We are not yet out of the COVID woods so it is premature to talk in exclusively retrospective terms, but I think it is fair to say that very little good has emerged from the catastrophe that was and is the theatre industry in a global pandemic.
Amongst the slim pickings though, one precious nugget seems to be universally acknowledged and that is the availability of a wide range of often extremely good quality performance for online viewing.
Heeding no, or at least few, international boundaries, those with any tech upwards of a smartphone could and can watch live content streamed from anywhere on the globe, in many cases also available at a time to suit them and/or at no cost.
Those producing the live and recorded live performance did not and have not necessarily recovered any of their costs, but they have been able to reach a new audience in a way that would have been impossible pre-pandemic for the great majority of companies and creatives.
Generalising somewhat, that new audience can be split into two groups.
One group is made up worldwide of habitual theatre audiences. Often grumbling "it’s not the same as live performance but…", they take advantage of a massively increased choice at prices that encouraged them to take risks. This lucky lot were able to continue their habit of consuming theatre performance without having to so much as put their shoes on.
The other group is significantly more diverse and “more genuinely new”. It is made up of—for instance—young audiences who were entertained and taught curriculum subjects.
In this group, there are also those of all ages, traditionally excluded from enjoying theatre performance because of geographical and/or cultural and/or financial obstacles. Free online content recognised none of these barriers.
Not least amongst this group are those with accessibility needs.
It is this cohort that are the subject of a new 18-month study by researchers from Loughborough and Kent universities funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Their report raises concerns that this subset will revert to being excluded from performance content at levels prevailing pre-pandemic and to avoid this, theatres, arts organisations and, importantly, funders should prioritise digital innovations.
Digital Access to Arts and Culture proposes seven key areas of focus to maintain access to these vulnerable audiences.
- Incorporate accessibility best practices into budgets
- Conduct extensive user journey mapping
- Address previously invisible accessibility needs
- Incorporate online provision into accessibility strategies
- Use all available routes to engagement
- Use multiple formats and platforms for digital distribution
- Experiment with new forms
Cash-strapped creatives may be wondering how this could be made to work in the face of stringent loan repayments and vanished fiscal reserves, not to mention the increased costs of COVID safety measures and reduced audiences, not yet ready to risk returning in their droves.
The report addresses this largely by means of a stick to be administered by funders and policymakers.
It suggests six ways that they can incentivise organisations to increase and improve accessibility to these audience members. Most are rather woolly but amongst them are requiring theatres to ringfence a percentage of their funds for accessibility measures—15% has been cited—whilst another strategy would see all non-profit organisations produce digital policies, including accessibility goals, as a condition of funding.
Access is the responsibility of everyone, not just those companies mandated to represent and serve a particular audience sector, but overall these two proposals strike me as unreasonable and coming across less like incentives and more like a form of extortion.
Funders and policymakers already withhold support from many because the necessary boxes cannot be ticked, often for reasonable and legitimate reasons. To require further hoops of this nature to be jumped is to ransom funding, and quite probably to limit artistic freedom.
The government aren’t wearing blinkers in respect of the arts, their eyewear is more akin to a blindfold—what they can't see they don’t have to acknowledge, let alone do anything about. The continued ravaging of the performing arts sector by the pandemic is one such 'blind spot'.
All hail access to live performance online, bring it on, but these proposed funding strategies rob Peter to pay Paula. The aim should surely be access for all, and to have that level playing field requires government funding.
Loughborough's Dr Adrian Leguina, senior lecturer in quantitative social sciences and a project co-investigator, said, "the increased availability of online arts and culture during the pandemic led to accessibility benefits for many people—in particular deaf and disabled, clinically vulnerable, older, and geographically remote participants.
"Many participants with accessibility needs now see the provision of online arts and culture as an essential accessibility feature.
"However, various factors have recently caused performing arts organisations in particular to pull back from providing regular streaming content.
"These include low revenue potential, no sector-wider digital rights framework, a hierarchisation of in-person over online content, and a funding environment that favours one-off digital projects.
"As a result, many people with accessibility needs now risk returning to pre-pandemic levels of exclusion from arts and culture.
"The report's authors conclude by arguing that hybrid (in-person and online) programming must form a key factor in future accessibility improvements: the more routes that exist for engaging with arts and culture, the easier it is to engage with, and the more inclusive it can become."
Access to performance for everyone who wants it is rightly warranted, but this ‘do more with less’ is an untenable clarion call and won't achieve it.
Read Philip Fisher’s article Remember Covid-19 next.