Theatre is in very good health if West End box office take is anything to go by. Attendance has grown every year for seven years to over 14 million bums on seats. Good news if you like musicals. Meanwhile, in quiet corners, away from all these stage versions of movie brands like The Lion King and Sister Act, there are significant trends in new forms of theatre and new methods of reaching and engaging audiences:
• Productions are stepping out of those big old buildings and inviting audiences to perambulate around the action
• Works become site specific - devised around a real place rather than a set
• They can contain personal interaction between cast and audience
• Audiences are immersed in the drama, no longer simply spectators, they are also the cast
• And we're seeing the rise of documentary and verbatim theatre in which the recorded text of real events is acted out.
These developments mirror closely the movements and instincts of web drama and transmedia story telling:
• Web drama and ARG have the capacity to break the tyranny of the rectangular screen. Viewers/players perambulate amongst web sites to construct a narrative
• Instead of site specific, we see web site specific drama
• We also see personal interaction between characters and audience via email, IM, etc.
• And audiences immersed in the story as performers
• The blurring of the documentary and the real is common
I have long felt that web drama has a stronger affinity with theatre than television, not for the clearly compelling creative parallels listed above, but because the of the economics. Most TV is commissioned by broadcasters who are funded by advertising - TV shows are essentially the stuff you need to get people to look at the ads. In the nascent web drama market, commissioning opportunities are rare. This is because unlike in TV, online advertising doesn't fund production and because web success is so hard to predict. Web commissioners are often only interested in ideas that have been road-tested and had some level of viral success. This is akin to a theatre only putting on a show after it has proved itself at Edinburgh.
This will remain the case in web drama until commissioners can find a financially fruitful business model that supports the cost of production and beyond that, product development. In the meantime it is worth those who are experimenting in the form looking to the DIY, let's put on a show right here, approach of theatre for guidance. Either that or do web musicals of movie brands - Apocalypse Now in 13 three minute song and dance routines. I'd watch.
Clay Shirky writes in Here Comes Everybody that software or media that is developed by people who are donating their time for free (linux or wikipedia) has an advantage over commercially produced material (windows or encarta) because, since there is no need for financial investment (apart from freely given time), there is less tendency to conservatism - more chance of stumbling on real innovation. It seems likely that the tendency for web channels to leave product development to film makers to do at their own expense, cherry picking the good ideas, is part of the same trend Shirky identifies. They can't afford to experiment and get it wrong. It is all well and good to expect web dramatist to just go ahead and make their web drama, just as theatre people have done for years, but it massively limits what is possible. We get some gems, but they are all cheap gems.
Theatre has a mixed economy of commercial, DIY and state-subsidised and I suggest web drama needs the same. We need well funded arts or BBC funded dramas to balance out the clever cheap series and the occasional commercially funded series.