Beyond

Essay: Streaming Theater in the Age of Covid — and Beyond

By guest author W.C. Turck

 On Sunday, February 21, from 1-3pm CST, Kerri Kendall and Bill Turck will hold a radio roundtable on streaming theater one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Their show, Playtime with Bill Turck and Kerri Kendall, airs Sunday at 1pm CT on WCGO Radio, AM1590. Roundtable guests will include Paul Michael Glaser, star of stage and screen; Lainie Petersen, host of Playtime’s Theater Report; Mark Larson, author of Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater; Igor Golyak, director of The State vs. Natasha Banina, streamed live by Arlekin Players Theatre, Needham, Mass.; Cris Eli Blak, award-winning and internationally produced writer and playwright; Andrew Pond, executive director of Eclectic Full Contact Theatre; and Nancy Bishop, theater critic and publisher of Third Coast Review. Bill Turck submitted this essay as background for the roundtable and would like to have your input in the comments below.

Paul Michael Glaser as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

Just one year ago, February 2020, the virus was still too abstract for many to fathom. Within weeks COVID-19 cases began spiking in Italy. On March 8, Italy placed its entire population, 60 million people, on lockdown. By March 22, New York City confirmed more than 21,000 cases. That number jumped within days to more than 82,000 confirmed cases in the US. More than Italy and more than China. That turn of events would set in motion profound impacts upon the arts.

Viruses follow populations. People in close proximity inevitably infect one another. Theaters and music venues, reliant upon maximizing the revenue of available space, proved eminently vulnerable. The performing arts were among the first businesses to react, and to innovate in the most profound ways. From the start the key to performing on stages in close proximity with audiences seated shoulder to shoulder was a safety issue. Not a safety imposed by officials, but one in which the actors, stage crew and audience alike need to feel secure being in an enclosed space with others.

By mid-March 2020 the shocked world was buoyed by videos posted to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube of artists, opera singers and communities singing from windows and balconies, a declaration of hope in a way only the arts could accomplish. The accessibility of social media would spark a revolution and galvanize an artistic response to the pandemic.

Human innovation, like inspiration, often flows from discordant lines of history. In April 2011 Eric Yuan was struggling to find investors for his new videotelephony and online chat service. Yuan’s company was named Saasbee, Inc. In 1998 Harper Festival published the illustrated children’s book about dogs driving around a busy city by Thatcher Hurd titled Zoom City. Yuan took the name, Zoom City, and shortened it to Zoom, otherwise we would all be “Saasbee-ing” into meetings and streaming events. See? Discordant lines.

Screenshot from Doug Fahl’s video, Will Theater Survive?

By April 2020, Doug Fahl, on his YouTube channel Augmented Actor, posted a video titled “Will Theater Survive?” Others were already exploring video as an alternative, and perhaps saving, outlet for live theater. Within weeks the first streaming theater events appeared. In the early days of the pandemic, we all wanted to believe that it would pass quickly. But Fahl rightly predicted that a return to comfort, security and safety for theater patrons attending live events would take much longer.

That, for performing arts, is the million dollar question. In fact it is the $4.6 billion question. That is, according to a survey conducted by Nielsen Scarborough, which found that about 73.5 million people had visited a performing arts event in 2013, each spending on average $62.69.  Moreover, that same year, more than 17% of foreign visitors to the US attended concerts, plays and musicals. Which means that US theaters have a global reach, which, if current numbers on streaming theater are any indication, the potential worldwide audience numbers far exceed those who possessed the means of coming to the US. That’s important to note.

Igor Golyak.

The numbers are always illustrative, but how many theaters and companies would have considered vaccinations as a part of their marketing plan before the pandemic? We have all heard the term “herd immunity.” There are two ways a population can reach that immunity threshold. The first is the no-mask, open-it-all-up option, which would claim 5-7 million additional US lives over several  years and would almost certainly doom live performing arts for decades.

The other more rational option is through a massive global vaccination campaign, akin to the global smallpox eradication campaign of the middle part of the 20th century. The promised rollout of available vaccine by the current administration is estimated to take years rather than months to achieve a threshold that will allow a return to normalcy.

For live performing arts that belies a historic and unprecedented challenge, as people are not likely to enjoy patronizing enclosed, tightly packed theater and performance spaces any time soon. Many theater attendees are 65 and older, in the high risk group for contracting and succumbing to the virus. They aren’t likely to return without a measure of confidence that theater venues are safe once again.

From the start of the pandemic, my cohost and I have, on our arts radio show—Playtime  with Bill Turck and Kerri Kendall, Sundays 1-3pm on WCGO, AM1590—continued to support struggling theaters, musicians and performers. With each featured guest we asked one simple question; How do you see this all playing out? Not that any one person or organization had an absolute answer. No one could have predicted any of this. We were exploring, one guest at a time, strategies for the survival of the performing arts community.

Andrew Pond.

Topping the list of innovative techniques was streaming performances. Some were quick to jump a bit blindly into this uncharted virtual realm. Few if any could rely upon practical, time-tested, market-driven strategies on just how to get a virtual production in front of audiences  On the radio show, we began pushing for numbers and marketing strategies. Through all of this, after some nine months of livestreaming performances, one question loomed large; i`s it worth it?

The short answer is, yes. Last month, the Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, which offered unrestricted grants to arts organizations in Chicago with budgets under $1 million, surveyed 61 of its arts grantees to gauge the success of their 2020 virtual programming. They found that 100% of the arts organizations surveyed presented virtual programming in 2020, ranging from socially distanced concerts and artist talks to livestreamed performances. Additionally, 70% reported that their virtual programming received far more engagement than anticipated. The foundation also found that 46% saw a boost in their social media and website traffic as a result of virtual programming!

Many of those 61 arts organizations revealed that the greatest benefit to producing virtual events was an unprecedented ability to engage new, larger audiences outside their normal geographic reach. Recall that 17% of foreign visitors attend live performances. That’s 17% of an average of 45.9 million visitors annually, according to tradingeconomics.com. That points to a potentially lucrative readymade international audience for US-based streaming theater.

Cris Eli Blak.

In a January 2, 2021, piece for Barron’s, writer Joseph V. Amodio said that “the option of watching those same humans on screen via live-streaming has enormous potential to expand accessibility, build brand awareness, and earn revenue.”

Whether or not that revenue matches the pre-COVID revenue for companies is beside the point of that admittedly gnawing and pressing consideration. Streaming theater should not be seen as a replacement revenue stream, at least not yet, especially for large theaters with rents and other fixed  costs, but it can be an offset.

The performing arts hold a special, loftier place for humanity. It is a driver of change, a conscience for our better angels and a banner against our demons. For the first time in history that charge may garner a global audience for relatively little cost. That audience can pay to view a streaming production, but it is important to remember that the performing arts, while reliant on revenue, are beholden to much higher ideals. Writers and playwrights are not prioritizing income over message, but instead are far more interested in their work making a difference. Many playwrights have embraced streaming theater, and the industry has adapted contract and copyright augmentations allowing for video and streaming broadcast rights. There is a social and intellectual currency unique to theater. In an age of social upheaval, where racial, gender and LGBTQIA voices at last are asserting their agency in our eternal global conversation, streaming theater has an opportunity to reach isolated and disenfranchised audiences.

Mark Larson. Photo by Sarah Elizabeth Larson.

Through conversations on the radio show and with artists, writers and performers, we have identified five criteria for successful livestreaming theater. These are meant to begin a template for successful streaming theater. Reader suggestions are encouraged.

1. Financial Structure. What are the expectations for profitability? Will it be free or for a onetime charge or subscription rate?

2. Costs. What costs are associated with a production? Those will be the costs often associated with any live theatrical production such as salaries, Equity and SAG-AFTRA fees, and set and lighting design, but also website, cameras and space. Each production will have to determine which platform is best for the production, i.e., Twitch, Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube, etc. That will drive decisions on ticket pricing. Which costs are fixed, which are moveable and negotiable?

3. Material. What works on screen? Branding is critical in choosing the right material, such as licensing. Is it copyrighted material, original or public domain, such as Shakespeare? Will the production be a single event? A run? A serial?

4. Marketing. Add this to costs. How will the production reach its audience? Mailing list? Advertisements? Events? Certainly a Venn diagram that encompasses marketing, costs and branding might prove beneficial. Will marketing costs be known up front?

5. Execution. Remember, this must always feel like theater, and not television with low production values. Which is not to say production values aren’t important. The focus should always be on capturing the visceral human connection central to theater. How does the production appear to the audience? Decide on a format that will engage the maximum number of viewers, and consider ease of access. Many theater fans are older or may not be tech savvy or familiar with the latest boutique sites. If targeting an international audience, which platforms are accessible around the planet?

The radio roundtable, Streaming Theater in the Age of COVID-19 and Beyond, exclusively on Playtime with Bill Turck and Kerri Kendall, airs this Sunday, February 21, from 1 to 3pm CT on WCGO, AM1590.

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