As the reality of an extended theatre shutdown has carved deeper and deeper into 2020, theatre producers and companies around the world are looking for ways to present digital works for audiences and stay out of the red. Months later, a possible solution to the absence of live theatre has emerged: streaming production companies providing the technological know-how and capabilities to present works online that entertain audiences and make a profit.
These services handle everything from marketing and ticketing to the live stream technology itself, as well as paying its performers and creative team. Some are run by theatre companies like Off-Broadway’s Ma-Yi Theatre and Pasadena Playhouse in California; others come from industry stalwarts like Broadway Unlocked and Music Theatre International.
“Our goal is to take the guesswork, security concerns, and technology workload out of the process, so that our clients can focus on what they do best—create live theater,” says Tony-winning producer Hunter Arnold (Hadestown, Once on This Island), whose On The Stage Streaming launched in April with a beta program that proved massively successful. Over 65 percent of the 200 socially-distant productions chose to add an extra performance to their run, thanks to the platform's accessibility.
YouTube and Zoom might provide a quick and easy solution to digital presentations, but technological difficulties often get in the way with audio delays, pixelated video, and, in worst-case scenarios, performers disappearing from a production due to Internet instability. Instead of theatre artists taking on these challenges with no experience, the new streaming companies offer a chance to take digital theatre to the next level by adding a layer of technology that those platforms don’t support.
“We wanted a platform with greater flexibility in creating visual images and narrative structures during a live broadcast,” says Ralph B. Peña, artistic director at Ma-Yi. Their new service is called Ma-Yi Studios, which sends out mobile studio kits with cameras in addition to lighting, sound, and scenic tools. There’s also a physical space where companies can come in and film productions, with social distancing measures in place.
“There are real opportunities here to empower artists with the tools to create and distribute their work, without going through the typical gatekeepers that prejudge their value,” the artistic director says. One example is the recent Sophocles in Staten Island, made entirely in quarantine by a Filipino-American family.
For Pasadena Playhouse’s PlayhouseLive, Artistic Director Danny Feldman is hoping other regional non-profits around the U.S. take an active interest: “We are specifically a platform for those who share our core values and quality standards.” The platform will launch in September, with a slate of programming to be announced soon.
A collaboration between Music Theatre International, Broadway Media, and ShowTix4U has created a space for education institutions to continue their pursuit of art even while campuses are closed. “We feel strongly that streaming is not a comparable substitute for a live, in-person theatrical experience,” says MTI COO and Director of Education and Development John Prignano. “However, we do recognize that there will be some use for streaming in the future. It would be especially useful in those instances where a parent is living in another city, has been deployed to another country, or is unable to attend due to illness.”
Other groups feel similarly that the feel of live theatre is impossible to recreate but that streaming presents a singular opportunity to reach a broader audience. For example, it allows audiences and ticket holders with disabilities to actively take part in theatre. As Peña says, “Digital work can remove physical limitations.”
Broadway Unlocked has an even broader perspective. “We’ve been making theatre-based live/digital content for a decade, and that’s always been our goal: to push the boundaries of theatre past the footlights,” says CEO Jessica Ryan. In the time before the shutdown, the group’s presentations on YouTube would get as little as 10 percent watch time. Now, it’s up to 73 percent—a massive jump thanks to the need for these digital spaces and a hunger from audiences waiting at home to see their favorite Broadway stars on a virtual stage.
Expanding beyond the walls of a theatre creates a larger revenue stream for artists and producers, adds Arnold. “It’s not only a victory for audiences and accessibility.” And to those who might be hesitant, these services are suitable for the most un-tech-savvy creators. The entire process from a technology standpoint is operated by professionals, leaving the creative process to flow smoothly without getting bogged down by technical difficulties.
Still, some organizers are sharing practical tips to avoid any mishaps during opening night. “Pretend like it’s 1991 and get yourself an ethernet cord,” advises Ryan. “It’s actual magic for live streaming content in terms of quality.” Another trick the CEO offers? Use Google. “The beauty of the Internet is that hundreds of people have had the same problem before you...the first page of results is almost always full of message boards where people did the hard work.”
Prignano says a lack of planning can also be a problem. “Most small difficulties that are simple to resolve in rehearsal become bigger obstacles during the streaming of a live event.” Like live theatre, success in digital presentation comes from the work and collaboration of many, so practice makes perfect.
With streaming companies like these, a picture of what post-COVID-19 theatre looks like becomes a little bit clearer: It will surely grow to encompass a digital space for theatre artists to reach audiences around the world.