In our latest feature, Sam Nicholls speaks to the Artistic Director of Boundless Theatre, Rob Drummer about how merging both live and digital theatre could be the way forward.
On Friday 3 July, two crucial events happened in the UK theatre industry: a recording of the smash-hit musical Hamilton debuted on the streaming service Disney+, and The Mousetrap, the West-End’s longest-running production, announced its intention to return to live performances on October 23.
Coincidentally, both pieces of news emblemized a wider conversation currently surrounding theatre’s future: will we survive and, if so, what form will this survival take? Will it be similar to Hamilton, where we transition further into digital spaces and mediums, or like The Mousetrap, where we aim to recapture and recreate the old theatrical status quo of live performances?
For Rob Drummer, the Artistic Director of Boundless Theatre, the answer doesn’t need to be so binary. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made about how incorporating both digital mediums and live performances will be necessary to engage the next generation of theatregoers – as Drummer aptly puts it, “its time [for the theatre industry] to add more strings to its bow”.
Formed in 2001 to ‘create new and experimental work for young audiences’, Boundless Theatre has always challenged the industry’s hegemonic ideas through engaging in deep discussions with young people. As Drummer explains, “youth culture drives us far more than theatre culture does – we’re motivated by the high standard [young people] hold us to, and their enthusiasm for debate.” This youth-orientated approach is even reflected in the companies’ structure as they stress that no project is ever green-lit without it being signed off by Boundless’ Advisory Group, which always features a dedicated number of 16-25-year olds.
However, this doesn’t mean producing work is ever easy. Since taking over as Artistic Director in 2016, Drummer has seen the company face multiple hurdles, whether a possible loss of funding from the EU as a result of Brexit, to the recent, industry-immobilising effect of COVID-19. Indeed, as a result of these challenges, Drummer and his team have been pushed to explore new methods in delivering theatre and cultivating an audience. This exploration has culminated in, as Drummer describes it, a “5-year experiment… can we transition digital theatre into live theatre?”
At a time where there is no live theatre, this question has perhaps never been more pertinent. For all the digital offerings broadcasted and made available online, there’s an anxious theatre company hoping that a live audience will still be there when venues reopen. Moreover, despite the mainstream-piercing effect of shows like One Man, Two Guvnors or Lungs, there’s a fear that smaller-scale work isn’t yet equipped for the digital space. “Hamilton and NT Live show the success of digital theatre at a high level,” Drummer outlines, “but digital skills sets aren’t yet embedded into theatre at a lower/mid-level”.
For many companies, trying to learn and institute these skills during lockdown has been something of a trial by fire but luckily for Boundless, many of their current digital projects have been planned for months. Radio Elusia, for example, is a weekly podcast series that examines ideas of transmission and revolution, and was set to be released just as the lockdown came into effect. Written by Nina Segal, the series has proven to be incredibly popular with fans, to the point where Boundless has already commissioned a second season. “Radio Elusia is a massive success, both because it’s a great series but also because it’s built an audience,” says Drummer. “Part of our job now is to see how we can support this audience and where we can take it: if we can bridge the online to the live and in-person”.
Indeed, a large part of Boundless’ outlook is tied into this core idea of bridging the gap between online and offline, and encouraging audiences to engage with both digital and live theatre. A key focus of this notion is reframing how the industry treats digital offerings. “Theatre has never really tried to reform its normal,” says Drummer, “NT Live, for example, is a celebration of theatre’s past ways instead of being a look to its future.” Instead, Drummer feels more effort should be placed into highly performative online spaces. “For all intents and purposes, YouTube is a great venue for theatre.” As Radio Elusia has perhaps indicated, the interplay between online and offline allows an audience to grow and supports theatre in whatever medium its presented.
Moreover, this interplay is even more prescient with how it connects with young people. “Most people point to ticket price as the biggest barrier to young people engaging with theatre, but our research has shown that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” reveals Drummer. “Accessibility, flexibility and feeling that its relevant to them all play equally big, if not bigger, roles in attracting young people to the arts”. This conclusion makes sense… why would a young person travel for miles to a specific place and at a specific time to watch something that in no way resonates with them, when they have online alternatives available at any time? Online projects like Radio Elusia, then, are crucial in communicating to young people that the arts can be relevant and flexible to them, and that they should engage with live performances as a result.
So, is the conventionalised theatrical experience on its way out? Not at all. “I will always fight for a bunch of strangers sitting in a room,” says Drummer, “but with COVID and all the other challenges young people face, you’ve got to think of more accessible and engaging ways to get them there.” In a world where both digital Hamilton and live Mousetrap are popular with audiences, perhaps this is the message the theatrical industry should consider. In order to survive and thrive, digital and live theatre will be necessary and it’s time to engage with both and ‘add more strings to our bow’.
Radio Elusia is now available wherever you can find podcasts – please visit Boundless Theatre’s website for more information.