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Image copyright Lambert Jackson
Image caption Marisha Wallace, whose stage work includes Dreamgirls, Aladdin and Waitress, is among the singers for Leave a Light On

Since Covid-19 closed auditoriums worldwide, theatres have been picking tapes of shows from the library shelf to stream online for those feeling play-starved.

But a few performers are attempting something more radical – regularly live streaming performances from home. There’s an audience – but it’s not easy to make the technology work.

Brian Lonsdale has made a living from acting for 17 years. He’s based in Newcastle, where there’s a family to feed and, these days, to home school.

“When coronavirus started to kick in I was having a Twitter chat with a couple of actor mates discussing what the next few months would bring,” he says.

Image copyright CTC
Image caption Brian Lonsdale: “Acting isn’t exactly a secure profession…”

“Acting isn’t exactly a secure profession and everything was just collapsing. So we invented the Coronavirus Theatre Club (CTC) and it took off.”

CTC is an online platform for writers, directors and actors, he explains.

“They submit work to us. They rehearse digitally and then each Sunday at 7pm we stream five live monologues back to back.

“I’m pretty much working at it every hour of the day; hundreds and hundreds of theatre people just want to work.

“I look at the scripts submitted and then pair actors with directors and see who wants to do what. I’ve been learning so much.

“Each day I’ll realise there’s something I can’t do or something I should be doing. My life as an actor has been to learn lines, say them on stage and then it’s off to the pub.

“Now I’m splitting the work with my colleagues Sam Neale and Michael Blair and the response has been fantastic. We had 1,000 followers within two hours.”

CTC streams the monologues on Twitter, he explains.

“Each actor is at home in front of their phone which they prop up or maybe have on a tripod. I give them an exact start time and that should be all they have to worry about; they know to begin at 7.13pm or whatever.

“They’re live on their Twitter account and I stream them to the Coronavirus Theatre Club account. It’s my job to try to make it seamless.”

Already they’re contemplating extending beyond mere monologue, says Lonsdale.

“Lots of performers will be self-isolating with other actors so we could for instance do two performers together – or even have a scene split between different parts of the country.”

Image copyright National eTheatr
Image caption James Farley stars in Captain Corelli by Barry McStay for National eTheatr

The CTC hasn’t so far ventured into musical performance. But that’s the focus of Leave a Light On, run by production company Lambert Jackson, which mainly presents concert performances of musicals.

There’s a charge for the shows, using the Theatre Cafe website as a portal.

Currently there’s an ambitious schedule of three 45-minute gigs daily at 14:30, 16:30 and 18:30 BST.

They’re solo performances from kitchens or living rooms – a real test of performers’ vocal skills (and taste in home decor).

Image copyright Lambert Jackson
Image caption Jordan Luke Gage is also performing from home for Leave a Light On

Until now they’ve been live but they’re about to move to a recorded format. Eliza Lambert says the problem has been the connection at performers’ homes.

“Shows will still be ‘as live’, which audiences love. But there’s no point lining up great performers if the technology isn’t reliable, and of course broadband is under pressure now.”

Lambert says the concerts are helping the relatively new company tick over financially.

Little Mix or Frank Sinatra

“But we also knew so many friends who are performers who were desperate to keep working. So we devised our series with West End performers – some have a fan base and some are just starting out.

“They sing some of their favourite songs – sometimes what they’ve been singing on stage or sometimes it’s Little Mix or Frank Sinatra.

“We have a tech team which contacts them and talks through where to place the phone and they do a sound check. Usually there’s eight or nine songs.”

For some shows there have been more than 1,000 people watching live (there’s no archive as yet). Everyone wants a high level of production so the obvious problem was providing music to sing to.

Technical challenges

“Some performers accompany themselves on piano or guitar or even a ukulele,” says Lambert.

“Otherwise our music director Josh Winston goes through the set list and we supply a piano track for use on the day. It’s amazing how quickly we devised a method for all this when we had to.”

Lambert Jackson has constructed an impressive operation on the back of an existing company.

However, Barry McStay, an Irish actor based in London, set up National eTheatr from scratch.

It started as a live operation but he concluded that going live provides too many technical challenges for a small operation.

He’s decided to proceed with new but recorded material. His chosen platform is YouTube, he explains.

Live text chat

“We do 7.30pm four evenings a week – 7.30pm just feels the right time for theatre.

“My initial idea was also to provide a four-way video interview with me, the writer, the director and the performer so we’d have a discussion around the monologue and not just the piece itself.

“But I soon realised all the streaming services are under pressure because so many people are online each evening in lockdown. It just wasn’t stable enough.

“Also it seemed I’d started a major new admin job while locked away in my flat – that wasn’t the plan at all so I needed to simplify.

“So now it’s recorded which is more reliable but there’s still a live text chat so people can give their opinions. And the pieces are all there for people to enjoy afterwards.”

Shared experience

Some eTheatr monologues relate to Covid-19 but not all. One recent piece was The Cloak of Invisibility, about a middle-class London mum who loses her job.

“What matters really is the quality of the writing and the performance,” says McStay. “I didn’t want everything to be coronavirus.”

Marianka Swain is the journalist who runs the UK side of the American theatre website Broadway World.

“We’ve had a lot of success in the shutdown with our Living Room Concerts series with performers from musicals like Lauren Drew and Christina Bennington,” she says.

“So far we’re not going down the live route but it’s something the site has done and I can see the argument for it.

“It would be great to reproduce the shared experience which is one of the strengths of being in a theatre.

Swain says there is no reason why the new breed of streamed drama shouldn’t continue alongside offerings from major venues like the National Theatre.

“When the National streamed One Man, Two Guvnors recently (the hit 2011 comedy with James Corden) it got a really big audience,” she says.

“But what was obvious was the amount of chatter about the whole experience on social media: I’m sure it drew in people who would never have gone to see it in the Lyttelton theatre.

“So coronavirus is making us explore new ways of doing drama. But of course performers and audiences will be so happy when we all get back into a theatre again.”

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