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.

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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.

Focus On Product vs Process

On Museum 2.0 Seema Rao asks why museum educators are so undervalued in the context of a question she was asked about the difference between a Sip and Paint session and a class on marbling technique.

She answers by noting that Sip and Paint sessions are focused on the final product while learning an artistic technique is about teaching you the process with the goal of empowering you to make it your own. However, they are intentionally designed to look the same to help learners feel comfortable with the experience.

Sip and Paints are product focused, in a sense. They prove to participants there is a simple set of steps to get something. It’s closer to learning to write a letter. Sure, we all have different handwriting, but we are essentially communicating the same sound. Much of modern and contemporary art, particularly, is often about communicating an “a” by drawing a cow, or rather coming up with new forms of communication. Teaching you to paint a sunflower step by step will not get you closer to appreciating the innovations of Van Gogh, largely because you’re skipping right past being innovative.

Museum educators working with adults, though, know adults yearn structure. Society rewards the structured in school and work. So, they come up with projects that mimic the safety of Sip and Paints, projects though that don’t have one single end-point. They safely allow adults places to not follow the rules or forget there are rules at all.

Rao goes on to mention that museum education departments are typically the most under-resourced area of their institutions, to the point there is often an expectation that they execute their operations with volunteers. This immediately put me in mind of the debate that has arisen about the Art Institute of Chicago “firing” their volunteer docents. I half wondered if she weren’t making an oblique reference to that situation.

The Art Institute was phasing out their docent program with the plan of replacing them with paid educators. The Art Institute had required quite a bit of their docents in terms of engaging in a long probationary period and engaging in research projects. It was acknowledged that these could prove impediments to diversifying the composition of the docent corps. Unfortunately, while paying people for their labor and working to diversify the composition of the education staff were positive steps, there was also a perception that the museum was dismissing 82 of their most avid supporters.

From reading Rao’s post, I think she would appreciate that the Art Institute of Chicago’s docents had invested so much time into educating themselves about the collection, but would be just as happy that the museum was directing financial resources into education rather than depending on the passion of volunteers.

“What’s the solution? One is that educators need to stand up and show their work, show the challenges, and highlight the hard work behind the scenes. “

Does This Franken-Ad Have More Emotional Resonance With Audiences Than The Highly Produced One You Are Using?

Last month, Trevor O’Donnell directed his readers to a post by Ruth Hartt discussing how to market the arts in a way that focuses on solving the “problems” people have rather than focusing on selling a performance.

” Because no matter the industry, customers don’t want products, or services, or concert tickets. Their purchases are caused by deeper motivations: they want solutions to their problems. Take, for example, the young businessman who wants to impress his sophisticated date, so he “hires” the orchestra concert to help him. Or the busy working mom who wants to get her elderly mother something other than the usual flowers for her birthday, so she “hires” the orchestra concert as an experience they can share together.”

Hartt cobbles together an ad out of “some stock footage, added some clips from a popular Mommy YouTuber, layered in a few royalty-free tracks” to create an appeal to stay-at-home mothers. Because it is assembled from disparate sources, things don’t mesh exactly right. As she notes, the refreshed woman on a beach at the end should be in a theater in order to make sense.

Her goal was to create a work with an emotional pull in response to the problem of: (her emphasis)

“Help me escape from the grime and chaos of mom life with an evening of dressing up and feeling fancy so that I can feel rejuvenated and be a better mom and wife.”

Check out her ad below, read more of her thoughts, and see symphony ad she is contrasting this to-

Looking To Public Art To Revitalize Cities Post-Covid

Somewhat in line with my post yesterday about the growing number of basic guarantee income programs for artists, Artsjournal.com had an interview with the mayor of Toronto, John Tory, about the beginning of a 10 year initiative to create public art. The program had been delayed by the start of Covid and the mayor says that has created an even greater need for public works of art.

This is true for a couple of reasons: first, I think the sense of joy — the look and feel of the city being enlivened by artistic creations of all kinds — became even more important after a desolate period when you’d walk around downtown and it was bleak, I mean it was a wasteland. The second reason, which was valid before but now became 100 times more valid, was that it also allows some of our artists to tell their stories. And beyond the benefits to us of having those stories told and those works displayed, this program will retain the services of 1,500 artists over the course of this year. That’s not unimportant in the context of a group that has been very hard hit. I’m not minimizing the problems other people have had, but artists had a terrible time. Now there’s a need to bring the city back to life and there’s nothing like the arts and culture to do that.

I was interested to see the interviewer, Jonathan Dekel, follow up by asking the mayor how this vision of supporting artists and their importance to the city reconciles with the concerns about gentrification displacing the artists. The mayor made mention of some measures like tax relief for music venues and affordable housing arrangements which recognize that artists’ income is not regular from month to month.

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