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.

Guaranteed Income For Artists Spreading

Nod to Laura Zabel who tweeted a story about the guaranteed basic income for artists pilot program being started in Ireland.  The plan is to provide €325/week to 2000 artists. This is actually more, both in terms of monthly income and number of artists included, than any similar program I have seen piloted in the US. The program will be run across three years which is also longer than any other program I have come across as well.

Minister for the Arts Catherine Martin indicated selection for participation would be random rather than competitive. It sounds like the intent is to make sure those in different sectors and career stages are represented since the article mentions “Likely “streams” will include professional artists, emerging/developing artists and creative arts workers.”

The ministry is quoted as saying there won’t be a means test for who will be able to participate in the program.

The National Campaign for the Arts which had lobbied for the pilot was quoted as saying they were:

“happy with the proposed payment of €325 per week, once it is not means tested and other benefits including disability payments are not diminished, and that there is a clear process for selection…”

In writing about other guaranteed basic income programs previously, it hadn’t occurred to me that participating in the program might end up disadvantaging people from receiving other types of aid due to income restrictions. That is something to be considered when designing programs like this –either to disburse an amount that will offset people’s losses or ensure that the amount people are receiving doesn’t adversely impact their ability to receive other aid.

An Orchestra Where You Don’t Have To Read Music? Depends On Who Is Invited To Play

H/T to Artsjournal.com which included an article about the Philadelphia Public Orchestra, (PPO) being billed as the World’s First Public Orchestra. The way the article describes it, this is a pretty radical departure from the Western organizational and operational model.

The PPO will have a bottom up approach where the musicians choose the composers suited to their needs rather than the musicians being chosen to suit the composition. Similarly, the musicians will guide and administer the direction of the organization.

The Philadelphia Public Orchestra’s manifesto, written by Meyers, makes it quite clear that the musicians themselves will eventually and collectively steer the ship: “After the orchestra has been established for at least one season, the orchestra members ideally take control of all decision-making.”

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“So yes, we launch it together, and there can be an advisory board to help it exist, and then the orchestra should take over and let the musicians, the performers, think of who they might like to ask for a commission, what themes are interesting to them. …”

The structure also seems designed for the inclusion of musical styles and instruments outside of the traditional Western orchestra in that its not necessary to read music.

“The bottom line is, this is a public orchestra, where people can come together and participate from their own comfort zone and within their own traditions,” Tidd explains from Rotterdam, where he’s on tour. “People who read music represent a very small percentage of the music happening in the world, including in America. Some people learn stuff by ear. Others use modified forms of written music — chord charts, graphical scores, all kinds of things. Removing the need to read music makes it more universal.”

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To some extent, says Tidd, the application process will prioritize those who have never played in a traditional orchestral setting before and haven’t had access to this kind of project.

“We’re not trying to have 25 members of the Philadelphia Orchestra here,” Tidd emphasizes. “This orchestra will be very diverse.” (As of 2020, the Philadelphia Orchestra had just three Black members.)

It will be interesting to see who applies to play. The Philadelphia area has a plethora of cultural and musical traditions, but I would imagine they will have to continually practice some degree of outreach and invitation to a wide variety of musicians in an attempt to attract the breadth of participation they probably desire.

The ensemble will likely need to also engage in a lot of work to find some common ground upon which to operate. One of the last shows we had prior to Covid was a group of Tuvan throat singers. They mentioned that when a national orchestra was being formed in Tuva one of the issues they ran into was that since everyone’s instrument was made to suit the preference and physical stature of the performer to some degree, there wasn’t a common tuning standard. Now obviously this was only an issue when trying to perform a formal composition. Tuvans have long met and performed their traditional songs in large groups without the difference in instruments being a factor.

The PPO could easily end up being comprised of musicians performing on instruments originating from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Africa, Oceania, Indigenous people of the Americas, etc. As the article says, some traditions use notation styles that differ from Western music and others don’t use written notations at all.

I don’t have any doubt that the PPO can arrive at some extremely interesting compositions, but there will probably be a continuous, evolving conversation about what the vision of the ensemble and the music is supposed to be. Should every musician perform in at least one piece per concert, for example? Will there be a focus on music and/or instruments from a specific part of the world or demonstrations of cross-cultural works that might surprise audiences? (Do Balinese gamelan and mariachi mix well?)

Actually, Jon Silpayamanant is the person who would know better than I how these negotiations can be accomplished. He has been writing about the music practices of many cultures and bringing them together in performance for a couple decades now.

Verdi At Bat

Maybe we should be keeping an eye on Tulsa Opera. Back in August I wrote about a film that was screened in my venue about Tulsa Opera’s casting a transgender person as Don Giovanni. A couple weeks ago, I saw link to an interview with Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker about a production of Rigoletto they staged in October on a baseball field so that they could have socially distanced performances.

The Tulsa Drillers minor league team offered the use of their field to the opera. Looking at the pictures attached to a review of the production, it looks like the opera embraced the opportunity fully. Performers strode out on to the field wielding baseball bats, toting beers and wearing jerseys proclaiming their membership in “The Dukes” baseball team.  The conductor wore a Maestro jersey.

The English translation appeared on the screen of the jumbotron and apparently the program consisted of “packs of trading cards that included photos of the cast, along with their operatic “stats” (character descriptions and past roles).” The Tulsa Driller’s announcer served as narrator.

I found a couple short Facebook videos of the production so you could see it in action, but there are also quite a few photos attached to the review.

It looks like Tulsa Opera only had one performance, but they managed to get an audience of 1800 people. (There are indications they had some preview performances so attendees at those performances might be part of their total production attendance.) The show was cut to a 90 minute performance and was followed by a fireworks display.

You have to applaud their creativity and efforts to find a way to mount a socially distanced production. I haven’t come across any definitive numbers indicating whether they attracted people who don’t normally attend opera.  I have to wonder if they found it rewarding enough to try something similar in the future.

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