The Old Vic talk about winning the ‘Content Creation and Distribution’ Category at the inaugural Digital Culture Awards & the ‘Exceptional Theatre-Making During Lockdown’ Category at the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards

Two years on from the start of the pandemic and the impact of 2020 has started to emerge, the arts one of the most hardest hit as venues and institutions were forced to closed. With a lack of understanding as to when services could resume, an industry typically dependent on its live aspect, would find that adaptations would have to be made to continue to reach their audiences. A prominent adaptation that has started to emerge from the sector post pandemic is a digital strand of work, one where works are either pre-recorded and streamed or performances are live-streamed. Marking a new chapter within their over 200 year history, The Old Vic introduced the ‘OLD VIC:IN CAMERA’ initiative, allowing for over 108, 810 households in 94 countries to access live streamed performances from the comforts of their own homes, during such an unpredictable time period. Their online work as a result has seen them celebrated at both the inaugural Digital Culture Awards established by the Digital Culture Network with a win for ‘Content Creation and Distribution’ and at the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards with a win for ‘Exceptional Theatre-Making During Lockdown’. Elizabeth Charlesworth, The Old Vic’s Head of Communications tells us more about what both awards mean to the team, working digitally and the venue’s hopes for the future.

Hi The Old Vic, you were recently announced as winners at both the ‘Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards’ and at the inaugural ‘Digital Culture Network’s Digital Culture Awards’ this year. How are you feeling?

We couldn’t be more proud of the team and all the freelancers involved – together we feel we really did pioneer something that gave people a bit of hope and joy, and the chance to engage with culture, during lockdown.

It’s also incredibly humbling to see the work of all the organisations that were nominated for the Content Creation and Distribution award at the Digital Culture Awards – the past couple of years have been exceptionally difficult for all of us but to see so much creativity and a real determination to harness the power of the arts – as a way to continue establishing a meaningful connection with audiences in a time of such unprecedented adversity – is a very special thing to be a part of.

Your win forms part of this pioneering initiative which recognises the digital aspect of theatre. During what has been a very challenging time for the industry in terms of staging work, how did The Old Vic respond to this?

When we closed our doors in March 2020, our Artistic Director Matthew Warchus said theatre “brings us together in the most empathetic and comforting way, and it’s fascination with the trials, tribulations and wonders of life is itself a beacon of hope, wisdom, solidarity and optimism. In other words, theatre is exactly what we need more than ever right now and our sadness at dimming the lights is immense… Here at The Old Vic we promise to do everything possible to maintain some kind of meaningful connection with our audiences during this time”.

This underpinned our ambitions for OLD VIC:IN CAMERA – it was the shared experience of live theatre that was under threat, and it was precisely that which we were committed to sustaining despite audiences not being able to leave their homes.

Rather than sharing pre-recorded performances and making these available on-demand, we had performers live on The Old Vic stage with live audiences tuning in from all over the world.

Practically, this involved weeks of intense research, planning, testing and problem-solving as there was no one-size-fits-all solution for this approach. Not only did we have to think about the performance itself and how this would be streamed, we also had to consider: how it would be ticketed; how people would access the stream; what platform we would use; how we would provide real-time tech support for audiences; how many viewers we could support whilst still providing a high level of customer service; how we’d get viewers to join before the start of the show to ensure they were happy with their setup; how we’d ensure everyone would be ready to watch in the right time zone; what we’d do in the event of a technical error during one of the live performances; and how we’d ensure every single performance was captioned and audio described – this was all at a time when the majority of the team at The Old Vic were furloughed, so it was an exceptionally small team tasked with making all of this happen.

It was a herculean effort – but we made it to the first live streamed performance of LUNGS with Claire Foy and Matt Smith just two months after closure and the OLD VIC: IN CAMERA series was born. In total, 108,810 households watched an OLD VIC: IN CAMERA live performance from 94 countries, with the peak number of households watching one performance reaching 5,000 households.

The Old Vic have collaborated with Broadcast and Video consultant Simon Baker and Zoom to create OLD VIC: IN CAMERA – online streamed performances which has been accessed by over 108, 810 households in 94 countries. What did this possibility of streaming work mean for accessibility?

We were so grateful for Simon’s expertise and energy in helping us find our feet – he was fundamental in setting up the series. From the outset we determined that the OLD VIC: IN CAMERA performances must be fully accessible to ensure that those most isolated by the pandemic were not left out of our offering.

We worked with StageText and Roz Chalmers in the early planning stages to ensure that live captioning and audio description would be available across all of our live-streamed performances; we also worked closely with Zoom to adapt their platform to enable the webinar function for multi-camera live streaming of each performance, and to provide unique links for all bookers who could also adapt their language interpretation capabilities for live audio description. The captioners and audio describers were integral – because these shows were live it wasn’t something that we could create in advance and just leave to run independently.

We quickly saw that this model was accessible beyond the technical provisions we made – we were overwhelmed by the response from those who were shielding, isolating, and those for whom leaving the home had ceased to become an option during the pandemic. It allowed us to bring theatre into the homes of people who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to visit us; people in different parts of the UK, in different countries – we also opened up A Christmas Carol to care homes residents and workers and offered them free tickets.

What have you learned/taken away from your work on OLD VIC: IN CAMERA so far?

What OLD VIC: IN CAMERA has shown – and what the output of all arts organisations during lockdown has demonstrated – is that we can and should be creative about the way we interact with our audiences. Digital has the power to break down immense barriers, be that in relation to accessibility requirements or by providing a gateway into theatre for someone who might ordinarily think it’s not a place for them.

It also demonstrates the power of live theatre. Even when we couldn’t physically be together, knowing that audiences across the world were settling down at the same time, with their home-made theatre snacks – in their make-shift living room auditoriums – was a true testament to this art form and the authenticity of live performance.

On a human level it’s also demonstrated the true passion that people have for our theatre, both in terms of our team and our audiences, and the collective will to ensure it survives this period of great adversity.

What are your hopes for The Old Vic’s digital strategy?

Our digital strategy will be vital in supporting the ambitious audience development aims we have for the theatre, as well as in supporting the work of our award-winning Education & Community team as we embark on the incredibly exciting development of The Annex, which will allow us to double the number of people we’re able to reach with free-to-access learning resources and theatre tickets in addition to being home to a brand new Clore Learning Centre, studio theatre space, Writers’ Room and café-workspace with free-to-access digital technology. The digital strategy will take the ethos of this work – the importance of theatre in education and employability – and in the same vein as OLD VIC: IN CAMERA allow it to reach and support people on a global scale.

Practically, thanks to the support of Bloomberg, we’re going to be transforming our Education Hub with a renewed focus to increase the number of free resources available to all. We’re also going to be totally re-thinking our social strategy to solely focus on audience development, which will include the launch of our TikTok channel.

We are still examining how the OLD VIC: IN CAMERA series may develop and how that will work in tandem with our need to encourage audiences to visit the theatre in person again.

The future is incredibly bright for The Old Vic, and our digital strategy will ensure that everyone can be part of the journey.

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

To find out more about The Old Vic, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop