Theatre companies including Cahoots NI have described how they’ve responded with creativity and business savvy to generate revenue during lockdowns.
But the amount does not nearly match the losses from festival fees and box office income, industry insiders said.
Around 90% of companies operating this time last year have moved to digital platforms and many are generating at least some income as well as developing new audiences, both locally and globally.
Cahoots NI, an independent company that produces theatre for young people, has attracted 5,000 viewers to its interactive shows, including its University of Wonder and Imagination.
But it has generated just 10% of its estimated £0.5m in lost revenue from cancelled shows and festivals over the last year.
The company, which has kept 15 cast and crew working through most of the pandemic, has digitally toured around dozens of theatres and festivals across the UK, Ireland and in the USA.
It returns to NI for this month’s Belfast Children’s Festival.
It is upbeat about the future, with the pandemic helping grow its international audience and led to developing a “digital first” strategy in tandem with live performances when theatres reopen.
Cahoots NI artistic director Paul ‘Bosco’ McEneany said: “We’ve started to think differently about our company. We can now see the limitless possibility which technology can bring to our productions - not just in its use as part of our shows but in how we reach new audiences and generate income from creating the joy and wonder that theatre and live performance brings.”
Revenue was generated through the performance fees from festivals and theatre for University of Wonder and Imagination and a drive-in Christmas show created for The Junction in Antrim in December. The company had been touring with a show in AmeriCa at the time of the first lockdown. It was cancelled along with other bookings over the next two years, leaving cast and crew out of work - until the company looked into the potential for digital.
The team then started thinking quickly about developing its digital, interactive show, which debuted at the Belfast International Arts Festival
Up to ten devices can interact with the show at any one time, each making choices that affect the performance in real-time and meaning each family or group watching on a device gets their own individual show. Thousands of individual shows have now been performed.
It is not known exactly how much theatre companies in NI have lost in revenue over the last year, but a box office survey of the creative arts industry by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland suggests an average drop of 72%.
Expected losses included £8.3m for ticket sales and an additional £5.3m from other revenue streams among the 42 organisations surveyed.
Niamh Flanagan, director of Theatre and Dance NI, said companies have lost thousands of pounds but there is no exact figure.
But Ms Flanagan added: “Companies have responded with agility and flexibility in the face of this. They have responded so incredibly.
“There is a notion a lot of companies are not businesses, but they have responded with such agility.
“And they have supported each other in terms of information.
“The ability to generate revenue has been severely impacted, no doubt about it. Live performance is their business, but they have responded to create new markets, new audiences and to new ages.”
Zoe Seaton, artistic director of the Big Telly Theatre Company, said the group used money saved from six cancelled touring projects to help fund nine live. interactive digital productions.
Every show was watched in at least 15 countries, and the company charges for tickets, Ms Seaton said, adding approximately 100 artist and crew have worked on the productions, which have been watched by between 10,000 to 12,000 people, an average of two to three per device.
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey recently announced just over £10m in funding for 168 creative organisations who applied to the Stability and Renewable Programme.