Digital livestream stuff and what it can now mean for audiences… @stratfordeast

21 Feb


trse6I wanted to put something down in a blog about the last digital livestream I ran from Stratford East. It was between Christmas and New Year on the 29th of December. For this we took the live feed from the Christmas show, Sinbad the Sailor into the Children’s wards of Bart’s Health Trust and also to Richard House Children’s Hospice in Beckton.

The team in the theatre had been well prepared and all the actors and the creative team were all on board for the livestream. Using four cameras we were able to deliver an ultra HD feed to the locations where we had our audiences. The Hospice were amazing they had invited families, siblings and carers of the children who were resident, and set up a big party in their meeting room which was equipped with an HD projector, full screen and surround sound. They provided cakes, drinks and costumes for all the guests and there were 30 families and friends who were able to attend and watch the show.

I was with them in the hospice, and experienced the live feed into the room first hand. I was also in contact with the tech team in the theatre, and the other Stratford East team who were at Newham University Hospital Children’s ward.

The tech held up for the whole two and half hours without a glitch, and the sound and picture was pin sharp and clear. But the most important aspect was the interaction and engagement with the audience in the remote venues. In our room in the hospice when the actors looked down the lens and waved at the staff and residents and called out their names the cheer back from us was almost deafening!

But it was when the actors, and the whole audience in the theatre sang happy birthday to a little girl called Hope who was four that day. She had been attending the Hospice for some months and she was with her family in the room, and her face lit up when she heard her name called and she called back to the big cinema screen with unalloyed joy, and when everyone in the room joined in and she turned and smiled at us all. Everyone was singing Happy Birthday to her – and that was over 600 people. During this I caught her grandfather’s eye as he wiped away a tear and he saw me and nodded back to acknowledge that we had both just shared a moment of what it means to be human.

So after working on this digital stuff for many year now, and helped to talk and write about and try and convince people of the value of this work and how it can connect with audiences. This event has clarified for me the nature of what we do, and how we have a duty to utilise the technology available to share our work much more widely.

So when people continue to try and tell me that well ‘of course it is not the same as being there’, and how digital ‘dilutes the experience’ etc etc…I will remind myself of this true event and redouble my effort to continue to explore and find new ways of reaching people in the places and places that they make and live their lives.

I will be presenting a ‘how to get started’ in live to digital work at UK Theatre’s Touring Symposium on March 23rd, and I will be delivering a keynote at the European Theatre Convention in Karlsruhe, Germany on April 7th.



Livestream from @Stratfordeast to East London Hospitals and Richard House Children’s Hospice

28 Dec


Today I am preparing the final details for the Theatre Royal Stratford East Pantomime, Sinbad the Sailor that will be streamed live to children and their families in wards and units in Bart’s Health Trust Hospitals and Richard House Children’s Hospice on the afternoon of December 29th.

Thursday will be an early start with the livestream camera team heading to the theatre to set up their multi-camera set up – with 5 cameras and microphones places around the auditorium and two operators in the left and right stalls boxes. It will be mixed live by the team who are also in one of the upper circle boxes, this live feed will go straight into the broadband connection at the Theatre and will be encoded and placed onto a player that can be then watched online via the password protected page on the website.

Away from the theatre in the streaming locations at both Newham University Hospital and Richard House Hospice, I will be working with the Stratford East teams to prepare the projectors and to to set the rooms out for the families and children to come along. This is something that not only allows families, and siblings of children who are receiving care to share in the experience, but also for the staff as well.

The live feed will also be available to young patients across the Hospital network who are also receiving treatment, so they can watch it on their iPads or smartphones whilst having dialysis for example.

This is part of the work of the Theatre Royal, to engage as widely as possible with a diverse range of audiences, and artists to deliver and share the work we make. This is now possible across a range of digital platforms. I am really delighted to be part of this journey with Stratford East.

It is clear that this is the direction of travel for work to be made more available, and the more opportunities Arts and Cultural organisations can find to engage with the widest possible communities for which they are there to serve, the greater the opportunity for connection and understanding of each other, and to help us find our common humanity.

This livestream has been made possible with support from Galliard Homes

Quality Metrics? Arts Organisations need to wake up and smell the coffee… #artsfunding

27 Sep


There have been lots of opinions flying around on the internet over the last week about the forthcoming Quality Metrics that Arts Council England will be adopting as part of their assessment criteria for Arts Organisations.

One was a collection of tweets that had been aggregated into a Storify by Arts Professional. If you follow the list down to the bottom you will see that I was the very last tweet, and I spoke out in favour against an overwhelming tide of those who were anti the whole idea.

I am in favour of this for a number of reasons, firstly it allows our audiences, as well as our peers and creative teams to input into what we thought about the work. For example, the writing and the story might have been brilliant, but the lighting, and sound were poor, and the venue experience was cold and uncomfortable. These are all different aspects about an Audiences’s experience of a piece of work – An ‘AX ‘ if you like.  The metrics allow us to put together a whole array of responses and create data that can be used for future planning, development and to share with other organisations, about how we might improve and develop the work we make, and for whom.

This is the world in which we now live. I am pretty sure that all the people who are being negative about this use online data all the time to make assessments and judgements. Who has never used TripAdvisor before booking somewhere? Who has never looked at an Amazon or ImDB rating before watching or purchasing a film? You can’t even buy a toaster from Tesco online without reading the reviews.

So let’s take a step back, and have a think. The Arts Council already have assessments on our work, made by a small group of assessors. In their brief, the venue, the front of House, the Programme, the Audience, as well as the work in terms of presentation and production are all asked to be assessed. So are we saying that a handful of reports are a better judgement on Artistic work then a range of responses and data from audiences across the whole tour, or lifespan of a piece of work.

What does this say about the accusation of ‘behind doors and potentially elitist judgements’ versus a range of public responses that can be combined with peer and professional assessments?

I am a director, I have used the Quality Metrics scheme, and I think the range of responses and reactions are really useful. After all, my work has been judged for years by professional critics who decide how many stars they think a show is worth. So how about now extending that for companies who don’t get reviewed in that way, and to allow those people who have actually paid for a ticket to be able to give feedback to a company.

So my questions are these, do we not think that work made by artists and companies that have received public money should not be judged by the public too? Are we not interested in the data and responses from our audiences? Do we think a behind closed doors assessment is the only true way to assess a company and their work?

The time really is to wake up and smell the coffee, and to work with this concept and to help it to develop. We are not going to go back into the analogue box, digital is here and it is up to us how we can use it and to help us to make the case for public support.

But we can only do that with support from the public…








Who do we now trust to tell us the truth?

10 Jul

This last two weeks have been quite extraordinary. I have read a quote allegedly by Lenin from almost 100 years ago

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

This is what it feels like has happened in the last fortnight. Where not only has something seismic happened that will alter the course of our historical trajectory, but the mainstream parties have all but seemed to implode.

Watching the unfurling of behaviour of so called allies and party colleagues on both sides has been truly staggering. Backstabbing, double crossing, in fighting, one-upmanship and all of it seemingly self serving and careerist.

In the meantime we have a political vacuum, which is being filled with a rise in noisy hate speech and crimes and terms like ‘suck it up sad losers’

So who do we trust now? some newspapers and media outlets? After some truly shocking partisan antics and fuelling of hate speech?

I think not.

The politicians? who are now squabbling over internal fights for leadership – whilst the pound plummets to a lower point than 1985, and the rest of the world looks on in disbelief.

I don’t think so.

So who will hold the mirror up and speak rationally about where we are and what this means? Who do we trust to tell us the truth?

I have spent the last week with artists, and theatremakers from across the country, and this has echoed out from all sides. We all need to listen to those who have not been heard. Those whose voices have been lost, and those who have felt ignored and left out.

As the Westminster bubble focuses inwardly on itself, we need to look outwards, across the country, and to work collectively. Maybe this does need artists to help us to listen, to reflect and to rebuild.

We need to not keep spouting the half truths from newspapers, rhetoric, and division, but to tell our own truths and to listen to people’s own truths too.

It is what makes us human, and we all know there is more that connects us than divides us. The future story of this country is in all of our hands. It is our turn to shape that story and to build our future that is not about division, but about tolerance, acceptance and understanding.

It is about being truthful…


#StandTogether – Where is the response from artists about the divisive rhetoric?

19 Jun


This is how I feel right now. I don’t want to feel like this but I do.

I want to do something that stands up to the brutish hectoring and divisive narratives that keep pouring out from the campaign. Who is with me on this?

When I was a student we stood up, we supported the Rock against Racism movement, we were not going to stand for the bully boy tactics of the racist gangs – we confronted them and artists stood shoulder to shoulder against the wave of hatred and bigotry of the time.

I look around now for the counter culture, the movements that challenge wave after wave of austerity that have been slowly cooking this melting pot of anger. We need to create a new alternative voice, a new chorus of disapproval and not let the politics of division and hate win the day.

I am angry that this situation has crept up on us. We could see it coming surely? History has shown us that plenty of times.

So, we need to find a new voice, that connects across all cultures and counters the narrative of fear.

I want to connect with people who feel the same, who want to do something, make something, and to stand up and make a difference.

Whatever happens after June 23rd we are going to have a lot of repair work to do – we need to reconnect with our humanity and not allow the divisions to deepen and fracture us.

This can be the point we can get together and make a real difference. Who’s in?



Let’s talk about the rights and wrongs of IP for creative and cultural projects

2 May

I know this is going to ruffle some feathers, get some people’s backs up and that kind of thing. But it really is time we addressed the issue of rights in terms of creative work that has been made and produced using public money.

At some point in the journey of a piece of work that has been made using funding that is essentially public money, should, at some point, become feely available for all to see, and benefit from. This point should be arrived at after the piece of work has had chance to recoup costings and profits, and to use the word ‘monetise’ its potential.

I am talking about the capture of theatre work and live performances, and the ever growing  archive and body of work that we are now creating and producing. I am also talking about the archive and body of work that exists from days before the internet that is stored and hidden away. Lets be creative about the licensing for its use…

Why can’t we have some of the recorded work captured by leading theatres and organisations made available for people to revisit, study, share or enjoy? As long as they are not being traded further for monetary gain, they are then in a Creative Commons bank of ideas and inspiration for all to see and learn from. A digital public space for creative endeavour and understanding. A free library of visual, audio and performing arts.

I take my thinking from the talk I saw at TED way back in 2007 – yes 9 years ago – by Larry Lessig, who was then introducing the whole concept of Creative Commons Licences. Let’s reconsider these now. After all, where did the money come from in the first place to make the work? From either public subsidy, or people buying tickets. So actually, we are also stakeholders in each project, so at some point it must be OK to ask for a return?

As Professor Lessig says ‘let common sense prevail’




An Interview about my work

29 Apr

This interview was by Jo Caird and was in The Stage on April 22nd 2016

(I can’t cut and paste the whole interview on here – so here are the highlights – please click on the link above for the full article)

The word ‘digital’ will no longer be used soon, says Marcus Romer, former artistic director of Pilot Theatre and one of the pioneers of translating the live theatre experience to the screen. “People don’t say ‘digital music’ any more. In the same way we don’t say ‘electric kettle’. It’s just there, part of our lives.”

The fact that ‘digital’ is still regarded as something of a novelty in the arts is a problem, he says. “We should just get on with it and think about audiences and the mechanisms for us to reach those audiences, and how we can make the work engaging and create an empathetic response.”

Romer hasn’t always been an evangelist for the digital. His first calling, in fact, was something very different: fans of his theatre work might be surprised to learn that he worked as a dental surgeon for six years after graduating from the University of Leeds in the early 1980s.

“In 1989, I was in charge of the weekend trauma cover for for the whole of West Yorkshire. If you got into a fight on a Saturday night in Leeds or Bradford, you’d end up seeing me on a Sunday morning with your broken jaw,” he recalls with a chuckle.

Romer loved working in hospitals, but found himself increasingly dissatisfied with the isolation of surgical practice, of “ending up in a room with people who can’t talk back to you, don’t want to talk back to you and can’t wait to get out and not see you again”. So, having enjoyed acting at university, the surgeon made his first steps in professional theatre alongside pal Dave Moutrey (now chief executive at Home in Manchester), working with him on shows at the Billingham International Folklore Festival.

He began picking up acting roles, until in 1989 he finally gave up the day job, telling himself that he could always go back to the NHS if this new venture didn’t work out. “I had nothing to lose,” he says of that period. “And that mentality served me right through my life.”

Directing jobs followed, starting in 1992 with The Leaves of Life, a community play co-produced by Major Road Theatre Company and the Nottingham Playhouse. A couple of years later, Romer was appointed artistic director at Pilot Theatre, at that stage a tiny operation with just one other staff member (who left not long afterwards) and a deficit.

The fact that the company was willing to take a risk on him – “Pilot had always had a thing about taking people who are new to the game” – had a profound impact on Romer and the people he went on to work with over the next 22 years as head of the York-based touring company.

“Lots of people now are talking about the lack of diversity in the room and that’s something we were always on the nail with at Pilot, because it was just a creative space to be,” he says. “The creative answer is always to work with teams that are not like you, to help you deliver work that you haven’t done before and make you feel alive like you did when you first started out.”

Something else that has informed Romer’s thinking as a theatremaker over the years was his experience in emergency medical settings.

“When I went to work in the arts, I realised that no one is ever going to die because of something we did. There’s never a crash team,” he says. Compared to people working in other sectors, therefore, artists are far freer to take risks. “It’s an immense privilege and it should be treated as such,” he says.

Lloyd Thomas, Mark Monero, Gamba Cole and Oliver Wilson in Pilot Theatre’s Antigone in 2014. Photo: Robert Day
Lloyd Thomas, Mark Monero, Gamba Cole and Oliver Wilson in Pilot Theatre’s Antigone in 2014. Photo: Robert Day

The consequences of such creative risk-taking by Romer and his team led to award-winning, critically acclaimed productions such as Lord of the Flies, which played to more than 500,000 people at 60 venues between 1998 and 2009, and Antigone, a 2014/15 co-production with Derby Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East. It also allowed the director to experiment boldly with theatre and technology, establishing the Shift Happens conference at York Theatre Royal in 2008; pioneering live streaming of theatre in the UK with the Pilot production This Child later that same year; and following up with an interactive, multi-camera live stream of the York Mystery Plays in 2012.

Shift Happens, initially inspired by Romer’s visit to the TED conference in California on a travel bursary from Arts Council England, took place annually until 2013. Then, in 2014, Romer co-curated No Boundaries, a symposium that continued where Shift Happens left off, exploring new technologies, new models of funding and new behaviours in the arts.

The decision to live-stream events between two venues, Watershed in Bristol and the Guildhall in York in the case of No Boundaries 2014, says Romer, “came down to the nub of the work that I’m interested in making: things happen live across a number of spaces and they can still affect, engage and inspire people”.

Live captioning at conferences is one of the tools he’s used to facilitate that engagement, but Romer has more tricks up his sleeve, such as live, multiple translation, which the director hopes will be introduced in the not-too-distant future.

“That technology exists, but at the moment we’re just playing a little bit of catch up. This is ultimately about communication and connection and sharing ideas, whether that’s artistic and visionary ideas or sharing thinking and practice.”

No Boundaries took place again in 2015 and talks are underway regarding its return early next year as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017. Romer will almost certainly be involved in some capacity, this time under the banner of his new vehicle, Artsbeacon UK.

Romer is passionate about technology and the arts, but it’s “not about the technology per se, but what it could achieve for audiences, artists and makers”.

“You could take these tools and create a new dynamic for creating work; something that was a sort of a hybrid: it wasn’t theatre, it wasn’t film,” he says. “There’s something in that middle space that we still haven’t quite cracked yet, but it’s that constant iterative process of building on what we know and what we do, because it’s exciting to be creating new things.”

He’s got some bold ideas. Why can’t we have drama on demand in theatres and other cultural spaces, like we do with television programmes on Netflix, for example? “A Spotify playlist equivalent of the greatest hits from the National Theatre should be available when you walk through the door,” he suggests.

We already have the technology – it’s just a question of shaking up our thinking around intellectual property, he says. “This stuff we have made has been supported by public money, whether people have bought tickets or through public subsidy, so at some point along the life of that piece of work it needs to come back into the public domain for free.”

Having worked almost exclusively in live performance for the last three decades, Romer has begun experimenting in the world of cinema, too. Last year saw the release of The Knife That Killed Me, his feature film debut as a writer/director, made entirely using green screen technology. He’s also just co-produced a short film called The Works, starring Ralph Fiennes and Sharon D Clarke, and has other movie projects on the cards, “looking at film in new ways that don’t necessarily feel they have to fit into that traditional distribution model”.

For the moment, whatever he’s up to, Romer is just enjoying the pace of freelancing. He loved his time at Pilot, but he’s pleased to be free of the responsibilities of running of a national portfolio organisation, from day-to-day admin to three-year funding cycles.

“What’s great is I haven’t got a three-year plan for life. For the first time, I’ve got some thinking time – and writing time and creating time – to use that bit of my brain that hadn’t been dormant, but had always been fighting me because of applications or something.”

Who knows what that bit of brain might come up with next?,