Making Live Theater Work Online

by Will Francis

Posted on Mar 4, 2022

This is the fascinating tale of how Oxford-based Creation Theatre Company managed to turn the Covid-19 pandemic to their advantage and produced 16 successful shows online, reaching new audiences but also meeting the needs of their existing audience. Host Will Francis chats with the theater's CEO & Creative Producer Lucy Askew to explore how they used new technology and marketing tools in truly innovative ways to put Shakespeare and other greats on the digital stage. 

The Ahead of the Game podcast is brought to you by the Digital Marketing Institute and is available on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all other podcast platforms

And if you enjoyed this episode please leave a review so others can find us!

Making Live Theater Work Online


Will: Welcome to "Ahead of the Game," a podcast brought to you by The Digital Marketing Institute. I'm your host Will Francis and today I'll be talking to Lucy Askew about moving a theater company, a very physical business, to digital. Lucy is the CEO of Creation Theatre in Oxford, England, and during the COVID 19 pandemic, the theater, unlike many businesses in the arts thrived. So we're gonna hear how the company moved to digital, and leveraged various digital marketing tactics and tools in interesting ways. These lessons will, of course, be applicable to any business, I think whether e-commerce focused, or a service provider, or anything else. So Lucy, welcome to the podcast. I'm very glad you're here.


Lucy: Hello, thank you for having me.


Will: Ow, it's a pleasure. It's a real pleasure. Not talked to any theater companies on the podcast so far. And yeah, I can only imagine it's been an interesting time. I think it'd be good to just start out by setting the scene, give me a brief overview of this unexpected pivot that you were kind of forced to make to digital back in spring of 2020.


Lucy: Yeah. At Creation Theatre, we were in a particularly strange position at the start of the pandemic, because we were doing a performance inside the London Library, which is a sort of beautiful members-only library in the center of London. And we were doing a production of "The Time Machine", H. G. Wells, the H. G. Wells novel. But we'd written the script written by a writer called Jonathan Holloway, building in research from The Welcome Center of Ethics and Humanities. So this is a faculty of Oxford University, sponsored by The Welcome Trust, and they look at all sort of ethical issues around big data and, you know, AI and robotics and all sort of things that could happen in the future, what impact they might have on humanity.


So we'd written this script building in their research and the vast sort of thrust of the story, the main theme of the story was about, was saying, there will be a SARS-like pandemic, and it will wipe out millions of people. And the only country that will be relatively unaffected is New Zealand, and then there'll be lots of politics around vaccine and equity. So we were in the middle of doing a show about a global pandemic, changing the future of humanity, and a global pandemic hit.


Will: What are the chances?


Lucy: I know, well, we think very carefully about our programming now, and what impact we might have on the world. So we sort of in a way, we had a kind of insight into, you know, really leading sort of thought leaders on what could happen. And really, we have that insight of this is not a thing that's gonna happen and be resolved in a few weeks. So as the first lockdown happened in the UK and all theaters had to close, I think we instantly had a feeling of we're in this for the long haul.


So it's really worth making big decisions and thinking dramatically about the future because this isn't something that we just need to get through in a few weeks. So then we were very friendly, we're very friendly with a company called Big Telly who are based in Northern Ireland, and are led by the brilliant, Zoe Seaton, who's a real kind of just theatrical genius, really, and sees the world in a completely magical, creative way. So we talked to Zoe and they were in a similar situation to us that they'd been producing a show and had been locked down. We both had actors on contracts. We were paying those actors, but we were all in remote locations and couldn't perform. So we came together, and we started to play. And Zoe with the actors created "The Tempest", our first Zoom show, and we just didn't look back, we just absolutely fell in love with what we can do digitally and how we can connect with audiences remotely.


Will: That's absolutely fascinating. I mean, so how did it feel doing that? Did it feel like a big risk? Or did you feel I had no choice?


Lucy: It was actually quite liberating, in a strange way, because so often, sort of pre-pandemic, the stakes are very sort of personal with every show, this is the show we've chosen to do. And it is to sell so many tickets, we need to cover the costs of it. And you know, we have to kind of sort of prove our worth on these productions. And there was a brilliant feeling in those early days of we have nothing to lose, we've got nothing to lose here because we're probably all gonna close down anyway because we can't make theater. So let's just be brave. Let's be bold, let's put work out there. And it felt really, really clear, more clarity than I think we've ever had. That the two things we needed to do were entertain people who had had all their kind of, you know, normal lifestyle stripped away from them and were just stuck at home. And a really strong sense of that and a really strong sense that we had to find routes to employ people, we had to find ways to pay freelancers to make work. And I think that clarity and really clear kind of sense of purpose was just a really valuable thing for us in being able to make work really confidently.


Will: It sounds like you had this real momentum behind you, and maybe a new energy because of this whole new format, you know?


Lucy: It was a feeling of like we had discovered a new medium, like, we'd just discovered this like whole new thing to play with, and the work that Zoe and the cast did and how they took Zoom, and they just pulled it apart and were really playful with it. And the audience were, you know, it was in Zoom. So I think the key thing creation did that was different to what a lot of people did in the early work because we weren't streaming a thing we'd made before, we weren't playing a video, we were doing something that was live as you watched it, but you could see other audience members in it as well.


So it really built a sense of community, and participation, and the uniqueness, of live work. And then we just got brilliant coverage as well. So we had a review in "The Guardian," in "The New York Times," and we got featured on "Front Row," which is a big culture program in the UK. And that just sort of really sort of elevated our company profile. Like we achieved more in the space of about three months than we had done in 22 years.


Will: And so how did you use Zoom? How did you use the functionality of Zoom just out of interest?


Lucy: So in those early shows, it was really hacky. So it was using virtual backgrounds, and then sometimes playing with the virtual backgrounds when they went wrong. So we had bits, where we sort of made advantage of bad lighting and things disappearing. Some of our performers didn't have, you know, some of them had green screens, some of them didn't have green screens, so they just pinned up sheets. So they found a sheet that was a solid color, and they pinned that up behind them.


Some of them didn't have computers that would do virtual backgrounds. So there were a couple of actors that we sent mini projectors that we owned out to them. And then they performed against white walls with projected backgrounds, on top of them. And then Ariel, our sort of a brilliant Ariel, she was in a cupboard. So she had a cupboard with little fairy lights around her. And, you know, Zoe and our designer Ryan really made an advantage so it sort of became part of the story that Ariel was in this more physical magical space where other people had these sort of illusion backgrounds to them.


Will: Well, that's interesting. And was there elements of interactivity?


Lucy: Yes, yeah, there was loads of interactivity in it. So it had like when they started this storm, like the sound of raindrops, and all the audience would click their fingers. And they'd rub their hands together to the sound of the wind. And we had bits where they were seen and so they could hold up their pets. And when they danced with spotlight different people. So it had a real kind of feeling of community, and interactivity, and being there together as a community.


Will: That's interesting. So I suppose that's why I mean, that starts to explain why maybe, yes, it did better and performed, and got a bit more attention than people just like, say, just converting things or just playing things straight through a just one video stream. And that's kind of the end of it really. It seems like it was more immersive.


Lucy: Yeah, I think it's that immersion, and the community, and the liveness. But also, I think it was that it was something that was made for the medium. And actually, a lot of the work that was shown sort of early doors in the pandemic, particularly was work that was filmed for an archive, or filmed for a different purpose and was then shared, which was a joy, seeing work shared, but actually something that's made to be experienced in a theater, where we're then watching it on film doesn't really play to the advantages of digital. Whereas obviously, when we make digital work, one of the great joys is that we're much closer to the performer, they're performing to a webcam, the webcam doesn't like it, if they move too far away, they go out of focus. So there's their natural intimacy to the performance.


Will: Yes. And it mirrors the other conversations we're having with distant relatives, and friends, and stuff. You know, we're having Zoom calls with them as well. So it feels like, very similar to our personal experiences. So I suppose you never played replays, all your shows are live. They have to be live today.


Lucy: Yeah, pretty much, we've played with it. So we've kind of really seen it as a tool that we can sort of dial up and dial down the sort of amounts of it that's sort of live and the liveness. So a lot of the shows we now will mix in little pre-filmed clips, because we sometimes will say, "There's no point in sort of killing ourselves to do something live if the audience doesn't know it's live." So actually, if there's a really spectacular sequence, which is played in as a film.


Will: And that would be hard to reproduce every time.


Lucy: Yeah, yeah. Or a really big emotion like we're currently we're making a production "The Witch of Edmonton" and there's a character that like hits her head against a tree so many times she dies, like she goes mad and you go, "I don't need to put an actor through that every night for two weeks."


Will: Now that's interesting.


Lucy: I would do on the stage, but digitally, I can start saying, "Actually let's not put you through that every night. Let's film that little, you know, a couple of minutes sequence once, let's get that really spectacular. And then you can actually not have to go through that emotion every night." So we play a bit with the liveness.


Will: That's very interesting, actually mixed live and not live and new audience can have a quiet show.


Lucy: Ow, yeah, I mean, I've said loads of times, if I could just write a whole...I'd stop and do a PHT now one liveness. And because it's a lot of it if you know it's live. So there'll be times when you can watch a filmed clip, as an audience member and go, "Ah, that was great. I love that." And it might be that the artistic team will watch it and go, "Ow, I think that fell really flat." And you'll go nuts, because you know it was filmed, it's because you knew exactly what you were gonna see. And there was no danger in it for you. But if you're watching it with fresh eyes and it's the first time you've ever seen it, you get the same sort of emotional response from watching it.


So yeah, it's absolutely fascinating how you can achieve liveness without it through sort of interaction rather than the performance physically being live. So we've worked with, like, AI chatbots, or branching video, or other technology, that in a similar way relies us, it's more important that the audience are live, than it is the performance of it.


Will: Yes, that's the distinction. That's really interesting. I'll talk to you about some of the technology in a minute. Actually, I'm fascinated by that. Okay, so that's it. So I've got the picture. How did that go down with the audience, like your existing audience? How did they respond to that?


Lucy: They were brilliant, like we had a really good response, like, I mean, bear in mind that when the first show, when "The Tempest" went on, none of them had ever been invited to see a show in-scene before. It was completely, you know, like, and it sold really, really fast. And then as people experienced it, and word spread, and it got press coverage, it kind of grew and grew. My take on it is because we're, you know, prior to the pandemic, we're site-specific producers. So we're normally producing in a park, or an industrial estate, or in a bookshop. So I think it means we have a self-selecting audience who are quite adventurous.


So when we say, "Ow, we're gonna do something in Zoom." They go, "That's interesting. I want to see what that's like." And obviously, our audience has evolved over the last two years now. So that's sort of not necessarily quite the same demographic anymore. But certainly in the early days, they were sort of very willing to sort of jump in and give it a go.


Will: And that's interesting to me that, you know, before you knew your audience really well because they were turning up, you were physically seeing them face-to-face, as they streamed in, for an evening's performance. But how did you keep that good understanding that you have your audience, as you scaled this all around the world?


Lucy: Some of it is that we've replicated what we would have done in the real world. So I'll go to a lot of the digital shows I will be in the audience. I will be observing as I would do in a theater, who else is there, looking at the customer lists, knowing the names. So there are audience members, we knew before the digital work, who have come with us and who we will still see and wave to and say hello to. And then there are audience members that we've now become friendly with entirely through the digital work. And through recognizing that they come a lot, and then maybe chatting to them. We have a sort of post-show bar. So we'll keep a call open. And people can come and talk to us at the end of shows. And we've run some focus groups as well. And so there are now people that I've never met in the real world shows who we actually know quite well, and we would identify as digital bookers.


Will: And are they younger? Are they different in some way?


Lucy: We're still learning about sort of, you know who that digital audience is. But from our sort of initial data and findings, one thing we know is that they are slightly older than our sort of analog audience were, which was, yeah, not at all what we were expecting. We were sort of probably a bit ignorantly assuming that digital meant young and that digital meant sort of gamers and people in their 20s. And that actually, a lot of retired people are very digitally savvy and have worked on computers for most of their working life, and are more affected by the pandemic, and being able to go out and go places and even, you know, under normal conditions, have more concerns about parking and comfort of seats, and where the toilets are and traveling in the dark and all those kinds of concerns.


So it's had a really, you know, really strong following from the sort of retired community. But we also have, you know, we do have a really good mix in there still. We did a focus group and found that a third of the focus group don't own televisions. So we haven't dug into that more, and we don't know what the size of that market would be. But there's some... I think there's some more to be learned and some interesting sort of patterns there about who are the people who are looking for sort of interactive, live digital experiences that aren't television that giving you a bit more feedback than television that are much more niche to you.


I think it's very like long-tail marketing as well. So it's... We currently do Witch of Edmonton. We did Duchess of Malfi last year, and we've discovered that early modern drama sells really well digitally. Which wouldn't, you know, when you start thinking of a digital show you think you wanna do massive titles, but it's easier to sell, it's easier to sell "The Witch of Edmonton" than it is to sell "Romeo and Juliet" because the people who care about early modern drama will mobilize, will book, will be excited to see that title performed. If you wanna see "Romeo and Juliet", you can see it all over the place.


Will: So true and that is really the thing with marketing, with content marketing, or content on the web, isn't it? That when you hit a fairly underserved audience, let's face it. Early modern drama, that audience I would imagine are quite excited when anything...they see anything that kind of touches, you know, presses their buttons. Because it's not so much of it about but by reaching those people, like you said, they mobilize, they'll tell their friends and be like, you know, tell everyone they know that they that was also into early modern drama. Just define what is early modern drama?


Lucy: So early modern drama is sort of Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, it's around that sort of 1600s. Yeah, 1600s playwrights, so largely Shakespeare is probably the main one there. And it's Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but it's often the contemporaries that are the ones that really get that sort of niche excitement around them.


Will: Right. So that's interesting. So you're shaping the audience in a way by the productions you're putting on and are you making different choices about the productions you put on now with this new medium?


Lucy: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It's, you know, part of it is that we can do these more niche titles. And obviously, we'd love to...we've done a couple of sort of more family shows. So we did a production of "Alice in Wonderland" in 2020 but have found that, although it's a medium that works brilliantly for children and families, it's actually a harder sell, because of the concerns about screen time and all the other things that children and families can do are a bit harder to sort of connect with.


So it tends to be settling down now into being sort of slightly more adult audiences. And we're also kind of increasingly looking more and more into those sort of access benefits. So the access benefits for audiences who maybe have barriers or issues at attending physical theaters, but also the access benefits for our performers, and for our team. And that we don't have to, you know, we're based in Oxford, which is one of the most expensive cities in the UK. Actually, since we've become digital, we now have our team and our performers based all over the country. So that again, it has a knock on effect to the people who can sustainably work in our industry and be in our shows.


Will: Hello, a quick reminder from me that if you're enjoying our podcast series, why not become a member of the DMI so that you can enjoy loads more content from webinars, and case studies, to toolkits and more real-life insights from the world of digital marketing. Head to, sign up for free. Now back to the podcast.


Okay, so let's just... I think I'd love to kind of probe you a bit about the kind of marketing channels that you're using. What does your marketing mix look like today?


Lucy: So it's still very trying out different things all the time. So we have obviously, we have a big database. So as a, you know, because we sell our own tickets, and we deal with our own booking. So that gives us a kind of a real sort of the core of any marketing campaign is to those people who've booked before. And we have a reasonably sophisticated sort of CRM system alongside that so we can know and sort of track who the most likely people are to book and what kinds of shows they've seen in the past and try and really tailor their messaging. And...


Will: So you segment your communication based on what people have seen who they are, whether they're previously a physical booker, or just a digital-only that sort of thing?


Lucy: Yeah. And then within that, if they're a physical booker which type they see family shows? Do they see the sort of shows in a bookshop? What kind of genre are they interested in? So we do lots of segmentation of that list. And then alongside that, we have quite a busy social media presence that we do, you know, Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter. Twitter seems to be the strongest one at the moment for the sort of the type of community we're currently appealing to. I think it's very rooted in academia.


So I think it's a very active community on Twitter and Twitter is the place that they discuss and that they share and, you know, there's a big presence there. Less so Facebook, but then I think probably as I'm sure lots of people are finding, Facebook has generally become a much harder tool to use to effectively, you know, we still will do advertising on it, but it's not seeing the same kind of engagement and returns as it would have done in the past.


So, yeah. So that social presence is quite strong. Obviously, we're a charity. So we get a Google AdWords grant as well. So some of it is sort of through AdWords as well. And we're in a slightly odd position at the moment because we had a website that was very old, that sort of dramatically died last year. So we've been rebuilding our website from the ground up over the last couple of months. But as we always do, just doing it our own way, and developing our own kind of approach to building a website that's a sort of slow build of going, "What do we need now?" And then slowly adding to it, and it's actually been quite a really exciting process of really focusing in on what are the key messages and what's the customer journey?


Yeah, but those will be the main things. And then obviously, because we've worked with a lot of partners over the years. So we'll do a lot of sort of collaborations with different and people we've worked with before where they'll promote a show or send out any flyer or tweet about something.


Will: You say you use Google AdWords? Because you, as you say, you get Google AdWords, or Google ads is now a grant because they give grants to charities. They give you a certain amount of free ad budget. I'm curious, what's a typical ad for someone like you, you know, what intent are you kind of capturing?


Lucy: Well, then obviously, when you're looking at the U.S. and our U.S. bookers have gone up a lot, and, you know, we did an E-fire last week, and the, you know, the one that went to U.S., because was as successful as the one in the UK, but obviously, we spell theater differently. You know, there's things where, like, how you manage that when, obviously, our website and all our communications would be wrong for the UK audience if we spelled theater the other way. But also, you know, for a U.S. audience to see something and go identify with this, this is a cultural activity for me. And obviously, now we're quite lucky in that, you know, the sort of tickly Shakespeare early modern, you know, there is a kind of cultural capital in actually, in the Britishness of it.


Will: And Oxford as well, this sort of conjures up, you know, like the pictures of Harry Potter and, you know, sort of stuff.


Lucy: Yeah, and there's some authenticity of the relationship with universities and academia and stuff are all very good. But yeah, it's a definite thing that we're still seeing we need to do a lot of work on and trying to learn about as well, because when you're, you know, you go, "Okay, we can see there's potential for growth in our U.S. audience." But then you go, "Okay, well, where in the U.S. are they?" And start looking at...


Will: I mean, how do these people find you? How have your U.S. audience come to you?


Lucy: I think initially, it was that there were a few who had booked as tourists when they'd been in the UK. Some were on the mailing list. So there were a small number there. And it was that when we sort of went out and did "The Tempest," we managed to get picked up by "The New York Times" and "Time Out New York" by our PR. So yeah, so I think that's that. For several times, we did several shows where we were in "Time Out New York". We were in "Time Out New York" for a couple of shows when we weren't in "Time Out London." So we actually, you know, I think it may be that we had a kind of body of digital work, and it adapted very quickly. So there was more work going on, you know, our work was able to kind of get picked up because there was less noise there. There weren't as many shows to choose from. So we were going on the list of top 10 digital things to do this week.


Will: Just because of everyone was so quiet, you know, all your competitors for those column inches was just doing nothing.


Lucy: Yeah, absolutely.


Will: And were you just lucky? Or I mean, how did you get all this coverage? Was there anything particularly that you did proactively?


Lucy: We have a good PR, we have a good fourth wall PR, Diana that we work with was really good at. And I think also that we invested in that early on. Even though we were in a situation where we had no financial guarantee that would be, you know, still here, a few months down the line. We went, "If this is gonna work, we've got to do PR about it." So we sort of got Diana working on it. And we were very lucky that it got picked up. And then we had "The Tempest" was seen by a playwright called Charlotte Keatley, and who is, you know, one of the most renowned playwrights in the UK. And she loved it. And then she spoke about it on "Front Row," and she helped champion it as well. So we got lucky in sort of several areas that it sort of achieved notoriety very quickly.


Will: Yes, but you make your own luck, don't you? And I think as you talked about, when we chatted before this podcast, relatively you put quite a lot of money into PR, I think that sounded to me, the way you put it, like, it was a bit of a gamble. It was quite a hefty amount of money compared to what you were spending on other channels. But you believed that that was where to, you know, get that coverage, get talked about and in honor sort of on those big platforms like, "Time Out and "The New York Times," "Guardian," et cetera, and it paid off.


Lucy: Yeah, I think we were a bit fearless as well because I think people were going into like working with a new medium going into Zoom working with digital tools, and didn't trust them. And were worried that it was gonna fail, the broadband was gonna go out, everyone was terrified of being Zoom bombed. And so people were scared. I know, it's ridiculous now, isn't it? So scared, of Zoom bombers, people were so worried about all of those things that they weren't making work confidently, they were maybe doing little online experiments and telling a few people about them. And we just went all there to win. If we're gonna do this, we're gonna go for it.


And I think the fact we stuck to it as well that we didn't, you know, people were constantly, you know, very busy with canceling shows and canceling plans and work being taken up with adapting to the fact you can do things. But also, in a way it was our pessimism that sort of helped us out that we were thinking, "Ow, no, we're not gonna have any chance of doing a show in," or, "Ow, no, we won't be able to do a show, then better stick online, better stick online." So we could start to program further ahead. We could be more...and we could apply, we got Innovate UK Sustainable Innovation Funding in 2020, the end of 2020 for sort of a nine-month program where we had five actors working full-time with us for six months.


And we built a digital platform as an alternative to Zoom. And we did a big report about sustainability of digital theater and how it has a 98.9% reduction in carbon emissions. But we were able to do that because we were able to say, "No we're sticking to... This is gonna take a long time to sort out." Whereas I think for a lot of people, they were optimistic they were going, "Ow, no, well, we're doing a little, you know, Zoom thing. And..."


Will: Just dipping in the toe in. But you were like, "We're going all-in on digital." And that allowed you to get that innovation funding and all that kind of thing. That's very interesting. I think we can all learn something from that for sure. Just in marketing, in life, in business, good things don't tend to come out of dipping one's toe in the water.


Lucy: You won't fully know it's working sometimes as well. You can't fully assess if something's got real potential if you go in half-hearted.


Will: The next thing I wanna ask you about is you mentioned that you'd use some digital marketing tools in quite interesting unusual ways. Things like Twilio for sending SMSs and what have you. Talk to me about that. How have you kind of leveraged all this available amazing technology that is provided for marketers, but actually can be used very creatively for performing art?


Lucy: Yeah, we found there so many tools out there that you sort of land on their websites. And they're really trying to sell something as a marketing tool, and we look at instantly go, "Ow, we can make a show, we can make a show with this." And so obviously Zoom is the first example. It's a conferencing platform. It's become our home for, you know, many shows now I think 12 of the last 13 have been in Zoom. But we've also we've worked with Twilio. And we've done like an automated call system. We've done that on two shows. So we did one on "Romeo and Juliet" where you had a QR code on the screen, you scan that in it called a number. And then you were given a series of options, "Press one for capital enterprises, press two for..." And then one of the options that you selected would take you into a live phone call with a live actor who would be able to actually have a conversation with you. But you may never discover that you might just listen to the automated ones and move on.


And we used it and we did a production, " A Christmas Carol", where we did a similar thing. And on that one, we had a hidden number that you didn't know about till the end. So you had it early on in the experience, you had the first five options. And then at the end of the show, it said, "Ow, dial the number again and press six," and then you had a kind of redeemed, Scrooge secret hidden message. So we've used those.


Will: Just to be clear as well like Twilio is what is the technology that sits behind a lot of the SMSs, and messages, and phone calls, you get from massive companies like you know Uber, and Deliveroo, and DoorDash, and Marks & Spencer, and E-bay, like, they're the backbone of a lot of...they basically handle telecommunications of one sort or another, don't they, for businesses and like you say it's sold as a marketing tool or a way to update people on when their parcel is arriving. But you used it in this way to trigger these kind of calls that are a fun take on the kind of corporate help desk.


Lucy: There's so much more we could do with this and as well, I feel we could do a whole show that's just on a phone pressing buttons and going through different routes and...


Will: Yeah, I think so. Call center drama type kind of thing or... So okay, that's interesting. Any other I mean, so you must have looked then through various marketing tools and it's almost like a toolbox or like a toy box for you guys. What other kinds of things did you play with?


Lucy: So we've played with branching video.


Will: Ow, what's that?


Lucy: So we did "Romeo and Juliet," the second half of "Romeo and Juliet", we did in branching video. We used stuff I called Interactor. But there's lots of different ones out there that do the same thing. And you can sort of replicate it in YouTube or Vimeo. Although it's a slightly sort of fiddlier way of doing it, but it's basically like doing "Bandersnatch" like the Charlie Brooker on Netflix, or the "Puss in Boots" show on Netflix for kids. It's basically where you watch the video, watch the show and at several places, you get to choose what direction the story goes in next, so you have two, three options, and you click on one.


So on "Romeo and Juliet," we had four different endings, and in one of the endings they survived, so you could make the choices that would lead to Romeo and Juliet surviving. But three out of four options, they die. But you'd have a different way the story was told in getting there. And so we've played with that. And again, like, it's very much a marketing tool. If you go and look on the website, it's all about, you know, different nice marketing videos that is useful.


Will: What was the tool you used again?


Lucy: We used Interactor. Yeah, and you build like a sort of spider's web of joining up sort of the nodes for story and different directions it can go in and where on the screen, you can press to get the next piece of the story. And so yeah, so if you brought it to video, we've also used essentially, what is chatbots, we've used sort of AI-generated characters you can talk to.


So we work quite closely with a company called Charisma Entertainment who do interactive story-led AI. But when you're programming it, and when you're playing with it, you go, "Really," it's sort of like amazing, exciting interactive chatbots. So you have a character and you talk to that character, and the character can learn. Remember what your answers you've previously given to it can kind of attribute emotion. So we did an AI Cheshire cat that you chatted to, at the beginning of "Alice in Wonderland." We did an AI tarot card reading, at the beginning of "Romeo and Juliet." And we did for "The Father" we did an AI version of me. So it would be like you were arriving in front of house and you were welcomed by me. And I will talk to you about digital theater, and the show, and how you're doing then. And so really trying to you know, look at different ways we can use all these tools and build them into different types of interactive experience.


Will: That's very, very interesting. I mean, I suppose it's just thinking about this. Did any of that data kind of feed back into your CRM system? I know that sounds like a really cynical marketing thing to say. But do you know what I mean?


Lucy: In a sort of anecdotal way? Yes, not formally, but we can see when particularly if you're talking to the AI characters, we can see the questions people ask and the answers they give. So obviously, we can then look at that. And from a sort of anecdotal level go, "Ow, look, all the people are saying that the show they would like us to do next is X or they're all asking this particular question." So we can kind of start to learn a bit more about our audience. And I think we can see we sort of hit the tip of the iceberg there as well. And that we could use that to generate even more useful information.


Will: Yeah, I mean, yeah, it seems to me... If it was me, I'd be thinking about again, "How can we feed that into the CRM? How can we segment by that next time? Like, you know, so that the subject of the newsletter to a certain segment could be like you wanted Romeo to kiss Juliet," but, you know, something or make reference to a choice they made. I mean, I don't know how creepy that gets, but I think there's interesting stuff to play with that. Do people get anything outside of the time that they're sat watching? Does any communication fall out of the show like they don't get an email from a character the next day or anything like that?


Lucy: We've done... So we've played with... Some of the shows, we've done text messages, so we've done like text messages. But we did that kind of in the pre-digital world, we'd sometimes have text messages in shows that would go out at some particular moments. And we have worked a bit with like on "Romeo and Juliet," we started building websites that lived outside of the show that people could go and explore. And we actually ended up binning them because they got too distracting. But we're sort of playing with that idea.


So it's something we've played with a little bit but sort of not in a huge way yet. But we do for all of our audience, our digital audience, we sort of set up a sort of retention kind of program where we send them and when they book their first digital show, they get sent, "Well done, you've booked your first digital show." And then they go...when they book five, they get, "Well done, you're a digital, you know, trailblazer," and "You're a digital connoisseur," when you book ten, or, you know, there's different levels to sort of, because of the workers, we're trying to get people to adopt a medium they're not used to, and it's new to them.


So we really want them to see it...this isn't a pandemic activity now. This is another role. Another thing in the sort of palette of cultural experiences that you can, you know, participate with. So we're trying to sort of foster a feeling of people sort of self-identifying as, "I am a person who likes to do digital theater. And I like to do it regularly. And I'm gonna keep going back."


Will: It sounds better than just sitting in front of some random show on Netflix, you know, I mean, I think, yeah, I think I've really got a sense of that I suppose. How... So you've, built your own platform. What issues... Why have you moved away from Zoom? What did you want to fix with Zoom? What was that not doing for you?


Lucy: Well, it was interesting, because at first, it was very much on the sort of technical limitations of Zoom. So part of that was to do with how Zoom treats audio. So Zoom, always prioritizes the human voice. And actually, physically, it prioritizes sort has facial recognition. So if you're working with a green backdrop, it will kind of detect the face. So there's brilliant, really exciting tools in Zoom, but they do limit what you can do with sound design. It also has, which I think, you know, there have been some articles writing about it. But in all its clever settings around lights, and low light adjustment, it can be terrible for people with darker skin, people of color can look, the color of their skin could look very different on Zoom to what it is like in reality.


So we wanted, we want to spread a platform where we had more control over being able to mix in audio, mixing visuals, and play with them creatively. Also, to be able to change the layout, so that we wouldn't have to... In Zoom, it's very sort of either spotlighting a selection of people, or you're all of equal size. And we wanted to create what we call ambient audience. So a sense of I am here with other people watching. But we're all mainly watching one large screen. So in the auditorium, you have little bubbles that sit on three sides, and then you have a nice big screen in the center. And then once the show starts properly, we dim the lights and the whole auditorium goes dark, and the sort of screen becomes full screen.


And we all watch the experience on full screen unless we want to kind of force you back to auditorium view for a particular moment where you might wanna see people clap, or wave, or laugh, or kind of interact a little bit more, but it's really going, what's it like? Where is our kind of...what are we looking at when we're in a theater? We're aware there are other people there. And that's an important part of the experience. But we're not actually looking at the person four seats away equally to the way we're looking at the stage. So sort of setting up that kind of...


Will: Yeah, it's interesting that. I mean, it's great. It's a fantastic template that you're describing the way that you've developed because it's so, you know, the advice to any startup is never start off by building your own technology at costs. Always use what's out there, which you did, and then prove it and see that it works. And then start to think about what you'd fix about the off-the-shelf stuff. And then when you know, you've got a kind of a proven model, you know, start to improve that and take it to the next step by building your own platform, and you've done exactly that, you know, it's the real kind of lean startup. You almost sound like something out of Silicon Valley or something, you know, because you've really done this, like lean startup thing.


Lucy: Yeah. I think that comes very naturally to sort of theater, people because everything's always on like a tight budget. And it's always about sort of seeing the possibilities and the creative solutions around them. So we started off, at one point, we were sort of developing, we got the money, and we were developing this platform. We had a moment with our developers where we were going, they were saying, "It can't be done." You can't have 150 people watching the screen, the bandwidth won't do it. So then we were, "Well, how many can we have?" And they were, "Well, we could probably get away with 50." So we went, "Okay, can we have the same show streamed into three different rooms with an audience of 50?" And they were like, "Ow, yeah, we can do that."


So okay, that's the platform then. So it works almost like a cinema that you can screen the same performance into three different rooms, and each room has 50 in. And that's the way because the economics of theater as such, they had to be able to have 150 people in an audience to get to the point where a show would ever be viable.


Will: Limitations are what kind of give us ideas. And there's nothing worse than being able to do everything and having no limitations because it's just a massive blank canvas, which is terrifying. So it's those limitations, you can actually start to work with creatively and you've done that. Okay. So you're running shows globally. What's changed for you there because you've got time zones to consider. You've got cultural references beyond the south of England to consider and the way that you promote or what you do to consider. So how have you had to adapt to this more global nature?


Lucy: So we do do shows now at different times. So we generally like for "The Witch," that's just coming up, we have what would be 11 p.m. in UK time. And then we sort of have built an extra web page that converts that into different time zones in the U.S. So we're primarily sort of focusing on the U.S. for this one. I think it has sort of... I think that sort of British English sort of Shakespeare, early modern drama kind of brand has been part of the appeal on an international level. So that means we haven't had to culturally try and adapt it too much, because it's partly going, you're buying this because it's Oxford. And yeah, yeah, these are British authors. And that's why it's gonna appeal to you.


I think we've done really well with the fact that a lot of the international audience will come and see the work because it's a way they can share a show with friends or family they're not with, which obviously goes on kind of way beyond pandemic conditions. So we have people who will regularly buy a ticket for themselves and a ticket for their family in Switzerland. And then they can dial in and watch the show at the same time and talk about the show afterwards. And so I think we do quite well as well with a sort of ex-pat community around the world of people who, you know, will enjoy, coming to see the show and see friends and family in the UK, but they can't see as frequently.


Wil: So when people from other, not-for-profit organizations, ask you for tips, having seen how well you've done, what do you tell them?


Lucy: I think we mainly say not to be afraid, because actually, you know, just like get online and play digitally and see all the possibilities and all the different people that you can reach. I think one thing that people certainly within our sector, may not be aware of is just how generous the sort of tech community are with the knowledge and skill, you know, if you don't know how to use pretty much any piece of software you can imagine you just type it into Google and someone will have written a big piece, you know, a lovely blog explaining it, or there'll be a YouTube video that will show you how to do that thing.


So we've gone into this and made a success of it without really having any skills. We didn't work particularly digitally before. But we've learned all these skills just by, you know, asking Google and asking people for advice and reaching out to, you know, learning from the gaming sector, learning from film and TV, seeing it that you can ever, you know, learning from marketing tools rather playing with them, seeing everything as an opportunity and not being too focused on your own skills and world that you're used to working with.


Will: That's a very good point. It's not about the skills in today's world, is it? It's about the... I think it's just about the initiative, and the momentum, and the willingness, to take creative risks, and financial ones as well. Because it's like you say the skills can be acquired either through fairly inexpensive freelance input or a lot of the time through a Google search, to sort of muddle your way through how to use a piece of software. But it's about the willingness to do that I think can get stuck in. But just out of interest if I came to you and perhaps friends of you have asked you this as well. If I came to you and said, "Well, actually, I've got an e-commerce fashion shop. What advice have you got for me? Or what have you learned about selling stuff online in a more general sense?"


Lucy: I think this power of data, which is probably quite a sort of boring answer to give really, but just the endless drilling down and like absolutely fascinating stuff, you can learn about your audience and how long they're on different pages on the website and their booking patterns. And the more your booking process can generate more interesting data about them. And the more you can learn about what types of products they want to buy, and what they're choosing from you. I think it's just...I think it also can lead to real creativity, actually.


It's, you know, the exciting thing about marketing is it's, you know, sometimes a lot of the time, I'll think that actually, the marketing of the shows is more creative than actually making the shows themselves, you know, the challenge of, "I know, there are people out there who want this product. How am I gonna find them? And how am I gonna reach them?"


And, you know, we were talking this morning about, you know, just the sort of in the UK or their GDPR rules which have restricted the permissions we need to email people and the permissions we need to mail people. And actually like the impact that had on how we reach people and how effective our mailing lists are, and the challenge of how we overcome that in future. It's, you know, a lot of creativity there.


Will: Yes, it's like a big puzzle. That's how I always think of it, and it can be quite fun to tackle. So where does this leave physical theater now for creation?


Lucy: Yeah, it will always be part of what we do. So, you know, we've been doing it for so coming up 24 years. So, you know, analog shows, as we call them, for want of a better word to describe them will always be a part of what we do. But I think we've become increasingly...sustainability has become a massive driver behind our decision to mainly work digitally and behind a lot of our programming. And I think we're seeing a world where we will exist on a very sort of community sort of tight geographical area. We used to have aspirations to go to London and to travel more and kind of, you know, grow our reach geographically and now we're seeing as it being about very limited audience travel, very limited performer travel much more focus on the local for the analog world, and then the digital being global.


So it's sort of well, it's sort of taking out the middle sort of national recognition strategy and going, "We want very, very community local recognition. And we want global, global audiences." And just really kind of focusing on those two extremities.


Will: I think, again, though, I think you're really mirroring what's happening out there. I think a lot of people feel that way, you know, this phenomenon of Zoom towns where people have left the cities, myself included, they have left cities, they've moved to small towns, where they can get very engaged with their local community. But then they're having work calls with people in New York and London and elsewhere. And so you have this kind of global, highly global side to your life and highly local side to your life. I think that's just an output of that. And it's interesting to...


Lucy: Yeah, I think it's potentially quite a fulfilling like lifestyle, to live like less time commuting, more, you know, actually, in a way, the technology, and the digital meetings, and the digital Zoom shows or, you know, non-Zoom auditorium shows, the ability to do those things digitally gives us more time to connect with local community-led activities as well. And less time spent on trains, and in cars, and commuting and moving from A to B, and sort of big sort of towns and crowds of people and actually being able to go we can make really meaningful impact at both ends of the scale.


Will: Absolutely. Yeah, it's just fantastic. Well, look, thanks so much, Lucy. It's been really interesting to hear in detail the journey that you've been on and all the different things that you've tackled there. One more question for you. Just remind our listeners where they can find you online.


Lucy: Yes, we are And we're on Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and all of them as well. But the website is the best place to find us and to see what the future shows that we've got coming up are. And the children's we do online workshops. And, you know, people dialing in across the globe for those as well. So there's weekly sessions looking at online creativity and storytelling. So that's all on our website.


Will: Sounds great. Well, we'll all be checking that out. No doubt. Well, thanks very much. Appreciate your time.


Lucy: Thank you.


Will: If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And for more information about transforming your marketing career through certified online training, head to Thanks for listening.

Will Francis
Will Francis

Will Francis is a recognized authority in digital and social media, who has worked with some of the world’s most loved brands. He is the host and technical producer of the DMI podcast, Ahead of the Game and a lecturer and subject matter expert with the DMI. He appears in the media and at conferences whilst offering his own expert-led digital marketing courses where he shares his experience gained working within a social network, a global ad agency, and more recently his own digital agency.

Connect with him on Twitter (X) or LinkedIn.

Upgrade to Power Membership to continue your access to thousands of articles, toolkits, podcasts, lessons and much much more.
Become a Power Member

CPD points available

This content is eligible for CPD points. Please sign in if you wish to track this in your account.