The Young Vic plans to livestream all of its future productions, its artistic director has said, insisting theatre can never go back to being something that can only be experienced by physically being there.
Kwame Kwei-Armah told the Guardian the pandemic had changed theatre forever, with the livestreaming of plays becoming “hard baked” into how the industry operates
Kwei-Armah said that during lockdown he had resolved to “innovate, not just replicate” resulting in a project titled ‘Best Seat in Your House’ which will use multiple cameras and allow online audiences to change what they are looking at.
The issue with zoom plays, he said, was they are “curated through the lens” of the director.
“What do I love about the live experience? Even though the director pushes me in the direction of where he or she wants me to look, I have the final say. I can choose to look at the person who is stage left. I can choose to look at the person who is stage right. I can choose to look at my fellow audience members. That’s really where the idea was born – of giving the audience the choice to change seats.”
He confessed that in his younger, poorer days he would sometimes buy the cheapest ticket and scan for who didn’t show up, what seat could he move to?
“I want to replicate that for the audience. I want them to be able to move seat to seat and be curators of their own experience.”
There will also be the option to do none of that and opt for the “director’s cut”.
Kwei-Armah announced a reopening season which begins with Changing Destiny, an adaptation by Ben Okri of a 4,000-year-old Egyptian poem about Sinuhe the Warrior King. It will feature designs by the architect Sir David Adjaye. Other highlights include a pandemic-delayed production of Hamlet starring Cush Jumbo and a new play by James Graham, a co-production with Headlong, about the birth of political punditry.
The hope is that there will be two live streams of each future production with tickets capped at about 500. It will be “all the productions that we get the rights to,” said Kwei-Armah. “Not just the author rights but the cast. There may be some actors who say I don’t want to do this and then we’ll yield to that.”
The pandemic has significantly widened digital access to theatre and there was no going back, said Kwei-Armah. Watching on a laptop will never beat the live experience “nor should we attempt to,” he said. “But each generation can think about how we define liveness versus access.
“This is what I had to do. I used to fly to New York three, four times a year and I would go to the Lincoln Library and watch videos of productions that they had filmed. That’s how I got to see a lot of George C. Wolfe’s work. It’s how I got to see Angela Bassett playing Lady Macbeth. I got to see that because I had the wealth.”
The new livestreaming innovations were about playing with technology, he said. “I do want to emphasise it is not in any way a replacement for live theatre, not in any way something I think will compete with the live experience.
“It is about access. That family in Scunthorpe who may want to see James Graham’s play and can’t get down for the day. That family in Cincinnati who can’t get over. Access is our driver and this is a way that we make that access just a little more here and now. We won’t stop with that, we’ll keep on innovating.”
The 2021 Young Vic season, titled Welcome Back and Welcome Home, will also feature a play involving artificial intelligence which came about after Kwei-Armah read an AI-written opinion piece in the Guardian.
Kwei-Armah’s career has included acting (five years in Casualty), writing (Elmina’s Kitchen), and leading Baltimore’s Center Stage theatre before succeeding David Lan at the Young Vic. He said he felt utter joy at finally being able to return but said theatres could not come out of the pandemic the way they went in.
Last year was also the year of Black Lives Matter which, with the pandemic, has brought us “a sharper form of listening and I think it penetrated this generation in a way that we haven’t had before. It really deepened the listening.
“We are, as a culture, absolutely making progress. It is going to be hard, slow work though and we shouldn’t ever be thinking that we’ve fixed it, got the holy grail. It should always be a work in progress but thank God we are actually committed to putting the work in for the long term.”