I am going to the Stratford Festival to see Love's Labour's Lost next week. Not really, though, just virtually: I'm attending an advance screening from the festival's HD series, a film of its 2016 production of the Shakespeare comedy that will hit movie theatres this month.
I actually make a large distinction between the HD film and the live performance. Indeed, as a critic, I am always looking for the things cinema adds, most notably close-ups of the actors' faces, and the things it takes away – often, theatrical sound and lighting effects are much less magical on screen.
Most people make that same distinction and place a greater value on attending a live performance than on watching a digital version of it. But apparently not everybody. A 2012 study by the Canadian Arts Presenting Association (which goes by the bilingual acronym CAPACOA) showed that a surprising 29 per cent of Canadians said watching or listening to a live TV or radio broadcast of a performance matched their definition of attending a live performance. And 15 per cent thought that streaming a live performance was the same as attending a live show.
With relatively inexpensive screenings in Canada and the United States as well as free CBC broadcasts, the HD series is a fabulous way to make Stratford productions accessible to people who might never travel to the festival in Southwestern Ontario. As video packaged into interactive teaching kits, the films are also a useful educational resource, offering students Shakespeare in North American accents. But there is also the possibility that, for some audiences, the HD series is muddying the live-theatre brand.
It's that kind of conundrum that CAPACOA is pondering as it considers how arts presenters should adapt to the digital era, evaluating both the challenges and the opportunities it presents. Live performance is bound by time and geography, but producers and presenters have increasingly abandoned any notion that this insulates their product from digital realities.
Reading CAPACOA's latest report, released this week under the title Digitizing the Performing Arts, you can glimpse an arts utopia of engrossing multimedia performances that incorporate film, holograms and virtual reality into live shows, while dance, theatre and music of all descriptions, offered by everyone from your local band to the Berlin Philharmonic, will be available on demand in your living room. It's an extension of the world in which cartoon pop-star Hatsune Miku, voiced by synthesizer software and appearing as an animated projection, can sing at live concerts while London's National Theatre and New York's Metropolitan Opera bring HD films featuring real performers to cinemas around the world.
But what happens to the regional theatre downtown while you are at home watching the best London and New York have to offer? Digitizing the Performing Arts also lets you glimpse an arts dystopia in which local and even national arts groups are eclipsed by the screen offerings of international giants, with digital revenues accrued by online distributors rather than artists. It's an extension of the world in which Ottawans can console themselves over the loss of their local Opera Lyra with trips to the multiplex to see the Met's Live in HD, while musicians discover that a million streams on Spotify don't add up to a living.
The report is painfully aware of the way digital models paradoxically tend toward monopoly. It wonders, now that the Berlin Philharmonic has established its digital concert hall as an app available to subscribers on their phones, TVs and computers, how much room there is for other, less prestigious symphonies to offer similar services. The Stratford Festival has brand recognition as a major Shakespearean company and the largest repertory theatre in North America, an image central to the success of its HD series. Similarly, in Toronto, Massey Hall's enviable reputation as a concert venue is part of the cachet of the Live at Massey Hall concert series, which is available both online and in DVD format. But how many other Canadian arts companies or performance venues have this kind of leverage?
Those Massey Hall concerts, by the way, are free online; the cost is underwritten by Ontario Media Development Corp. and Toronto-Dominion Bank. Another challenge to digitizing performance is that consumers expect digital products to be significantly cheaper then their physical counterparts. But filming performances for digital distribution costs money, and artists need to be paid for their recorded appearances. Local and even national performing-arts groups would have to reach exponentially larger audiences through digital projects to recoup the costs, which may not be realistic.
The report, compiled by Frédéric Julien of CAPACOA and research consultant Inga Petri, argues that non-profit groups will need to consider their own versions of vertical integration, with presenters making strategic alliances with producers or co-operating with private industry to build networks large enough to draw the audiences they will need. As a model it points to Radioplayer Canada, a single app implemented by 400 public, private, community and campus radio stations. For the performing arts, the details are still hazy, but the message is clear: Go digital or go home.