Almost theatre

For virtually an entire year, theatres, operas, and dance venues have been closed – and forced to adapt to working online. As streaming fatigue sets in, most theatre-makers are reluctant to see this as the ‘new normal’. But some are seizing the opportunity to find new ways of reaching audiences. Our correspondent had a look at the new digital paths being taken in drama, opera, and on the independent scene.   

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It has been a big change, especially for spoken-word theatre, which had been least concerned about putting productions online before the pandemic. But by the second wave, at the latest, theatres were forced to professionalize their online repertoire and quality improved swiftly as a result. Most theatres are now offering sophisticated livestreams of current productions, filmed using at least four cameras.

One example is ‘Der Zauberberg’ (Magic Mountain), due to show at the 2021 Theatertreffen, which was premiered as a livestream in an audience-less Deutsche Theater Berlin in November 2020. 

The more international opera and dance-theatre scenes had a tradition of livestreaming and making high-quality recordings of productions long before the Corona crisis. Consequently, the Vienna State Ballet showed ‘Mahler, live’ – perfectly produced for TV – on the European culture channel arte in December 2020. Nowadays, not only TV channels like arte and 3sat are achieving such high-quality recordings; major theatres are also producing their own recordings. The Zurich Opera, one of the first to switch to livestreams during the lockdown last spring, cooperating with the German-language culture channel 3sat, offers additional recordings of its own on its website. Komische Oper Berlin, the Hamburg State Opera, and Deutsche Oper am Rhein all record productions and broadcast them not only via their own websites but also via platforms such as the EU-funded OperaVision. Depending on the production model, OperaVision carries between 30 and 50 percent of the costs. Non-cooperating theatres can also stream via this platform – free of charge. The Hanover Opera is one of the venues that has adopted OperaVision as a supplement to its own website during the pandemic. 

Hanover has in fact become one of the most prolific producers of opera streams in Germany, working with an outside firm on their stream productions. As newcomers to streaming, spoken-word theatres have a slightly different, pandemic-influenced focus. Harald Wolff, dramaturge at the Munich Kammerspiele, sees his job now as to interpret and tap into the unique logic of the new online stages. At the Kammerspiele, this has resulted in interactive works such as ‘The Digital Assembly’, a combination of streamed drama and Zoom conference, complete with a chaired public discussion. “People are more willing to talk online,” Wolff observes. The Kammerspiele has reached new audiences beyond Munich through its online projects says Wolff. He thinks this is because “they have a lower threshold, are often free, and just a click away.”

Even online events that are not free of charge are attracting large audiences. For instance, the livestream premiere of ‘Früchte des Zorns’ (Grapes of Wrath) at Schauspiel Köln drew more viewers than the theatre could have accommodated. Such successes notwithstanding, many digital productions are still effectively emergency solutions so long as the requisite infrastructure is still ​weak. Many theatres still lack the right (and costly) technology, camera-people, video directors, and ‘digital dramaturges’ to develop good online formats. 

The most immersive of all online theatre formats is doubtless Virtual Reality (VR) theatre. Leading the way here is Augsburg State Theatre, which had already begun building a VR repertoire before the pandemic and delivers VR-headsets to interested parties across Germany (BTR 3/2020). Augsburg has an ongoing cooperation with a local production company specializing in VR and 360° films. In autumn 2020, the theatre even created a post for head of ‘digital development’, taking a first step toward establishing an entire digital branch of its operations as a municipal theatre.   

The independent scene is far advanced in this respect, as the shortlist for this year’s Theatertreffen shows: Among the productions selected is ‘Show Me A Good Time’ by Gob Squad (premiered in 2020 in Berlin’s HAU) – a twelve-hour, hybrid production for live and online audiences. It is the independent scene that is creating experimental formats: It is here that machina eX & Co. turned the messenger app Telegram into a stage; here that director Cosmea Spelleken with her young team masterfully used several social media channels simultaneously for the surprise hit production ‘’. On the independent dance scene, companies such as Toula Limnaios have been producing dance films for years, with several cameras and studio editing, and were consequently the first to offer online programmes. And it is the independent scene that hosted the first experiments with hybrid theatre. 

The dance piece ‘All for one and one for the money’ by Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference was conceived as a hybrid production. Having premiered – online ‘only’ due to the lockdown – in late November at Schauspiel Köln, it is now considered the most successful online work at the theatre to date. Partly because of its sophisticated design that allowed the audience to move around at will between several parallel-running livestreams and chatrooms, and partly because of its broad, even international, appeal. 

While streams initially popped up all over the internet free of charge in the spring, that is gradually becoming the exception – not only because theatres need to make up the losses due to lack of ticket sales during lockdown but also because streaming costs money, too: technology, camera-people, and digital dramaturges all need to be paid for, as do publishers’ royalties.

Going by Germany’s current framework agreement between the stage association representing German theatres and the Association of German Stage and Media Publishers (VDB) a livestream in spoken-word theatre without paywall, limited to the online presence of the theatre/legal entity, costs between €300 and €900, depending on how the theatre is classified (i.e., its legal form, size, and financial resources). A 48-hour stream costs between €350 and €1050. In music-theatre a livestream can cost €750 to €1950; here the on-demand version, where the stream remains available on the internet beyond the live broadcast, is not regulated so each one needs to be individually negotiated. 

The VDB and stage association do not offer any information on temporary ‘transitional’ regulations for streaming against payment, that is, on purchase of a ticket. So far, there are no regulations for pay-streams in music-theatre. In view of spoken-word theatre’s tendency to charge for streams despite publishers’ royalties and platform fees, it seems to pay off. ​Beyond the question of whether streaming can be economically viable, it is certainly a way of increasing theatres’ reach. The six productions recorded for the 2020 Theatertreffen, which took place online only, were accessed 69,500 times by viewers in 110 countries – in 2019, by comparison, the three-week festival was attended by an audience of 19,661. And the Deutsche Theater Berlin announced that some 10,000 viewers watched the livestream of ‘Der Zauberberg’ on 20 November 2020.  

BTR Ausgabe 2 2021
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 146
von Sophie Diesselhorst

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