The Royal Court has gone on-line. Is this a gimmick or the start of a revolution?

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The Independent Culture
It's three o'clock on Friday afternoon. I've promised to take my girlfriend out for the evening, and I haven't organised anything yet. What am I going to do? I could go to the theatre. But I'm at work, and I haven't got time to flick through a listings magazine and make a volley of phone calls to box-offices to check availability. No problem. I'll just visit the Royal Court's Internet site using my Web Surfer. A quick flick through their homepages reveals to me that there are five tickets left for Sarah Krane's new avant-garde shocker "Shafted!" and plenty going for Eddie Lizard's one-man comedy show. I click on a link and recent reviews for both of the productions come up. I browse through these and to help me make up my mind, I also download a few production photographs. I notice that there's a special offer on for the Lizard tickets, and that settles it. I fill in the computerised form, specifying the seats I want and my credit card details, and fax it through to the box-office. Then I check out the Royal Court traffic update; there are roadworks in Sloane Square. I e-mail a quick message to my partner at her office: "Got tickets for Eddie Lizard tonight at the Royal Court. Meet you in the bar at 7pm. Traffic will be hell - take the tube. Mine's a vodka tonic." Then I log off and get back to work. All sorted in less than 10 minutes.

This is no fantasy. Last Friday, the Royal Court became the first theatre in the world to have a permanent site or "home page" on the World Wide Web (the most user-friendly area of the Internet), offering most of the services described above, and soon to offer all of them. The site consists of several pages of text and pictures that are displayed when you visit it using a computer connected to a telephone line. Geraint Hazan of Online Publishing, the company that is sponsoring the Royal Court's presence on the Internet, has a background in theatre, and has been working in close conjunction with the Court's marketing manager Jess Cleverley to get the project off the ground before any of the bigger theatres (the RSC are rumoured to be planning a similar Internet presence.)

The theatre sees their success as something of a coup, and one that reinforces their reputation for innovation. "Theatres are often slow to catch up on advances in technology," Jess Cleverley points out. "It's nice to be able to change that." As new blood recently brought in to energise the Royal Court's marketing strategy, the Web site has made Cleverley something of a trail-blazer on the London arts scene. For him, the advantages of being on-line are not only that the theatregoers can get completely up- to-date and customer responsive information at all times but that neither economic nor environmental resources are wasted in providing the service as the only people who see the information are those who want it.

In the long run, the Court plans to build up an archive of reviews, production photographs, biographical information on actors and directors, and essays on the history of the theatre and its productions. They are also planning an e-mail feedback forum, and an interactive seat map that allows you to see how the stage looks from anywhere in the auditorium. So you can finally decide whether it's really worth paying a premium for those front- row seats.

n Web Site: http://www.gold.net/op/royal-court

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