What’s Been Learned So Far About Offering Virtual Theatre

American Theatre released results of a survey about virtual theatre offerings during Covid this week. Respondents represent 64 organizations from 25 states.

As you might already imagine, the bad news is that virtual programming was not financially viable for nearly all organizations.

Many experienced a promising initial swell of audience interest in the early months of 2020, but also a disappointing and steady subsequent decline in interest over the past year or so. Companies that sold tickets at pre-pandemic prices almost uniformly experienced a significant dip both in number of tickets sold and box-office revenue compared to the outcomes of similar in-person plays produced during previous seasons; some companies experienced only moderate drops, while for others, the change was drastic.

[…]

Theatres that conducted their own surveys to gauge audience feedback on virtual offerings found that while the quality of the work was typically quite appreciated, audiences consistently expressed a strong preference for live, in-person theatre and saw the virtual version as a better-than-nothing alternative to no theatre at all.

Some theatres found their production costs were less than live performances, mostly due to having smaller casts, production and support crews. Others found it was actually more expensive to create virtual content.

There were some upsides reported, including expanded and increased access:

Many noted that virtual offerings served as an important way to engage their core audience base and maintain donor interest during a time when this would not be possible without the internet, producing ripple effects that cannot always easily be quantified: Most theatre companies reported increased donor support in the early months of the pandemic, and it’s possible though hard to measure whether a sustained virtual presence may have bolstered donor interest. Other companies who may not have seen an overall increase in ticket sales nonetheless reported a promising increase in viewership from younger virtual audiences.

…more than a third of respondents praised virtual theatre for increasing accessibility for those not able to attend in person, whether due to disability, health issues, transportation barriers, or living in rural areas far from the nearest theatre company. As Liz Lisle (she/her), managing director of Shotgun Players in San Francisco, put it, “For us, it is not an economic question—it is an accessibility and engagement question.” Measuring by revenue is “the wrong frame. Virtual theatre brings greater engagement.”

There is a great deal more detailed observation discussed in the article that can offer insight to organizations of multiple disciplines. One thing that seemed to be clear to most respondents is that providing virtual content isn’t simply a matter of putting cameras and sound equipment near a performance executed in a generally conventional way. The quality often compares unfavorably with professional video & film production.

Many respondents seemed to feel the best course was to provide content which supplemented or complemented a live performance. The value added element seemed more suited to achieving goals and fulfilling expectations.

Though that approach leaves people who have difficultly accessing physical spaces without the option of experience the full production. There is certainly an opportunity for those with the resources and expertise to meet an unmet need of providing virtual performances to this segment of the population nationally and perhaps internationally. I wouldn’t be surprised if people are already pursuing further experimentation with the virtual theatre form.

The American Theatre piece bears the title “The Jury Is In on Virtual Theatre,” but I think it is a little too early in the process of exploring virtual theatre offerings to make that claim.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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5 thoughts on “What’s Been Learned So Far About Offering Virtual Theatre”

    • Yes, I remember reading that on ArtsHacker when Drew provided space for a guest post. It would be interesting to see what people in Germany feel now compared to 2020. Have things shifted toward TV or is there a sense that something was lost and one took access to a live experience for granted?

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  1. It depends on who you talk to. Some artists and groups are quite happy about the new realms that have opened up. However: financially none of this is or was viable. We have about 140 state and city run theatres in Germany (quite a lot, yes) and if you look at their plans for the ongoing season 21/22 basically none of them talks or writes about or offers any form of digital theatre anymore (exception being the state theatre of Augsburg who have bought – before the pandemic – a couple of hundred VR masks that they rent out for individual shows at home – for specific 360° productions). Augsburg has opened a digital branch last year in addition to drama etc. They are quite active and lots of people look at Augsburg for guidance.

    There is a lot of talk about the new forms of theatre – but it has become quite clear that a) people long for the real thing (although not so much as before, lots of theatres and opera houses see a sharp decline in audiences) and b) that there is no chance in hell that digital will replace physical contact and social interaction… (my opinion).

    The trade magazine “Die Deutsche Bühne” (the german stage) just published a number of articles looking back at the pandemic induced streaming and new theatre forms – unfortunately in German only and completly lacking any financial data …

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  2. Shotgun Players is in Berkeley, not San Francisco, about half an hour away by BART.

    Even before the pandemic, we sometimes went to the local movie theater to watch broadcasts of plays or (in my wife’s case) operas that were not available live locally. The tickets for the broadcast performances were much cheaper than tickets for comparable live theater, so we were ok with the reduced experience. We watched a few such broadcasts on our computer during the pandemic, but only free ones, as the experience on a small screen was not good enough for us to feel like paying for it. We did pay (donation) for a couple of Zoom productions, where we had a personal connection with the company or cast.

    We were happy to get back to live outdoor theater over the summer (even if the plays chosen had tiny casts), but my wife is waiting until children at her school have mostly been vaccinated before risking indoor theater again.

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