In our latest feature, Emma Rogerson writes on why the rise of digital theatre in the age of Covid may not be the easy accessibility fix it seems to be.

Seven months since theatres closed and I’m aching for the intimacy of a rehearsal room, the togetherness of live performance, the dance of push and pull between audience and actor. Theatre is defined by its unique liveness, in a way that audio commissions and Zoom performances can’t recreate. I want to be there with them.

But that physical presence comes at a cost. Unlike comparable art forms (TV, cinema, the novel etc.), the definition of theatre rests of the very specific intersection of time and space in which it occurs. Theatre resists being archived. It happens in the moment. That shared, collective audience experience is a huge part of why theatre is so treasured as an experience but is, inherently and irretrievably, exclusionary. As the moment of theatre passes, often, so too does the opportunity to engage beyond the walls.

At the beginning of lockdown, I rested cautious, optimistic hopes on Zoom as a means to engage the people who are excluded, or for whom access is complicated, by the physical and geographical demands of theatre. I thought of those with no community theatre, pushed away from gentrified city centres who would with the alleviation of geographical barriers have, in theory, the same ability to access theatre as their London or Manchester based peers. Then, I thought of those living with physical disabilities, who may have required specific access needs to enter the theatrical space. The necessity of social distancing inverted theatre from a geographical space into a digital one, changing the need for physical presence. It was, initially, my hope that this shift would have positive consequences for the imbalance of theatrical representation prevalent across the industry in both groups (those disadvantaged by geography and class, and those with physical disabilities).

However, this has not been the case.

Because the liveness of theatre is not the problem. It has never been the problem.

To put responsibility on the inherent and defining characteristic of the artform, rather than the people that facilitate it, neglects to acknowledge the systemic ableist and classist thinking that is prevalent in British theatre.

Zoom, of course, creates as many accessibility problems as live performance. Technology to host digital equivalents of liveness and communication requires substantial financial investment. And while this technology has the potential to address inherent social ableism, the physical and cultural complexities surrounding disability mean that in practise, barriers still persist (the lack of closed captioning on so many online performances to name just one example). To pretend that the alleviation of geography also alleviates practical problems of access is incorrect.

What has now become apparent at this later stage of lockdown, which I didn’t predict (although in hindsight seems obvious and inevitable) is the gruelling dread which now accompanies mentions of Zoom and virtual performances. Even with the acknowledgement that National Theatre Live recordings in no way compensate for genuine performance, there was still a degree of excitement for these online substitutions a few months ago that has now become reluctant tolerance. For some, the increase of zoom meetings was a novelty at first (can’t relate). But now, after speaking to creatives from a range of disciplines, it’s clear that Zoom is now associated with the macrocosmic exhaustion and bleakness of the entire theatre community.

It’s such a dire state of affairs at the moment that it seems almost naïve or patronising to force overly positive readings on the temporary replacement of theatre with digital technologies. And yet – as Julia Winkler recounts her experiences as a disabled student both before and during the pandemic, she raises a crucial and transferable point: “Able-bodied professors now find themselves with the same problems as their students, and consequently have suddenly gained the ability to accurately empathize with our needs”.

The removal of the rehearsal room, the same room that performers and creative teams collectively strive to create and provoke a sense of empathy in, forces us to re-examine the culturally dominate classist and ableist practises inherent within the production process.

The problems are systemic and alternate technology does not provide the answer, but rather stimulates the questions which should have been asked long before the Covid-19 pandemic. What biases are prevalent, what are the causes of these mindsets, and how do we deconstruct our thinking and implement new ideas into tangible means of broadening accessibility?

When theatre begins to emerge from this period of closure, empathy must remain central to creative and critical discourse at every stage of production.

As theatre makers, we must stimulate and practise empathy in our industry off stage with the same diligence that we do on stage. We have to rebuild theatre by engaging and connecting the process with the production.