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.

Do Me A Favor And Get The Word Out?

Seth Godin recently made a post where he noted that while at one time asking someone for a favor involved a personal, one-to-one appeal, email lists and databases have made it easy to make a more impersonal appeal to a broader range of people.

While you may be thinking that posts about the evils of spam is so early oughts, there is a distinction in that a lot of spam is delivered to people with whom the sender has little, if any type of relationship. Godin is noting that technology has made it easier to degrade more established relationships.

If you ask 100 people for a favor to “get the word out,” then of course you don’t care so much if 80 or 90 people decline. The problem is that you’ve just hurt the relationship you had with these people (as thin as it was) as well as made it more difficult for the next person, the one who actually put some effort and care into making a connection.

The honest first line of the programmatic ask is, “I’m using you to get what I want right now, because I didn’t plan ahead, care enough or show up with enough generosity to do it the old way.”

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Just because you are in a hurry, know how to use mailmerge and have figured out how to hustle people doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

At the risk of sounding stupid for stating the obvious that the post-Covid world has new expectations, there are signs that a lot of people didn’t get that message and are returning to their offices, dusting off their desks, starting their computers and picking up where they left off.

Do me a favor and get the word out?

How Much More Tolerance Left For Crushing Summer Internship As Career Starter

When I was an undergraduate, and even after I graduated college, I applied to work at the Williamstown Theater Festival, one of the most prestigious summer theaters in the country. Recent reporting makes me think I may have dodged a bullet when I wasn’t accepted.

You may have seen that back in July, the sound crew all walked off the job to protest long hours and unsafe working conditions at the festival. This week additional reporting by the L.A. Times revealed a greater extent to which these conditions existed, impacting the well-being of interns and apprentices.

Seffinger spent the summer rigging and focusing lights by hand for up to 16 hours a day. While crawling in the restricted space above a Williamstown stage to hang a power cable, he hit the back of his head on a horizontal metal support pole and suffered what doctors later diagnosed as a concussion.

He said he had been explicitly instructed during orientation to remove any hard hats when climbing in this area, or any stage space at height; according to Bagwell, Seffinger’s supervisor, the festival’s hard hats did not have chin straps and could potentially drop into the house and hurt someone. Seffinger used his own health insurance coverage for the hospital visit, otherwise, he would have had to pay out of pocket with no assistance from the festival. And he was ineligible for workers’ compensation, as interns were categorized as unpaid festival volunteers.

Those interviewed for the story cited fear of career impacting reprisals and concern about the strength of claims kept them from filing claims with OSHA and the state of Massachusetts. As well that:

Without money, major credits or other benefits to fall back on, young theater artists were not in a position to speak up against safety issues, overwork or lack of opportunity without risking retribution. Those who did make in-person complaints to supervisors and schedulers were either ignored or instructed to grin and bear it,…

One woman interviewed for the story said her parents took out a loan to cover the $4000 apprentice program fee which was supposed to provide her education and experience toward an acting career, but required so much work from her that there were no opportunities to learn or perform.

It was made clear that “festival needs” — a shorthand for the litany of tasks required by the star-studded marquee productions — came before any educational or creative opportunity. Many times, Ayala found herself ditching her acting classes to save her energy for her next shift or recover from her last one.

“It was hard when the projects that were supposed to be my opportunities felt like the bottom of an endless list of tasks,” said Zeftel. “No one has time to be a collaborative artist because they’re being utilized as cogs in the machine to make the festival’s biggest priorities happen.”

Apprentices’ chances to act were scattered across smaller, one-night-only projects that rehearsed and played at odd overnight hours, but they could do so only if they weren’t assigned to other, more menial tasks. Three sources told The Times that it was not uncommon for an apprentice to go an entire summer without acting in anything.

I definitely worked long hours for little pay at summer theaters, (as well as year round theaters, for that matter), and while the culture has long demanded that the individual subsume their lives to the needs of the production, I was never in a situation as bad as described in these articles.

I was certainly miserable at times. When the conversation about kids today needing to pay their dues, I don’t wish the same experience on others. Learning the ropes of any job will always be difficult and frustrating. Just as we need to let our physical body rest to recover from endurance and strength building exercise, so too do we need emotional and mental rest so we can develop and employ our additional capacity.

As business journals try to analyze the motivations behind the current Great Resignation, it would behoove the theater world to note that people have left jobs that were far less onerous than the internship/apprenticeship conditions that exist. If any sector needs to change their business model quickly to respond to the times, it is arts and culture.   These practices were never the most constructive element in the career pathway in the best of times, it would be surprising if they remain viable at all going forward.

Running An Intellectual Property Rights Grabbing Contest Isn’t A Good PR Move

Laura Zabel, Executive Director of the awesome Springboard for the Arts posted a important Twitter thread on being mindful about the way you solicit creative work from the community.

Read the whole thread, it is short but she makes the important point that you may be asking creatives to do a lot of free labor on spec and if there is only a couple winners, most won’t see any sort of reimbursement for their time. She suggests that a request for proposals (RFP) might be more appropriate. She likewise reminds readers to make sure the planned remuneration, whether it is contest prize or fee for services, is appropriate for the level of effort people will need to invest in your project.

Perhaps most importantly, she urges people not to use any language which claims all the intellectual property rights for anything that is submitted. She notes that many templates have this language in it so even if it isn’t your intention, you could be making a “rights grab.

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