Originally published at Newtek.com
The problem: Audiences for live theater are in the midst of a ten year decline. How do we attract a new generation of supporters?
I am a theater lover. I have been an actor all my adult life. I went to college for theater, I apprenticed at a major regional theater, I moved to NY because of my love of the theater, I spent my twenties and early thirties doing horrible jobs because they gave me the freedom to build my life in the theater.
But the theater industry I love is struggling. The National Endowment for the arts has charted a 33% decline in attendance at live theater in the past decade. Theaters all over the US are closing or cutting back their schedules. NYC theaters I know and love cannot fill their seats, even for shows that get brilliant New York Times reviews. As I write this, actors in LA are vociferously fighting a new union contract that would require small LA theaters to pay them minimum wage. Yes, you read that right, actors are protesting getting paid… minimum wage… because the theaters won’t survive if they have to pay their actors $9 an hour.
Declining audiences, of course, means declining revenues – and no matter how noble our artistic intentions, at the end of the day money is required to put food on the table, heat in our homes, pay in our checks and curtains on our prosceniums.
Why has the theater community found itself in such an economically painful predicament? Because our audiences are changing, our industry is not.
But there is so much good news here. Challenging as these times may be, we are in the midst of a thrilling opportunity. Our audiences may be changing – but they are not disappearing. Our audiences are as passionate as ever but their priorities have transformed along with the digital age. Convenience and community are gaining in importance as our audience members decide how to spend their money and time – and often that means they don’t want to come to us anymore, they demand that we come to them. We may not be ushering them to their seats in the same numbers as before, but we are bumping into them everywhere. They are in Indianapolis, and England and Japan, and Pakistan. They are on on our websites, on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook, and on Snapchat. They are demanding that we meet them in their own town square, a global town square that is large enough to accommodate an almost infinite audience – but exists in one place, and all places, at the same time. Our audiences aren’t in decline – they’re online.
Theater Online? To so many people the thought is anathema… but from literally the first time I watched a live-streamed show in 2007 (in this case just two guys talking to their online audience) I knew that these new live-streaming platforms offered an answer for performing artists everywhere… and not an,
“Oh well, I guess we have to” kind of answer, but an,
Oh my &*^#! We have the opportunity to create an entirely new model of live performing arts. A model that is personal, and thrilling, and social and global, and which has the potential to grow audiences far beyond the geographical boundaries of our individual theaters. A model that can inspire entirely new creative opportunities and revenue streams!
kind of answer.
It was clear to me was that we had to transform the live performance into a live online performance that was tailored to a small screen and a lean forward audience. I knew this meant you had to shoot with multiple cameras, and edit those cameras live. Your audience has to feel like they are in a front row seat, that they are part of an event that is bigger than themselves, is global in reach and one which makes them feel like they are gaining access to something unique and ephemeral. I didn’t know how this could be done – but I knew there must be and answer, so I set to work recruiting my first live-streaming team.
As part of that process I found myself at Streaming Media East – a conference devoted to streaming video – and began to talk about my plans to anyone who would listen. Finally someone asked me, “Have you seen this”, and walked me over to Newtek’s booth. There was the 2007 model of the Newtek Tricaster – essentially a live-production studio in a portable computer that allowed me to mix multiple cameras in real time and and to stream that edit directly to the internet. Here was how it could be done!
The Tricaster is one of many ways to create a multiple camera live-stream; but in my opinion the most robust, adaptable and dependable. Years later, we own our own Tricaster, capable of mixing and streaming up to 10 sources live. I could talk about the tech for hours – but this isn’t about the tech – it’s about how today’s affordable, accessible technologies can help the Theater community to:
build new audiences
reach passionate global supporters
transform a struggling industry
create new models of live performance
build new revenue streams
Find new ways for theater artists to express themselves
Happily, led by The Met: Live in HD, broadcasting performance has becoming more and more accepted. Although the vast majority of broadcast productions are from the UK – surely the US won’t be too far behind. HD broadcasts are a wonderful step forward for broadening the audience for the performing arts – but these events are expensive to produce – about 1.5 million for an opera or broadway show. This is way out of the reach of 99.5% of the productions in the US.
The issue isn’t just cost. We need to build audiences that will champion our theaters, not tune in for one wonderful event and forget about us afterwards. We need to build passionate communities who will be excited to support our work year after year after year
The answer is simple. Multi-camera interactive live-streaming.
Nothing replaces the excitement of live performance and nothing creates community like live-streaming.
What is the cost? Our streams cost 1% or less of what it costs to broadcast the Met or a Broadway show. How is that possible? Distribution costs for online streaming are comparably minuscule, and by transferring production from old school broadcast/satellite trucks and their crews to a multi-camera live edit solution that literally fits on a standard 5’ conference table you are reducing your crew budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Skill set still matters – you need a producing team that is fluent in TV, film, online video, live-streaming and theater, but that team can number in the single digits – not the hundreds and the set-up time becomes hours, not days.
Community is equally important. Live is all about community. Today’s audiences want to feel like they have ownership of the creative work they are consuming – things as simple as a dedicated social media host who provides live online callouts and responds to viewers using your event hashtag provide a realtime personal connection to the viewer no matter where they are in the world. At VirtualArtsTV we like to take community many steps further by creating apps that allow viewers to upload their own pics inspired by the performance and by incorporating some of the online comments into the actual performance space.
We have just started upon the path where live-streamed performing arts will lead – but along the way we have streamed concert readings to countries all around the world, Shakespeare to public schools, new plays from basement theaters, new musicals from large production venues, a two week festival that spanned theater, dance and music and more.
We have reached hundreds of thousands of viewers across the globe – we have established that viewers will pay to watch a live streamed performance, and will come back, night after night to see the show, and to catch up with the other fans in the chat room. We have received virtual standing ovations from viewers as close as Cleveland and as far away as Australia… but most importantly… this….
You can actually hear her breathing!… Wow. Like a front row seat. – @cyncooperwrtr
The thrill of live theatre, the feeling of being part of it and yet I’m miles away…amazing. – Carolyn, MA
That was beyond amazing… It just blows me away! – Amin, Tunisia
Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! – Gaven, YouTube chat
The camera always goes to where my eyes want to go. – @feedpuppy, Twitter
I wish Steppenwolf would do same. -LovesPlays, VATV chat room
Do you realize what you are doing?!?! I live in the middle of the woods in a city of 300 people and I am watching live New York Theater! This is a breakthrough! – Elsa M, Oregon
Watching a live play in NYC while sitting on my couch in Barcelona! -@jbalko
Tickets to brick and mortar venues are decline. Why wouldn’t they be? In our digital age the same can be said for almost every industry. But our audiences? The are everywhere, they are passionate, they want to know us better, they want to share in our work, and they want to share our work with their friends. There is a brave new world online that is affordable, interactive, global and accessible to theaters of all sizes. It’s time for one of the world’s oldest art forms to join the digital age…