Shaun Reynolds
Nov 17, 2021

Hybrid has changed how theatre audiences engage forever


Does theatre work in a virtual or hybrid format? It sure does! Along with Artistic Director Emma Rice and the rest of the touring theatre company Wise Children, award-winning Technical Director and Digital Producer Simon Baker has proved the vibrant presence of live theatre is transferable to a digital format. They have also proved the huge revenue potential of going virtual.

Theatres across Britain are now facing yet another difficult winter. “Theatre is not out of the woods,” as Royal Shakespeare Company executive director Catherine Mallyon pointed out in an interview with The Stage, on November 15.

At TicketCo we have a strong appeal to each and every British theatre and theatre producer: Please don’t cancel your shows! Your work is of such importance to your audience that you should consider every other solution before taking such a drastic step.

Why not listen to Simon Baker instead? At Event Tech Live in London in the beginning of November, Simon gave a lecture on his hybrid journey and how it changed Wise Children theatre company forever. With courtesy of Event Tech Live, we have the pleasure of sharing this highly engaging session. Please click the embedded video below for 30 minutes of valuable insights from a hybrid theatre pioneer.

And for those of you who prefer written words rather than a video, please scroll past the video. Below it you will find the highlights from Simon Baker’s session at Event Tech Live, summarised and enriched by Simon himself.


My hybrid journey and how it changed Wise Children theatre company forever

By Simon Baker

Theatre has undergone its most significant change in the past 18 months which will shape the very future of performing arts.

I am of course referring to hybrid and its power to connect audiences on a global scale and make performances accessible to everyone. Digital events boomed in spring 2020 as a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses, events, friends – we all did our best to retain engagement with one another via digital.

In theatre, it was a concerning and – quite frankly – depressing time. For years, centuries even, our industry relied entirely on live audiences. But overnight, that touchpoint was removed.

Hybrid was not even a concept back then. In fact, the notion of combining physical audiences with digital viewers not once entered our minds. There was no demand, no call-to-action and no viewers – or so we thought.

At Wise Children, in those first few months of lockdown, we tried to work out how we could use digital to reconnect with our audiences. Live streaming was the solution, and we successfully engaged thousands of online viewers via pay-per-view performances of Romantics Anonymous – the very show we had to cancel in March.

It was a great achievement in a world dominated by social restrictions. Thankfully, the UK has returned to normality. But performing arts will never shift back to what we previously perceived as normal.

Lockdowns taught us that digital theatre can work. The return of audiences has confirmed hybrid theatre is here to stay.
Primarily, hybrid theatre offers far greater access to the audience and breaks down attendance barriers such as travel, health or financial implications. We can also engage with schools and care homes via video on-demand.

Hybrid adds vital revenue too. We’re often asked, ‘but is it financially viable?’ – yes, yes it is! Taking control of your own broadcasting means you can spend as little or as much cash as you wish. Of course, the higher your budget the more quality you can add to your production.

Search for hybrid in the dictionary and it will tell you ‘mixed character; composed of different elements’. Hybrid not only provides audiences an alternative way to engage with theatre, but it also facilitates multiple new revenue streams for productions.

The biggest is digital sales, people who watch your performance via live streaming. But income does not have to stop there. Shows can be made available on-demand for a smaller fee, replacing the traditional DVDs theatregoers love to purchase outside the auditorium once a show has ended. This is also key in the schools and education market where classes of 30 children are unlikely to attend a performance on a weekday evening or weekend, for example.

Also, once a show ends, we own that footage. We can take our seven-camera production shot in 4K to an edit suite and explore other revenue streams. Providers such as Amazon, Netflix and the BBC burn through content and it’s possible to take our show to them.

Let’s talk about responsibility too. As an Arts Council funded organisation, Wise Children has a moral obligation to make theatre accessible to everyone. Hybrid offers an excellent solution.

Live streaming means we can also add audio described, captioned, BSL interpreted versions. Accessible performances are vital and hybrid events makes them even more so.

While all the above is happening, we mustn’t forget about our physical audience. Hybrid theatre is about expanding audiences, not lessening the product provided to physical customers.

It’s why rehearsals are essential. If it’s necessary to remove seats with an impeded view due to cameras, do it. And consider how your digital production can prompt people to attend your live shows. Remember you are now engaging with new audiences on a national and global scale.

When we promote a performance, the first responses we received across all social platforms are ‘will this be live streamed?’. That’s the goal. To be successful, you need a robust streaming partner. We highly recommend TicketCo.
TicketCo provides a secure streaming platform which allows performances to be monetised. It’s integrated too, meaning we can sell tickets to physical customers under one roof. Most importantly, TicketCo is simple.

My big tip – test your UI again and again with as many people, across as many age groups as you can find. I use my Mum – if she can book a ticket I’m confident most people can. You need to take care of a digital audience just as much as you take care of a physical audience. Hybrid is about bringing these two audiences together.

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