When is streaming live? Getting to grips with digital theatre

This year pantos are being streamed. But, what does streaming really mean? Is the performance live or is it recorded? We...

This year pantos are being streamed. But, what does streaming really mean? Is the performance live or is it recorded? We explain it all Photo: Mike Kwasniak - Credit: Archant

With theatres responding to the Covid crisis by turning live theatre into ‘live streaming’, many people are trying to get to grips with what it all means. We take a look at what can you expect if you buy a ticket to a streamed show?

This year the spectacle of pantomime will be brought to you via wi-fi Photo: Mike Kwasniak

This year the spectacle of pantomime will be brought to you via wi-fi Photo: Mike Kwasniak - Credit: Archant

This year has been momentous in many ways. Who could have predicted that as we raised our glasses to welcome in the New Year that 2020 would have been quite so chaotic and challenging?

One of the areas that has been devastated by lockdown and the Covid pandemic has been the theatre. As 2020 has been all about social distancing and theatre is all about bringing people together for a shared cultural experience, it was always going to be a difficult time but theatre is always willing to try something new and adapt.

The answer that theatre has come up with to keep the creative juices flowing is to embrace the opportunities offered by streaming platforms and video technology.

The New Wolsey Theatre is streaming The Snow Queen, an interactive version of its rock’n’roll pantomime, this December while Red Rose Chain has put together a specially shot version of Alice in Wonderland for audiences to enjoy and Colchester Mercury is streaming a multi-camera recording of Cinderella from its archive.

Joanna Sawyer as Alice in the Red Rose Chain streaming production of Alice in Wonderland. Red Rose Chain are making the...

Joanna Sawyer as Alice in the Red Rose Chain streaming production of Alice in Wonderland. Red Rose Chain are making the most of digital special effects to create Wonderland Photo: Red Rose Chain - Credit: Archant


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For many streaming theatre performances is a new phenomenon and to add to the possible confusion there are more than one type of streamed performance. Some are straight forward recordings of a previously ‘live’ stage show while others are specially filmed events designed with a virtual audience in mind while others are live transmissions from a stage performance happening in a theatre (perhaps with a socially distanced, invited audience to provide ‘atmosphere’.)

As there are several different types of streamed broadcast, there are also several different ways you can watch the transmission. You can choose to view it on anything from a smart-phone to a laptop to a television screen – anything that has a wi-fi connection.

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In attempt to untangle the complexities of 21st century virtual theatre, I spoke to Sue Lawther-Brown and the New Wolsey Theatre’s technical manager Peter Hazelwood to find out exactly what digital theatre is all about?

Not wanting to beat about the bush, my first question is simple and direct. What is a Live Stream anyway?

Genevieve Nicole in the Colchester Mercury's Cinderella which is being streamed to audiences in December Photo: Pamela Raith

Genevieve Nicole in the Colchester Mercury's Cinderella which is being streamed to audiences in December Photo: Pamela Raith - Credit: Archant

Sue offers this explanation: “From a theatre’s point of view, live streaming technology allows you to record and broadcast video at the same time – a bit like live television, only it’s broadcast over the Internet. It means you can put a show on the stage, point cameras and microphones at it and then (via a fancy bit of kit) send it out over the internet for audiences to watch if they are ‘tuned in’ to the right channel. In this case, the channel isn’t a TV channel but a platform such as Vimeo, YouTube or Facebook.

“But, just like a live television broadcast, if you’re tuned into the wrong channel (or with live streaming, the wrong platform) you’ll miss the show. Whatever the camera sees ‘live’ is what the audience at home will see, mistakes and all. True live streaming is exactly that – a live event you can watch on the Internet. The New Wolsey Theatre’s Rock ‘n’ Roll panto The Snow Queen is an example of a show that will be live streamed this year.”

Peter adds that some broadcasts are not live. Some are recordings like the National Theatre’s recent NT At Home broadcasts which were streamed during lockdown. These are recordings of a live event that has gone. “Once you’ve bought a ticket, you can often ‘tune in’ at any time of your choosing within a certain time frame and you can pause the show, rewind, and fast-forward. The show will have been edited just like a film or video. The New Wolsey theatre’s co-production of ‘What A Carve Up’ is an example of this.”

For many going to the theatre is something of an occasion, a special treat and watching at home doesn’t feel the same, so theatres often come up with ways to make the evening feel special by adding interactive elements or giving the evening a special structure that mimics an evening out at the theatre.

Sue said: “Choosing a time and a date to virtually turn up to the theatre is an important part of committing to buy a ticket. What you’re buying is a link to the right platform to see it and that link will be open for a specific time period – the date and time you’ve picked to see the show.

“If you’re buying a ticket to see a show it’s important to understand whether it’s really a live stream or a pre-recorded show. If it’s a live stream you need to make sure you tune in at the correct time, or you’ll miss all the action.”

“You will also need to make sure you have the correct equipment to watch,” Peter advised: “If you don’t want to huddle around your PC or laptop and you have a Smart TV, you can connect your computer to your television by way of an HDMI cable. You may need to look closely at your laptop to see what type of cable connectors it will take; there are plenty of adaptors and cables available to buy that will get you connected, for example HDMI – USB-C cables.

“If you’re using a Windows laptop, find your TV as a video output by right clicking on your desktop display, and choose ‘Detect’ on your display settings to choose your TV. Android phone users can try Chromecast or Screen Mirroring as a way to send sound and images to a bigger screen. For Mac users there are numerous options, including Apps specifically designed for this purpose, such as Airplay and JustStream, which also enable you to stream from an iPhone or iPad.”

Sue said that it was important not to be overwhelmed by the technology as there were thousands of ‘how to’ guides on the internet that can walk you through each of these methods to get your live broadcast up and running.

“Chances are you’ll be able to watch a live stream show without too much difficulty. It’s worth taking the time to practice setting up before the day of your show, to avoid the panic of watching a ticking clock, especially if your chosen show is a live ‘live-stream’ like the New Wolsey’s The Snow Queen.

“Much better to spend the pre-show 20 minutes bagging the best seat on the sofa and making sure you’ve got popcorn and ice creams within reaching distance rather than worrying about wi-fi connections or USB cables.”

The Snow Queen, the New Wolsey’s rock’n’roll pantomime for this year, is being live streamed from December 17-24. Tickets can be booked online at the New Wolsey website (https://www.wolseytheatre.co.uk/shows/the-snow-queen/)

Red Rose Chain’s Alice in Wonderland is being streamed from December 18 to January 3, 2021. Tickets can be booked online (https://redrosechain.com/alice-in-wonderland/?)

Colchester Mercury’s streamed performance of Cinderella is on air on Saturday December 19, 2020. Tickets can be booked on the Mercury website (https://www.mercurytheatre.co.uk/event/cinderella-online/)

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