Live theatre vs. online – which is the best experience?

With the lights out, many of us are now getting our theatre fix via electronic devices. 

During isolation I have watched several fantastic online productions. Some I have seen live and others have been new to me. I have been amazed by the range of performances available - from famous shows with big budgets, to much more intimate plays by smaller companies.

As much as I have enjoyed watching them, for me, you can’t beat seeing a performance live in person. However, for others I have spoken to, home viewing in the comfort of their own living room works better for them.

This difference of experience interested me. So, in this blog I wanted to look at the pros and cons of watching theatre live vs online. This is all my opinion, so please feel free to add your comments below as I would love to hear your views on this.

Theatre for me is an exciting and social experience. As an audience member, I love being surrounded by friends and the hustle and bustle of other enthused theatre goers, in a space which sets the mood, builds anticipation, creates drama, tension, passion and more. There is no better place to be. 

As a performer and director too, there’s nothing like the excitement of live theatre. Hearing the audience take their seats and then react to the what is happening on stage is why we all do it!

We feed off the actors, musicians, and staging, which together creates an immersive and magical atmosphere. All these feelings, emotions, and sounds, I don’t think, can be replicated online. I feel that watching shows through the laptop can feel quite flat and perhaps cold. I read an article recently and this was described as ‘eating a food that you can smell but not taste.’

However, for some they find the bright lights, the noise and other theatre patrons is just too much for them, and it makes them feel quite anxious and apprehensive. Being in a familiar environment that is quiet and peaceful helps them to relax and really get engrossed in the performance. What is a magical event for some, is quite nightmarish for others.

When in the theatre you get to see the whole stage and all aspects of each scene, enabling you to focus on a particular actor, prop or piece of scenery. Whereas online, the footage and sound is not always high quality in some productions. Of course, “National Theatre Live” is always good quality. 

I have found that some online productions where the camera is static, one just doesn’t get the feeling of pace or movement. However, there are intimate close ups, which is interesting to see when watching on screen, but it the director who is guiding our viewing here. A choice has been made for us. In the theatre we can choose where we look. As a film and TV director myself I value both experiences, but theatre to me is “live”. People often say to me when they can’t come to see a show because of other commitments “Are you videoing it?”. I often say “No, it’s supposed to be a live experience”. Watching something that has been filmed on a locked off shot can only really be a record (which is useful of course). To film something properly it does need several cameras and the shots need to be sensitive to what is happening in the play.

However, everyone should have access to theatre and be able to experience it. But with the price of tickets, particularly for the big, well known shows and productions in the West End, this can be a huge expense. Particularly if we must factor in travel and accommodation. For students of Drama and Theatre Studies there is often a requirement to see live theatre. This isn’t always possible for some students, particularly those who live in areas where a theatre is not close. Exam boards realised this a few years ago and stated that seeing “National Theatre Live” streaming performances or watching recordings of plays was acceptable. It was indeed better than not seeing the play at all. I would agree. Similarly, I would agree that some people may prefer to watch in this way rather than going to the theatre. Perhaps we need to make sure that going to the theatre is affordable and not at all intimidating? There should perhaps be more “relaxed” performances? Of course, some shows are appropriate for this. Some not so. A relaxed performance of “Ghosts” by Ibsen is not really possible. It is a tense play dealing with euthanasia and venereal disease. We are supposed to be “churned” up whilst watching. Similarly, “Frozen” by Bryony Lavery about a mother confronting her daughter’s murderer needs to be uncomfortable. It’s interesting that people will often watch films about such characters and subjects, but find such work in the theatre challenging. It is in the end, I guess, about choice and what someone feels comfortable with. 

Online shows are currently either free or a small donation is requested, with all funds going to the NHS or theatre/actor charities. With these kinds of prices, many people are taking the opportunity to watch great theatre. Also, you can watch an online production repeatedly or at midnight if you like, rather than having to be bound by set times. Theatre is available at your fingertips wherever you are in the world and whenever you need a fix! If it gets people interested in theatre I’m all for it!

Online theatre is helping many of us get through these unique times, whilst also introducing a new audience to the amazing productions and plays that have come from the arts industry.

Continue to enjoy theatre online and keep donating to these fantastic charities, but I hope we don’t get used to just viewing productions via a screen. Let’s remember the incredible feeling when you’re sitting in the audience of a brilliant show. Let’s remember that theatre is diverse, exciting, intimate and uplifting so when we are free to leave our homes, the theatre is the first place we want to go!

As Lin-Manuel Miranda – actor and playwright of Hamilton (Musical) – reminded us recently, ‘it’s #onlyintermission’.

Stay safe and stay home. 

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