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.

The Past May Hold Answers, But They Are Imperfect

I came across an interesting contrast in perspective about solutions for a post-Covid world last week. In American Theatre, Jim Warren, the founding artistic director of the American Shakespeare Center proposed a model for theatre to ensure long-term, consistent employment for artists by returning to the rotating repertory model and having artists fulfill administrative roles.

For those that are not familiar with the rotating repertory model, it is a practice where the same core group of performers appear in every production in a season instead of contracting a separate slate of performers for each production.   So if you have a core group of 18 performers, 10 of them may be in the production currently appearing on stage while 8 of them are rehearsing the next production and there may be an overlap of 4 – 5 working on both productions, though with less demands on their time and energy in one of those productions.

Warren also suggests artists take on administrative roles:

Perhaps we need to return to structures similar to what we had at the birth of many theatre companies, when actors split the duties of marketing, fundraising, education, bookkeeping, making websites, and every other job that needed doing. Perhaps we could hire actors full-time to create the shows, use their individual superpowers in other areas, and then hire part-timers to handle the overflow of admin work when we need more help.

The end goal is to provide everyone with a 40 hour work week, health coverage, paid vacation and sick time.

These are not insignificant goals. As Drew McManus has been writing about over at Adaptistration, the current trend in the orchestra world is to dissolve contracts with musicians and try to run the organization solely using fee for service arrangements where musicians are only paid when they perform. (While maintaining their skills and expensive instruments at a high standard while waiting to be called.)

However, there were some people who took umbrage with Warren’s proposal, particularly with the idea that current administrators must go and that most actors are equally adept at administration as performance.

Others challenged the assumption that pre-Covid many arts entities had the resources to provide their administrators with a 40 hour work week, health coverage, paid vacation and sick time.

Warren admits that he had been striving to create these working conditions for years prior to Covid and many of his solutions at the time were imperfect so there was certainly an implication that there was still a lot of work to be done on these ideas.

I don’t think anyone is necessarily debating that the goals he sets are not worthy, but given that no one was satisfied with the status quo in the decades prior to Covid, a solution is going to require casting gazes further and broader than before. I was initially tempted to say the solution would require multiples of effort beyond what had been invested before, but I think it is really more a matter of the will to blaze new paths into the unknown than mustering additional strength to lift or surmount obstacles.

Dip Your Toe, But Probably Not The Time To Take The Plunge

As I was driving into work today, I heard an NPR story about the 92nd St Y, an event/education space in NYC, and how they have gone virtual during Covid-19.  According to NPR, in a typical year 92 Street Y has about 300,000 people participate in their events. In the last 6 months they have had over 3.4 million people engage with their virtual programming.

My first inclination was to think that if they had successfully monetized their offerings, it was likely due to the fact they are located in NYC and are such a marquee name that Hugh Jackman takes classes there.

It turns out that even with those numbers, they haven’t been financially successful.

BLAIR: And they’re selling tickets. Some programming is free, but they’ve also generated over $3 million in revenue. Still, CEO Seth Pinsky says, despite the income and the massive audience increase, they’ve had to furlough staff and cut salaries.

PINSKY: The hardest part of all of this is that, in spite of all the successes that we’re having, the economics still don’t work. And we’ve been operating on fumes.

BLAIR: Pinsky says he hopes, going forward, the 92nd Street Y can crack the code on how to make this new virtual, now global model a sustainable one. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

It should be noted that while $3 million seems great revenue for a lot of us, it is all relative. According to 92nd Street Y’s  financial reports, (much love to them for making it so easy to find), they had $45 million in earned revenue in fiscal year 2019.

For as much as people are saying virtual content is the future, you don’t want to necessarily go all in on this right now. Though obviously, investing energy in in-person content ain’t generating $3 million right now.

Broadway producer Ken Davenport is of the mind that the more paid virtual content that is offered, the quicker that mode of engaging with content will be normalized. He uses the example of younger people paying to watch people stream themselves playing video games.

I am not sure that is the most apt comparison when it comes to streaming live content. I think using your computer to watch someone play a game you, yourself can play on a computer involves a different mode of thinking. There is no live substitute that exists for that experience. Even if you attended a video game tournament in person, and people pack arenas to do just that, you would still end up watching the action play out on a huge screen.

That said, Davenport seems to think there is a separate audience out there that may not necessarily overlap with existing audiences. I am put in mind of the fact that among the top impediments to attending a live event are not having anyone who will accompany them; transportation/distance difficulties; not having the time. There may, in fact, be a local demographic that will engage with a performance that is livestreamed for them.

Davenport writes:

Well first, if you’re a TheaterGoer and you see a TheaterMaker doing something with a price tag attached (and it’ll be much less than a live ticket – because they have to be), considering paying.  You’ll be helping a TheaterMaker.  And TheaterMakers?  Help your peers.  Attend their shows.  Support and you’ll be supported.

But if you want more specifics, then here are my three giant takeaways for TheaterMakers that you MUST do to get on the ground floor of the paid streaming revolution that is coming.

  1. Build a following. You need your own tribe, your own fans, your own community to have a successful career in streaming your art. (That tribe can be any size, but you need to know where they are and be able to communicate with them daily – and yes, social media is great, but nothing beats email.
  2. Stream something. Anything. Start experimenting. Plays. Concerts. One person shows. Try to make it a unique experience for the streaming market so it feels created for it.
  3. Repeat.  Keep doing different things until you find what works for YOU. And after a while you will find something that supports your live stage work. Wouldn’t that be nice?

At my venue we are going to experiment along these lines with a speaker series in October. We will have a live event that is streamed. We are putting the stream on sale a little later than the live event tickets under the philosophy that live streaming is an overflow space to some degree.

After the speaker finishes, there will be a curated Q&A. A half hour after the Q&A we will host online discussions of the topic in Zoom breakout rooms as a way to simulate an after event discussion. The half hour is to allow in-person attendees a little time to get home and log in. The goal is to try to bring the two methods of interaction together in one place. I will let you know how things turn out.

Live From Our Fire Escape

Today Drew McManus had a post on Adaptistration titled “In the Age Of COVID, Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention.” This was pretty timely because I had my own tale of adapting to the times to tell.

This weekend at my venue, we hosted our first live event since March -an outdoor cabaret performance on our fire escape. (Not so much an invention, I suppose since the first thing people did when the pandemic started was sing from their apartment windows and fire escapes.)

As you can see from the pictures below, we have a pretty substantial fire escape with multiple levels that can be used for performance. Since this was our first time out and we didn’t want to expose more of our equipment to the summer heat and possible rain than necessary, we limited our activities to one level.

The audience sat in our parking lot. As you can see, we prepped the parking lot by chalking out seating pods. The seating was general admission and we undersold what we imagined our capacity to be in order to provide both our audience and ourselves with the flexibility to see how things developed.

We determined the size and number of pods to create by analyzing the ticket purchasing patterns. We drew out two person, four person, six person and in one case 10 person, pods based on how people purchased their tickets. The pods were spaced to allow six feet between groups of unrelated people. Then we allowed enough room on the perimeter for people who felt the need for greater distancing to set up as they wanted.

Our aim was to observe how many people chose the pods versus the open areas in order to get a sense of what our actual capacity for the space might be while ensuring good sightlines. We capped the event at 175 people, but now figure we can get up to about 250 and still ensure appropriate spacing and flexibility in seating location.

Our local mask ordinance requires that if you are anywhere outside your home within six feet of a person with whom you do not live, you must wear a mask. The example given is if you are waiting at a crosswalk alone, you don’t have to wear a mask, but if someone arrives to wait with you, you need to be wearing one.

Since people were coming with picnic set-ups or could grab food from partner restaurants and didn’t have to wear a mask while eating, our policy was you could only sit with people in your household and could remove your mask while seated in your pod with them. Since moving to and from that space requires becoming closer to others, you needed to wear a mask as you moved about everywhere else. By and large everyone heeded the rule and those that didn’t we firmly prodded to comply.

One bit of fortunate timing was about three weeks ago the local government expanded permission to have open containers on downtown streets from First Friday only to every night between 4 pm-10 pm to allow bar patrons to use sidewalk tables restaurants and the downtown association had deployed. This allowed us to serve alcohol out of our own bar which helped improve the financial situation of the event.

Overall, it was regarded as a success and we are planning to run at least one more before it gets too cool this Fall. Stay tuned.

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