Is digital theatre becoming the most financially viable option for family theatre?


An animated child with hair tied back in a plait wearing a red cape and their back to the viewer as they look into the sun

Children's Theatre Digital

Annabel Morley, co-founder of Children's Theatre Digital which provides a site to explore and interact with the best of theatre for young people across the globe, discusses the importance of digital theatre in the modern age and how valuable it can be to family viewers and the shows they support.

An interesting look at the way live and digital interact in today's creative culture as well as the value each element offers. 

A question I’ve been asking myself constantly creating Children’s Theatre Digital has been ‘can theatre live without the digital sphere in a contemporary age?’ Some may argue that theatre is only theatre for its ‘liveness’ so of course, it can. But for the children’s theatre sector to thrive... I would disagree.

The internet is rammed with videos from fitness to the arts. It takes really knowing what you are looking for to find quality content that hits the mark for what you want. It’s time consuming. Mixed in amongst this, you’ll find family theatre. Somewhere. Here, there, over there… and before you know it you’re distracted by something else. Digital is undoubtedly a huge part of the theatrical experience now, from booking tickets and reading reviews to Google mapping directions and downloading festival apps, so how can we use it to make our work go even further?

I spent months and months researching content for Children’s Theatre Digital, sifting through endless pages of out of date information and broken links to get to the good stuff. What struck me as bizarre during this process was that information hubs for children’s theatre weren’t aimed at children at all, but their adults. Given it’s the adult who will ultimately purchase the tickets, this makes some sense. However the responsibility then lies very much with the parent to encourage their child to experience a theatre event. If the packaging of toys in Hamleys were aimed at parents, sales would drop dramatically. This also means that when a child experiences live theatre, they leave with little to interact with to sustain their relationship with it.

This led me to studying highly successful child-centric platforms such as CBeebies, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, to name a few, to really understand how to connect with children first (with adult supervision) via digital means. Not to find a way to mimic them, theatre can offer so much more, but to see what was working for companies that function solely this way. It made me realise that the children’s entertainment industry is bustling. BUSTLING. It’s overflowing in demand; viewing figures on Horrible Histories are out-of-this-world. Children’s television, film and theatre are blood relatives, the trio are rooted in storytelling. There is no reason then, that if children's theatre makers can engage an audience they know better than anyone (holding a child’s attention in real time for an hour is no mean feat), that children’s theatre cannot be as successful as its siblings in a digital space. I use the term ‘successful’ carefully here - I mean this in the sense of a viable, financially sustainable career option for its makers and extending its global reach (Peppa Pig’s Car Wash with Peppa Pig gains 3 million hits in 6 days…). Of course, children's television shows then also began creating what we specialise in doing, live theatre. And it sells out en masse. Oversubscribed. Every time.

So, it takes no persuading that the ‘digital world’ played well can be a powerhouse for pulling in an audience. Which is especially important for makers like me who are desperate to ditch the other jobs to sculpt a full-time career, or even part-time, purely from our theatre work. The very nature of live work comes with its limitations, venue capacity being one. My experience of making family theatre is that the intimacy of the work is key, and so smaller venues are preferred. Smaller venues, fewer tickets available per show. So, do we put ticket prices up? No, because we want theatre to be accessible to all.

It’s not just economic. Accessibility of live theatre depends so much on location, facilities, or even, as someone recently said, on the confidence a person has to step into a theatre space. The trust between a family booking the show and the show itself has got to be pretty solid for any kind of commitment to be made and the digital versions can lower the ‘risk’ factors involved in this decision-making process. It can bridge the gap as a child’s first point of contact with theatre, wherever they are, which holds the potential to drive their curiosity to seek out local live theatre experiences, or vice versa.

When it comes to children’s theatre, digital cannot live without live. Live cannot thrive without digital. The live celebrates local, the digital celebrates global. Both are interdependent when it comes to stretching the children’s theatre sector to its full potential. I can feel your next question brewing as I draw to a close; 'how do you define theatre produced for digital purposes from television or film?’ - it’s a good question and my answer is that I’m discovering this as I go with theatre makers. I’ll save my findings for my next blog… for now, keep your eyes peeled on Children’s Theatre Digital, we’ll be leading the way!


Do you have any digital family shows in the making? We'd love to hear your plans so do get in touch

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