Technology / 03.31.20
In the Time of Coronavirus, Must the Show Go on? Virtually, It Can!
Stages have gone dark. Arenas and stadiums sit empty. And if you want live music these days, you or whoever you’re sheltered in place with have to sing in the shower. The coronavirus pandemic has fans of theatre, sports and music itching for live events — for concerts and recitals, plays and museum tours.
Venue operators and performers have responded with an unprecedented wave of virtual performances, events and other initiatives. One of the first was singer John Legend, who livestreamed a concert from his home on the afternoon of March 17. That same day, which was St. Patrick’s Day, Irish punk band the Dropkick Murphys didn’t drown their sorrows in green beer. They streamed a special, free live concert, dubbed “Streaming Up From Boston,” after having to cancel their annual St. Patrick’s Day Week Blowout in Beantown.
Among the major theatres that are keeping the magic of live stage plays and musicals going in this time of social distancing is the National Theatre in London. The venue boasts one of the most impressive archives of cinema-quality recordings of stage plays in the world due to its NT Live program. For years, it has beamed productions from the National Theatre into movie theaters. But, of course, cinemas have also gone dark. So, the National Theatre is switching to its YouTube channel. From April 2, under the banner of “National Theatre at Home,” every Thursday (2 p.m. EST) will see a new NT play released free to watch for one week. Kicking off the schedule will be the very funny “One Man, Two Guvnors,” which starred James Cordon, in his Tony-winning turn, before his American talk-show success.
All concerned are hopeful this trend in the still early days of this crisis will be a good way to keep live entertainment and event attendance top of mind. That is certainly Tessitura Network President Andrew Recinos’ thinking. “The first and best reason for all these digital offerings is to say, ‘We are still here,’” he says. “It is also building wonderful goodwill, effectively giving away our product for the ‘war effort.’”
Lauren Kennedy Brady, Producing Artistic Director for Theatre Raleigh in North Carolina, agrees. “I think it is a great way to keep the arts and entertainment alive during this pandemic,” she says. “I know at my company we are doing a number of virtual theatre experiences. It helps keep our company in the forefront of the patrons’ minds and potentially could reach a new and younger audience due to the online aspect. And the hope is when this is over, people will be desperate to get back out there and have human connections, and the arts is one of the best ways to do that.”
Indeed, Theatre Raleigh has been particularly aggressive in keeping its programs going as its venue remains closed to the public. Brady, who previously starred on Broadway as Fantine in “Les Misérables” and Lady of the Lake in “Spamalot,” gave a live YouTube interview and performance from her living room on March 26. She was joined by local performing artist Yolando Rabun. Theatre Raleigh has also offered a virtual dance class for ages 6-12 to give local children something to do from their homes while schools have been canceled until at least May 15. Students registered online and then sent a link to access the scheduled class.
Meanwhile, museums and art galleries worldwide have been getting a lot of notice for the high-tech ways they’re staying visible. Google Arts and Culture has partnered with more than 2,500 museums and galleries to offer virtual tours and online displays of their collections. These tours enable users to “wander” through the interiors of these places. Among the institutions represented are the Guggenheim in New York City, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
“New ideas and innovation always come from situations like the one we are dealing with,” AudienceView CMO Mike Evenson says. “When this thing is over, we’ll be able to look back and will tell what worked and what didn’t, what sticks and what was right for simply that moment in time.”
So, do the professionals interviewed for this article see opportunities emerging for when things do return to normal? Will there be more events and performances that will offer both a live, in-person component and a virtual option?
“There is certainly an opportunity to combine the live and virtual experiences into an added offering,” Evenson says. “The music industry started this by offering the live recording of a concert you attended. I could see virtual experiences being part of or packaged with the live experiences.”
Recinos agrees, adding, “I think that could be the biggest silver lining of this entire thing. Cultural organizations are precipitously losing money right now, and on top of it are giving away digital content for free. My hope is that this ends up being an investment that can pay off in the future by hooking some folks on the concept of digital delivery as an option.”
Recinos and his staff have been so impressed with the way venues have responded, they’ve created and have been updating a dedicated webpage, listing the many digital and online cultural options and experiences here.
Brady was perhaps the most positive of the three. She and her Theatre Raleigh colleagues are eager to move full steam ahead into the new future. “We are already talking about how some of the initiatives we have started, like our ‘Living Room LIVE,’ will become a staple and an engaging marketing tool for the actual productions we continue to produce in the future,” she says. “Also, virtual classes and challenges for kids can keep them creative, moving their bodies, even if they can’t make it to an actual class, or they can partake in an online singing challenge alongside their friends and fellow theatre students to bond with a greater community outside of our theatre and city. The possibilities are endless.”
And then there are those live events that are promoting the arts and live performance but are not affiliated with any actual theatre, concert hall or other venue. Case in point, residents of Pittsburgh’s Dormont borough recently joined in song (while maintaining a healthy social distance from each other, of course). Throughout the sprawling neighborhood, scattered voices burst forth at the designated hour of 7 p.m. on March 22 with their version of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from “Les Misérables.”
Amy Kline, Director of Ticketing Implementation for Patron Technology, organized what she dubbed this “CoronaChoir.” “CoronaChoir was born out of a funny tweet that said ‘Messaging all my neighbors on NextDoor [neighborhood app], telling them they all better have every single line from Les Miz memorized for when we do the singing out our windows together thing,’” Kline says. “I reposted that (@Gracegthomas) tweet on my neighborhood Facebook group, and people went crazy over the idea. The next day, I started a Facebook group that grew by 100 members per day until our first Sunday performance.”
The pandemic is hitting in a time where technology is making it possible to keep the arts and live entertainment alive in ways that weren’t possible not that many years ago. The entire CoronaChoir project, for example, originated from a tweet, then became a meme that a friend of Kline’s posted on her Facebook page. Kline reposted it, and it grew to have a huge following. She then used numerous aspects of Facebook to produce the CoronaChoir: Groups, Pages, Messenger, Polls. She even “took a swing” at Facebook Live before moving the “conducting” aspect over to Zoom.
She also scheduled the performance date and time using Doodle, a poll service enabling invitees to pick the best date and time for a gathering. “Further, I asked everyone in the neighborhood what street they lived on and the cross-street and then mapped the neighborhood using My Google Maps,” she says. “Without technology, this project doesn’t exist.” The CoronaChoir planned to sing again on March 29, with subsequent performances thereafter.
It’s fascinating watching creative types come up with new ideas in such a time of crisis and using technology to make those ideas a reality. For instance, “Star Trek” legend William Shatner has been taking to Twitter to issue funny Captain’s Log updates. Fellow U.S.S. Enterprise actor-captain Patrick Stewart has also been on Twitter, reciting daily Shakespearean sonnets. Meanwhile, “Frozen” star Josh Gad is reading books to children and their families on Twitter most nights.
But it’s the venues that need to get back to ticketing selling that will have to continue being the most creative until we can all start sitting elbow to elbow again. The Cleveland Inner City Ballet has launched its first-ever Virtual Online Ballet Instruction Program, free of charge and accessible on its website. Down south, Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts is offering free, livestreamed performances and an expanded lineup of digital workshops. And the Colorado Symphony posted an epic cut of their musicians performing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from their various homes, apartments and other remote locations. The video has since gone viral and increased the Symphony’s visibility enormously.
Even the people responsible for our entertainment and ticket sales have discovered their favorites. “I loved what the Shedd Aquarium did with their penguins, allowing them to roam free to discover different exhibits,” Evenson says. “It accomplished multiple goals that all live event organizations are focused on during these unique times. It was perfect for social sharing; it was hilarious and it showed off the aquarium in a completely different way. The next time I’m in Chicago, the Shedd is definitely on my list of places to go. The engagement and monetization opportunities created by that penguin tour are huge. It will be exciting to see what they do next.”
Recinos also has his faves. “In our house,” he says, “we managed to do an arts and culture mash-up that absorbed us for an entire hour one Saturday afternoon. Here’s the recipe: Go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Jellyfish Cam. Next, turn on the Helene Grimaud piano playlist from the University of Michigan’s UMS concert series in Spotify. Then, just sit back and feel your whole body relax.”
None of our interviewees feel this time of separation and postponement will lead to patrons not returning. “The energy created while attending a live event is something that will never, in my opinion, be replicated through virtual experiences,” Evenson says.
Recinos concludes, “People have forecasted the end of live entertainment with player pianos, record players, radio, movies and television. As one artistic director said to me, ‘What none of those media get to is the three dimensionality of the live experience.’ My guess is that this will broaden digital as an option for consumption of these products but won’t significantly erode live attendance.”
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Tags: Music , Live-Streaming , Theater , Musicals , Venues , COVID-19 , Coronavirus