Digital theatre offerings vital to unlock future funding
Theatres need to embrace digital events to financially survive – and organisations are on hand to help with funding.
In a must-read article Simon Baker, technical director and digital producer of Wise Children, outlines how theatres and production companies can source vital funding and support to maximise digital opportunities.
In autumn 2020, internationally renowned theatre production company Wise Children delivered its first ever digital show Romantics Anonymous.
Five performances were hosted behind closed doors at Bristol’s Old Vic as COVID-19 cases in the UK developed and a second national lockdown loomed.
By turning digital, Wise Children sold 11,000 streaming passes globally – exceeding the Old Vic’s maximum audience capacity over five nights by 407%. Simon oversaw every element of Wise Children’s’ successful first attempt at turning digital which transformed the way many theatres operate today.
Funding and eligibility
All theatres and production companies and individuals can apply for Arts Council funding.
There are various funding programmes available. A digital strategy is a key part of the application process. Wise Children is a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO). The Arts Council’s National Portfolio is made up of 829 organisations throughout the UK and is funded for a 4 year period – 2018 to 2022. Every organisation in the Portfolio is reviewed at the end of this and a new application is made for the next period.
NPOs are divided into four categories. Bands one, two and three are based on size, scale and amount of investment. Following those are Sector Support Organisations. NPO’s range from large scale venues like The National Theatre to smaller touring theatre companies.
As an NPO, we wouldn’t go to the Arts Council and request additional support – that’s not how it works,” said Simon. “It’s important to note the Arts Council fund people, ideas, projects and places rather than capital investment for kit purchases. In your application for funding, it’s important to explain what your digital strategy is in the context of how it will benefit people.”
Project Funding is alternative way to attract financial support. This form of funding focuses on a particular event or project.
Additional information about NPOs is available here.
Sourcing financial support
The Arts Council also funds two bodies that help organisations deliver digital work – The Digital Culture Network and The Space.
The Digital Culture Network is an initiative to increase the digital skills and capability of the arts and cultural sector by using technology to drive global status and engagement.
It provides practical help to the arts and culture sector via one-to-one support in digital content, eCommerce, data analytics, social media, digital strategy and more.
Since its launch in June 2019, The Digital Culture Network has committed to an investment of £1.1m over a two-year period.
“Every organisation that works with these bodies must have a digital strand,” explained Simon. “What that strand is, is entirely up to the organisation seeking support.
“Before COVID, a lot of organisers pushed their ‘strand’ into the marketing department. Because of the public’s increase in demand for digital theatre, we are now seeing funds support production teams by facilitating the delivery of events.”
The Space is a charity that commissions digital projects, develops skills and finds global audiences for artists and organisations. The charity was established jointly by Arts Council England and the BBC and funds live streaming and podcasts in addition to its digital rights and audience support toolkits.
What does digital theatre mean?
Digital funding across the theatre sector has been in operation long before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is important to understand that digital is not limited to live stream or on-demand broadcasting support.
Simon added: “Digital is interpreted differently by organisations. It is a broad term but it is the digital strategy that is important. Building a great website only has meaning when you define what it’s for and who it is for. Digital is about developing audiences and finding new ways to talk and engage with them.”
The pandemic has accelerated viewers’ demands for digital theatre and made accessing performances much easier to everyone on a global scale.
Performers separated from their families due to work commitments can now perform live into the homes of their loved ones, audience capacities are a thing of the past and those denied access to theatres for financial, health or travel reasons are now able to engage. Within theatre production companies, this sudden shift in demand has prompted structural changes.
“There are a lot of overlapping skills in marketing and communication departments with production,” said Simon. “Digital is no longer a strand of marketing. Digital is now the full package in many examples and that will continue to be the case for those who choose to watch hybrid events from home. The pandemic has meant understanding communicating via digital is suddenly very important, some theatres have been ill prepared for that.”
It would be false to state live streaming and on-demand broadcasting are achievable without encountering hurdles from planning to delivery.
At TicketCo Media Services, we have produced a ’10 Steps to Streaming Success’ Welcome Pack that guides users through the production journey – from ticketing to branding, hardware requirements and connection solutions.
But there are outside influences to consider too. Insurance against COVID-19 is not currently available, making it hard for producers to commit to event delivery amid uncertainty concerning the return of audiences. Additionally, theatre tax credits are currently limited and only eligible for shows that intend to host a physical audience.
“Theatre tax relief is a minefield,” said Simon. “In short, performances delivered in a digital capacity only are not eligible to receive tax relief – there has to be a physical audience. By planning an event for people to attend physically you are of course taking a risk as there is no insurance for COVID-19. It’s hard for producers to plan live performances with this in mind.”
Change for the better
Lessons from the past 12 months will undoubtedly shape the entertainment sector for many years to come. Change has been enforced, but it is possible to transform these changes into positives that will enhance business productivity post COVID-19.
“There’s an obligation for arts organisations to find new audiences and develop them,” said Simon. “Digital has taught us how it is possible to do that in a way we had never considered before.
“At the start of the pandemic, the Culture Recovery Fund prompted an explosion in activity as organisations took advantage of money available to live stream events. What the reaction to those events has taught us is that digital is here to stay because of its extraordinary reach.”
So, what does the future look like for Wise Children?
Simon added: “We were hopeful of delivering a show in April, but that’s now been pushed back to June.
“The winter has been tough, but okay. It’s frustrating we haven’t been able to produce something for April, but we have faith in the vaccine rollout and are consequently confident we will be able to deliver shows in June or July.”
For additional information about funding and how it can be accessed by UK theatres, visit: Our open funds | Arts Council England.
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