In two clicks of a mouse, you can access myriad films, television programmes, songs, books and games, all thanks to the internet. An iTunes account is a powerful thing. I could be entertained by the sum total of human culture for the rest of my life without having to leave my house. Convenient, eh?
Not only does technology make entertainment more convenient, but it has made it cheaper. Last year a ticket to the West End would put you back an average of £43.07. Downloading a film costs £9.99; a song, 99p – or free, depending on how legal you want to be in pursuit of entertainment. For many, the prospect of being squashed into a dark and crowded college auditorium to see a play, while paying for the privilege, is disconcerting. How can theatre, with a popular image that swings between elitism and esotericism, compete with digital entertainment? And, more pertinently, can student theatre, with low budgets, inexperience and a smaller talent pool, adapt to the rise of the machines?
The biggest threat to theatre is, and always has been, Hollywood. 2009 saw UK box office takings exceed £1 billion for the first time. By comparison, figures from the Society of London Theatre show a West End box office revenue of just over £50 million pounds. It’s a welcome advantage that Oxford student theatre prices are still low – low enough, at least, to compete with the cinemas.
The film industry will always be able to use technology to its fullest extent, but danger arises when technology is used on stage to such a degree that theatre tries to imitate film. Lavish sets, costly action sequences, imposing reconstructions of other worlds – these detract from the essentials of theatre: intimacy, ingenuity, talent and script. The student theatre culture in Oxford is good at maintaining these qualities, largely because they have no choice; a production in the Burton Taylor studio certainly precludes some staging options. Trinity 2010 saw a number of shows performed in garden settings; it is this kind of initiative, in a relatively low-risk environment, that gives student theatre in Oxford an advantage over entertainment technology.
Student productions tend to embrace the real reasons why people go to the theatre. It is certainly entertaining to engross yourself in the special effects-laden environment of Big Hollywood, to absorb the fabricated worlds cinema can create – James Cameron’s epic Avatar flourished in economically tough times because of its rich depiction of another world – but theatre forces proximity with the actors on stage. You could, if you wanted, shout out to them or touch them. To witness the performers, the set, and the sounds so closely, to become some kind of small part of a show is immensely rewarding, precisely because it is shared with so few people, but most importantly because your presence has, in some way, affected the performance.
Theatre still relies on our capacity for imagination, and technology can work in tandem with that. This year’s Edinburgh festival hosted a number of shows that did not cower at the dominance of technology, but used it to their advantage. One particular show, En Route, dispensed with the theatre entirely by giving an MP3 player to its customer, who was then guided through the city and urged to look at it in a new way.
So, while it is sensible to consider how theatre can adapt, the essentials shouldn’t be forgotten. Theatre is live, and it is alive. Theatre has a capacity to reinvent itself – far more so than digital entertainment. So why not here?