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The London Theatre Goes Digital Divergent Responses to the New Media Leslie A. Wade In a 2001 New Theatre Quarterly essay, Baz Kershaw highlights a concern with the receding status of the British theatre, a condition he describes as “theatre at the end of its tether.”1 For Kershaw, theatre in Britain had come to a point of jeopardy, with a diminished role in cultural conversation, a stagnation in artistic experimentation, and a selfconscious awareness that many viewed its current forms and practices as out of touch, even quaint. His essay recounts the dismay of many theatre directors and producers, who expressed worry over the theatre’s waning confidence and sense of adventure, its failure to address and respond to actual social needs. In assessing the growing suspicion that British theatre was losing its relevance and power of engagement, Kershaw identifies the cultural shift from analog to digital as a primary contributor to this experience of crisis—and the cause of trepidation for many theatre artists. London arts leader Michael Kustow, in fact, called for theatre to bolster its defenses, urging extreme caution in view of digital encroachment : “Theatre may be undergoing life-threatening mutations. . . . I am therefore warning against . . . theatre subsumed by webs and networks.”2 Kershaw’s analysis effectively addresses the apprehensive state of British theatre and its unease regarding a digital future. This essay extends such investigation and documents how new media technologies have proliferated since Kershaw’s writing. This essay also situates the theatre’s lingering media anxiety within a broader context, that of a nation under duress, of global market forces, of multiple communities seeking coexistence without coercion. In short, digital capabilities have brought theatre to a kind of reckoning—how to best negotiate the future of traditional stage practice in the face of twenty-first-century stage modalities. The The London Theatre Goes Digital 55 digital turn furthermore implicates theatre in a discussion of the human and post-human. What is at stake is not just the priority of a stage practice or performance form but vying conceptions of human interconnection (which may invoke spiritual dimensions). That the London theatre remains ambivalent in its embrace of mediatization—evidenced in this essay’s discussion of two recent productions, Time and the Conways and Jerusalem—indicates not just a continued concern with the digital’s colonization of the live theatre event, but with the stage’s complicity in limiting or expanding possible definitions of the human. British theatre of the early twenty-first century has consequently exhibited both panic and exuberance, challenged to reimagine its understanding of both art and responsibility. If Kershaw’s essay points to the 1990s’ explosion of digital performance and its feared intrusion upon the theatre, the year 2009 stands as a historical marker, a time when new media technology confirmed its legitimacy and won full partnership in British theatre operations. At this juncture one can claim without question that British theatre had become mediatized (mediatization here includes satellite simulcasts, digital recordings, online downloads, as well as digital media effects employed within stage performances). Despite Kustow’s warnings, and the prior panic in the theatre community, the theatre embraced and partnered with the digital media in ways that only years before could not have been imagined. The year 2009 witnessed an astonishing number of new ventures that are bringing British theatre into global digital networks, ventures that challenge not only the conception of audience and product delivery but the definition of theatre itself. The summer saw the first installment of the National Theatre’s Live project, a simulcast of its highly acclaimed production of Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper. The staging was aired live in Britain and more than sixteen other countries, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Malta. Heralded as a grand success, the broadcast appeared in over 270 cinemas before an estimated 50,000 viewers.3 The Live project has gone on to simulcast All’s Well That Ends Well and Marc Ravenhill’s adaptation of Nation. That year also marked the launch of the Greenwich Theatre’s Stage on Screen project, which created DVDs of its Doctor Faustus and The School for Scandal productions...


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