Everyone in live entertainment is trying to figure out what to do during the lockdown. And with no group is this more pronounced than theater people. We don’t know when we’ll hit actual stages with audiences again, but we’d like to do something - just for the exercise of performing, if not to make a few bucks.
But if you’re putting stuff online without adapting to the medium, you’re doing more harm than good. If you’re streaming for free and not collecting audience data, you’ll continue to bleed money and you’re setting the wrong expectation for your audience.
Here’s a hard truth: most people don’t like theater. Teenagers get turned off theater after awkwardly reading Shakespeare in English class and from being trucked off to see plays that weren’t written or directed for them. Many draw the conclusion that theater just isn’t for them. Growing up as a black kid in America, theater wasn’t an option for an ‘evening out’. Nobody could afford it, and our stories were rarely reflected in a way that made anyone care. Especially compared to movies, TV, video games, concerts and the Internet.
Beverly Knight performs for a socially distanced crowd of 640 people at the London Palladium on July 23, 2020. Photo credit: Andy Paradise/BBC
So now we’re trying to sell theater minus the biggest thing it’s got going for it: the live experience. Theater doesn’t readily translate to video. Most of us don’t have the budget or crew to make something that looks and sounds as good as the Disney taping of Hamilton. A cheap recording of a play is spectacularly awful to watch.
And there’s an abundance of archived and live performances being offered. Like with any art form, it only takes two or three bad ones for someone to get turned off the medium altogether. There are some good ones, but their success has been modest at best. Some of the largest theater companies in the world are streaming for free and expecting audience members to stick around and voluntarily provide copious amounts of personal information afterwards.
So what can theater people do? One thing: use the medium.
The best livestream concerts I’ve watched have been interactive. The performers address the camera - like they would in a concert anyway. They talk about what they’re going through. They take requests. They answer questions people have submitted. They solicit donations for themselves, or for a charity. They make it seem like a unique event, and everyone watching is part of it. Because it is, and they are.
Theater can do some if not all of these things. Even if your monologue or play keeps up the fourth wall, introduce it as yourself. Acknowledge the strangeness and stress of our collective situation. Thank people for joining you before you launch in.
Even better: create something specifically for these parameters. Find a way to add an element of interactivity to your show. You can’t modulate your performance to the reactions of an in-person audience, so find another way to help the audience understand that they’re an integral part of what you’re doing.
How exactly should you do this? That’s up to you. Ideally it’ll be something that accentuates the themes of your piece, and works as a new extension of what you do.
Let your creative imagination run with this. We’re thirsty for artists to help us make sense of the upside-down world we’ve found ourselves in. Hollywood is releasing movies and TV shows created before any of this happened. It’s the loose flexible artists, the ones used to dealing with whatever happens, who can give us something we can’t get from anyone else.
While many of us pride ourselves as being innovative, this current situation has exposed a laziness of comfort and complacency that means we need to get back to the edge and be creative once more. Things will never be the way they were. As one of my directors used to say:
weshowup.io is an audience company. A digital pay-what-you-can solution for experiences. Make a reservation, see the show, pay after - whether its from your living room or from the comfort of one of our custom virtual reality venues we build for artists, museums, wineries and festivals. Zoom fatigue is real. We can help.