictable, and ultimately we will miss some of the radical, exciting and unexpected ideas and experiences available to us.

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