Pascale Aebischer and Rachael Nicholas: “Creation Theatre and Big Telly’s The Tempest: Digital Theatre and the Performing Audience”

Our paper is concerned with our work on Digital Theatre Transformation: A Case Study and Digital Toolkit, an AHRC/UKRI rapid-response Covid-19 project which involved working with Creation Theatre (Oxford) and Big Telly (Northern Ireland) to explore how, with their Zoom co-production of The Tempest in April 2020, these companies moved online in record time and were able to adapt to the pandemic environment. Our survey and interviews with the creatives and backstage personnel involved in The Tempest afforded us a detailed view of the company’s working practices and the challenges and opportunities the move to digital represented for its creatives. Meanwhile, our audience survey and interviews revealed how core and new audiences responded to the show. Our work thus shed light on how high quality made-for-digital theatre could be a route to commercial success and continued employment for freelance creatives and non-building-based companies such as Creation Theatre and Big Telly. In this paper, our focus is on the role of Shakespeare as an entry point into digital performance and a facilitator, for both the production company and its audience, of the transition from analogue to digital. Key to that transition in this production, we argue, was the liminal character of Ariel (played by Itxaso Moreno), who inhabited an imaginary space that was poised on the border between the analogue and the digital, the audience and the performance. It is Ariel, more than any other character in the production, who was able to move between the fictional world of the performance and the real world of the audience members in their individual homes, and who was able to generate a virtual theatrical community characterised by participation and an intense feeling of liveness. In the final part of our paper, we examine in more detail how the Zoom production invited participation from audiences and we consider how audiences responded to those invitations. Focusing on how such participation generated liveness, a sense of community and emotive responses, we argue that audience participation was key to audiences experiencing this digital Shakespeare production as a unique and specifically theatrical event.

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