Digital performances, live audiences and new opportunities

I’m Claire Symonds, the senior producer for artist development at The Lowry. That means it is my job to support theatre makers, dance makers, circus artists and independent companies as they take risks, experiment, explore new ways of working and learn how to navigate our industry.

Today I’m going to share some thoughts about digital performance over the last year and explain why we are launching Live Now, a new programme offering three £10,000 commissions to performance makers to create brand new online work over the next year.

One of the things that I love most about my job is finding ways that The Lowry can support artists to explore the big questions in their own practice or the industry at large.

This year has thrown up an entirely new set of questions for artists, and for us here at The Lowry too. Over the last year, we’ve all become used to watching performances online. From high quality, large scale shows like the West End smash Emilia, which will be back online from 1 March, through to Little Angel Theatre’s short theatre shows for children, watching a show via a screen isn’t too much of a leap from watching a movie or a box set on Netflix.

But watching a filmed performance doesn’t offer the same experience as being part of a live audience. The magic of live performance lies in the interplay between the performer and the audience. Performers will subtly change their performance according to the movements, noises and laughter of those watching from the stalls. And we, in turn, acknowledge this by stifling our sneezes or our sobs, staying in our seats when our attention wanders, and clapping until our hands hurt when the curtain comes down.

And it goes even deeper than that. In 2017, University College London published a piece of research showing that when audience members come together, their heartbeats synchronise and their heart rates rise and fall together as they watch a show.

Audience members’ hearts beat together at the theatre

Our individual and collective participation matters in a live audience. It also matters when it comes to how we approach our online life. We expect to be able to comment on and interact with everything we encounter; we teach algorithms to anticipate our tastes and suggest things for us to watch, listen to or buy; we form communities and develop shared histories with people we never have and never will meet.

If both live performance and online engagement are built on the relationship between the audience and what they are encountering, what does that mean for how we might approach online performance? How can we put online audiences at the heart of what they experience? How do you make an audience member’s attention matter to a performance? And what might digital performance be if we view it on its own terms, rather than as a stand in for something else?

These aren’t completely new questions. Artists have been exploring digital technology in performance for decades in different ways, from virtual performances in Second Life to creating improvised plays where audiences direct the action through tweeting and hashtags. In the visual arts, digital performance is a thriving field in its own right – as The Lowry’s digital art programme has demonstrated for many years.

But what fascinates me is how digital performance has suddenly become a mainstream artform, and how the speed at which this is happening means that artists, companies and organisations of all sizes are all exploring different approaches at the same time.

One approach we’re seeing more frequently is an experience that combine live performance with the interactivity of an escape room. My favourite example of this comes from Swamp Motel.

Introducing Swamp Motel

Their online trilogy, beginning with Plymouth Point, has sent more than 40,000 audience members on a hunt across the internet to uncover a story of conspiracy, cults and corruption. The third part of the trilogy, The Kindling Hour, has just been launched and is already selling fast.

The Kindling Hour

Other companies are beginning to explore how they can adapt choose-your-own-adventure approaches. Some of our favourite new musical theatre companies including SpitLip, Burnt Lemon Theatre, Sheep Soup, members of BAC’S Beatbox Collective and our brand new Associate Artists The Letter Room, have recently started working together on an enormous experiment called The Marathon Project, which is inspired by the shambolic and ridiculous Olympic Marathon of 1904. Spanning an interactive website, live performances and audience collaboration, this project is exploring how audiences can find their own way through the race.

And others are making work that is about directly connecting audience members with each other. Leeds-based company Riptide have developed Project Intimacy, which aims to combat isolation and encourage connection between audience members. The project uses scientific research about how we connect with each other to pair strangers from different places in the country, who will share thoughts, experiences and conversation over two weeks via Whatsapp.

We are seeing some great work being made these ways but they are just the starting point. We want to support artists who are experimenting with other new approaches. That’s why today we are launching Live Now, a new commissioning programme offering three awards of £10,000 each to performance makers who will create new shows to share with audiences through #LoveLowry over the next year. We can’t wait to see what happens next.

For more information about our Live Now Commissions programme, click here.