Can digital ever replace the live experience?

We used to watch shows in theatres and concert halls, now they’re on screens and podcasts. But Maria Roberts says there’s nothing like the live experience

Research carried out by English Touring Opera recently found that broadcasts of opera productions to cinemas did not motivate people to buy tickets to attend a live opera. I’m not surprised.

Talk of digital often incites debate around access and audience development. Yet it’s useful to consider the unique way a live performance can contribute to a person’s life. The two forms, broadcast and live, are not equal in their knock-on effects: transmitted will never be the same as in person.

Before I began to download my life, I watched a play at a theatre and bought the published script from an usher; then I bought the newspapers that featured the reviews; then I ordered the biography of the playwright written by the theatre critic who wrote the reviews; then I bought the collection of letters by the theatre’s dramaturg to the playwright accepting and declining his work; then I bought the collected love letters of the playwright.

Eventually I’d watch the movie of the playwright’s life; buy the soundtrack; go to watch the director’s next film; attend some seminars; hound an academic; meet a playwright; date a playwright; write about a playwright – and on it went.

Read: Cinemacasts don’t attract new audiences to opera

The live process involved time, people and other places. It was a vibrant love affair. Back then one small act of going to the theatre resulted in a bookshelf crammed with history and gossip. And between the leaves of the books I bought, I hid my own secrets. All personal and unique. You can’t download decadence.

But now, from my hot pink sofa, my engagement with the arts moves at the speed of light. I watch films, documentaries, dance, opera and concerts on Sky Arts and BBC4, I follow links on Twitter. I read books on my iPhone, and, with the same frequency as I attend events, listen to podcasts or watch clips on Vimeo.

Whilst my expenditure as an arts consumer has decreased, I’ve gained weight and damaged my imagination. For every aspect of my life – shopping, friends, romance, work – I hit an app. I’ve become far too digi-native. And my life is not richer for living it online, I’d go as far as to say it lacks authenticity. So I’ve made a decision to reduce the time I spend in front of a screen and spend more time watching live performances on stage, that’s where the real stories are made. And the challenge for arts professionals? It’s to get people like me to spend again.

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