See you in the virtual bar! Digital dramas capture buzz of theatregoing | Theatre

A new digital initiative has been launched to recreate the social experience of theatregoing, complete with a virtual bar where audiences can chat over interval drinks. Sound Stage, presented by Pitlochry Festival theatre and the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh in collaboration with Naked Productions, will have an opening season of eight new audio plays by writers including Mark Ravenhill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Roy Williams and John Byrne. There will be one premiere a month from March onwards.

Pitlochry’s artistic director, Elizabeth Newman, said that it would enable audience members to connect with each other during the isolation of lockdown and give them the sense of a special event that is missing from many theatre streams. For people who live on their own, she said, the theatre is “a place to go and see other people – to have a story but also to talk about what they’ve just experienced”. The buzzy atmosphere in a venue before the play starts and the social interactions with front-of-house staff are recreated online. Audiences buy a ticket, visit the Sound Stage website and are taken to their virtual seat or to the bar, where a host enables them to chat with others, before the bell warns them the play is about to begin. Afterwards there will be post-show discussions with the creative team. Newman said that an integral part of theatregoing for her has always been catching up with friends and having conversations about the play. Sound Stage intends to bring that interactivity and sense of community online.

Elizabeth Newman, Pitlochry’s artistic director

Pitlochry, situated in Perthshire, has worked hard to engage older visitors. Before its doors were closed by the pandemic there was a considerable uptake for its matinee club, which facilitated discussions about the play with tea and biscuits. The pandemic’s impact on mental health has been huge, said Newman, observing that those who experience loneliness are now further isolated because of the lockdown. Soon after the coronavirus outbreak, her theatre launched a telephone club to reach out to its audiences during the building’s closure, with actors, artists and other members of the theatre team calling those who felt isolated.

The Sound Stage season opens in March with Ravenhill’s autobiographical play Angela, which entwines his upbringing with his mother’s experience of dementia in her later years. Roy Williams’ drama will explore the “special relationship” between the UK and the US. Jaimini Jethwa’s play Hindu Times, which was featured last year in the Guardian’s Future Plays series of extracts, follows the deities Vishnu and Brahma on a night out in Dundee. Sound Stage also includes new works by Lynda Radley, Gary McNair and Frances Poet. The aim is to present the plays in the theatre in the future, and to continue Sound Stage premieres after venues have once more opened their doors.

Newman warned that the theatre industry’s recovery would be akin to a rehabilitation after an illness. “You get setbacks. You think it’s going well and all of a sudden it’s not. The way to recover from illness is to go slow and to go steady, to be really clear with yourself about what is manageable and achievable and what is going to mean long-term recovery. We have to be aware that this is going to take time. It’s not going to go smoothly and it’s not going to be the flick of a switch.”

During the pandemic, Pitlochry released a new audio drama by David Greig, Adventures with the Painted People, which had originally been envisioned as a stage production but was created remotely by an artistic team scattered across the UK. The theatre then planned a festive promenade show on its grounds; Covid restrictions meant that it was filmed for audiences to watch at home.

Newman said that, when restrictions ease, her theatre will return to creating work outdoors before mounting an indoor production and she recognised that organisations must work hard at rebuilding audience confidence in visiting venues again. “Audiences do want to come together to experience stories and make sense of the world,” she said. “We have to keep trying to do that.”


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