How ‘The Old Vic’ Found Success and Reinvented the Theatre Experience During COVID-19
Sam Sargant, General Manager at The Old Vic, explains how the famous theatre navigated the shift to online performances during COVID-19.
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Updated on May 24, 2021
Published on May 24, 2021
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A year after the beginning of the COVID pandemic, cultural organizations have had to adapt in new ways to make art accessible to the world in a time when it is needed most.
The Old Vic, the most renowned independent theatre in London, found great success in pivoting from in-person performances to an online experience. We sat down with Sam Sargant, General Manager at The Old Vic, to understand how they navigated this shift and reached new audiences while observing social distancing and government guidelines.
Can you tell us more about The Old Vic?
The Old Vic is London's independent not-for-profit theatre. The building has been around for over 200 years, constantly changing. Throughout these changes, the constant over the years has been to remain an open-armed venue. It's inclusive and welcoming to anybody and everybody.
Today, our audiences, like our productions, are diverse. We range from international productions with stars like Claire Foy or Andrew Lincoln to working with our local community of schools and young people through our education and community programmes.
What happened for you in March 2020, and how did you get the idea to host live performances over Zoom?
It was tough. We had to close our doors very suddenly and we lost 90% of our income overnight. When we had to close in March 2020, we still had two weeks of a play with Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming on and a sell-out production of 4000 Miles starring Eileen Atkins and Timothée Chalamet in rehearsals. It was also the first time we had to shut the building since the Second World War.
As we worked through logistics of temporary closure and production rescheduling, we hopped on many video calls with partners worldwide. That's when the idea of Zoom performances sparked. We started to think of a way to replicate the 'Zoom-call' feel in shows, thinking of performances where people are separate but all together.
Zoom just felt like a natural home for the performances. While the audience's experience was different from being in the room with the actors, Zoom allowed for the buzz of a live performance.
From a technical standpoint, was it easy to implement?
We combined our in-house knowledge and Zoom's technology. Our amazing stage crew became camera operators, and our sound department took on all the broadcast responsibilities. At the same time, the Zoom team helped us to implement the streaming and registration logistics.
How did you go about promoting these new 'online' productions?
The IN CAMERA series is a fundraiser and an opportunity to help keep The Old Vic open and thriving, even when our doors were physically closed. We were touched by people rallying around and wanting to support us. It was also exciting to be part of something new and different during that time after severe feelings of isolation.
From there we relied a lot on social media, word of mouth, and the incredible support of our long-time supporters to promote our productions.
Do you know how many people watched the performances?
It's been brilliant. Just under 94,000 households have enjoyed our IN CAMERA Productions from all over the world. About 40% of them were new to The Old Vic, which is terrific in terms of audience development and reach of the work.
The other fantastic aspect, which we would never have been able to do without this medium, is the international reach. And it's been seen in 88 countries around the world.
Amid the pandemic, we also offered free tickets to care homes around the country to watch OLD VIC: IN CAMERA – A Christmas Carol. Over 2400 nursing homes took that up, which is incredible considering these audiences might find it more challenging to access the theatre.
What advice would you give to other cultural organizations considering online productions?
Take the plunge. It's a hell of an adventure. But it's got so many possible rewards at the end of it that it's worth doing.
From a logistics standpoint, the most important thing is to think about the customer experience and the customer journey. Zoom has been a brilliant partner, from integrating with our box office to having all of the performances audio described and captioned.
Are you expecting this online experience to continue?
It will continue in some form or another. What this experience has allowed in terms of increased reach and accessibility is immense. I can't believe it's not going to stick around in some form or another!
For more stories on how customers around the world have gone from in-person events to virtual events, please visit our blog.