Written by Brian Logan, Artistic Director of Camden People’s Theatre
After the theatres closed last March, CPT didn’t immediately join the rush to digital. We didn’t want to add to the pressure on artists – already anxious for their livelihoods – by implying they should be making work, immediately, in a whole new artform. Also, we didn’t know if we could monetise ‘virtual’ theatre – and unless artists could generate income from it, they shouldn’t be asked to do it.
What we did instead was speak to artists and practitioners in our orbit. How could we be useful? What could we provide? It turned out there was an appetite for a digital outlet for their work – and a sense, too, that the digital shows we were seeing on our screens last summer excluded the types of work CPT artists make. There were lots of ‘plays’, and Shakespeare, and recordings of live performance shot with 102 cameras in opulent playhouses. But this wasn’t theatre as CPT-goers knew it: democratic, shape-shifting, outside the box.
So we established CPT Digital – a suck-it-and-see strand of live-streamed / virtual / non-corporeal home entertainment that turns six months old this week. It started life last September, in response to our friends Beats + Elements’ scheme for a new Instagram cabaret for beatbox and hiphop theatre artists, EYEBALLZ. Together with an online gig we had brewing from No Direction Home (that’s the migrant and refugee comedy collective we initiated with Counterpoints Arts), EYEBALLZ formed our opening CPT Digital offer: spirited leftfield performance from the kind of voices marginalised in the mainstream rush online.
It was a hit: Beats + Elements’ event had over 1,000 impressions on Instagram. So we kept the platform open, supporting artists – on a roughly fortnightly basis – to get amazing work out there digitally. Sometimes our support was financial; sometimes we made our space available for creation or recording. Sometimes, we just put our promotional heft behind the activity. Always, we worked with extraordinary CPT artists boldly reimagining what theatre could be in a virtual space.
It’s only now, six months on, that a picture swims into focus of how CPT Digital has worked. The good news is that audiences are tuning in: 308 people watched one of our most recent events, Lucy Dear’s All In Your Head, far outstripping the capacity of our IRL theatre. They’re paying too, usually on a Pay What You Can basis, with a sliding scale of suggested sums to contribute. And they come from far and wide: we’ve identified audience members so far from Romania, China, the US, Italy, Canada, India, Ireland, Hong Kong, Belgium and Switzerland as well as the UK.
This expanded accessibility is a great learning for us, and one of the reasons we’ll definitely maintain the platform when theatres re-open. “As a mother of two young children, it allows me to watch more live theatre that I would be unable to attend,” one viewer told us. Others cited health conditions that might otherwise prevent them engaging with CPT’s work; others, based in Devon, Yorkshire and beyond, welcomed the chance to visit CPT without leaving their front rooms.
At the end of a grim twelve months, it’s very therapeutic to look back on the projects supported through CPT Digital. The quality has been so high! Encounter’s The Kids are Alright, denied by the second lockdown its real-world outdoor performance in CPT’s neighbourhood, but a huge success digitally. Uproot Productions’ absorbing cross-disciplinary festival This is Black 2.0. Adam Lenson’s work-in-progress What If You Die? and Knaive Theatre’s urgent Us Post-23/3. We’re so proud of this work, allowing us to sustain a stellar offer to audiences when our usual channels of communication are down.
And it just keeps getting better: next week, the inimitable Bert & Nasi join the programme, and we’ve got new work upcoming from Augusto Corrieri, Gash Theatre, some mind-blowing projects arising from our Outside the Box commission, a digital Sprint festival – and a whole new series of EYEBALLZ cabarets too. OK, so it’s not – nor is it intended as – a substitute for IRL live theatre. Nor is it something that all artists will want to engage in: to all those patiently waiting for living, breathing, in-the-room-together performance to return, we salute (and will be here for) you. But, six months in and counting, we couldn’t be more excited by what CPT Digital has become.