Theatre on the Web

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 1st February, 2004

In the last twelve months there have been quite significant changes in theatre's presence on the Web. As has happened with businesses of all kinds, theatres and theatre companies have recognised the necessity to have a Web presence, so the balance has changed. Whereas even just a year ago, there were probably more fan sites (mainly for actors and actresses) than any other, during 2003 they started to slip into the minority.

This is partly because, like most personal sites, they are started in a burst of enthusiasm, but then that enthusiasm flags, day-to-day concerns - jobs, relationships, social life - take precedence, and the site is updated less and less frequently. Sometimes it vanishes, sometimes it becomes one of the Internet ghosts, those sites which have been on line for years but is becoming rapidly more and more out of date.

Some remain and grow - Karen Rappaport's Alan Bates Archive, for example, and Linda Green's Theatre, Musicals and Actors Web - but many gather dust in the great online library.

But the number of theatre sites continues to grow, with almost every theatre in the country either online or about to be so. Theatre companies, too, from the smallest to the largest, are rushing to have an online presence. And the quality of these new sites is a vast improvement on the majority of those they are replacing. The professionals are using professional web design companies. Many use Flash - to attempt to surf the Web without it is the equivalent of trying to read a book without turning the pages - and embedded or even streaming media are becoming commonplace.

Online booking, too, is much more common than it was a year ago. The public has come to recognise that giving credit card details on a secure website is actually much safer than giving them over the phone or even handing over the card in a restaurant, and theatres, hungry to put bums on seats, have realised that they have to make booking as easy as possible. If you look at your local theatre's site and see some show which may interest you, you are much more likely to book a ticket while you're still on the site than you are to note down the details and then phone or actually go in person to the box office.

Amateur theatre sites are changing, too. In previous articles on this topic, I have spoken at length about some of the dreadful sites I've seen which put off prospective punters rather than attracting them. Such sites are now less and less common - although they do exist - and the majority, although (like the BTG!) not state-of-the-art, are at least easy to read and navigate.

There are still, unfortunately, bad sites, and even some which will proudly announce to the world that the Little Piddle in the Marsh Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society produces shows which are in every way as good as anything you'll see in the West End, but even they are less common than they were once upon a time.

For sites such as the BTG, this growth in the professional theatre use of the Web has had a very positive side-effect. When I started the predecessor of this site (The Mining Company's British Theatre site) back in April 1997, many theatres would not countenance the idea of allowing reviewers from websites to have press tickets. I remember not being allowed a press ticket for a well-known London-based theatre's production at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997: now Philip reviews every one of their productions.

Even just two years ago some companies at the Fringe insisted that they be telephoned to give permission (or not!) every time a website reviewer requested a ticket. (I have to say that we always got ours!)

It's all part of the "professionalisation" of the Web. There are those who regret the passing of the "good old days" when the Web was free of professional and corporate involvment, when it was still very much a "people's" medium. Of course, it still can be. Fans still put up sites about their favourite actors or shows. Actors, directors, designers and so on still launch their own sites to promote their work.

The joy of the Web is that an individual or group of enthusiasts can set up their sites and compete with the biggies. The best news over the last twelve months is that these enthusiasts' sites are, generally speaking, of a far higher standard than the used to be, and that's a result of that "professionalisation" which so many dislike.