Art in a Time of Covid

Digital Here to Stay 

October 21, 2020

At 1AM on Friday, October 9th, I got a group text from a playwright friend: Broadway was once again pushing back its reopening date to June 1st, 2021. 

I wish I could say it came as a surprise. Only a couple weeks earlier the Metropolitan Opera cancelled its 20/21 season, and anyone who’s remotely considered event logistics in the past 6-7 months could rattle off a hundred hurdles involved in reopening any kind of venue. That list grows exponentially when the venue houses a minimum of 500 people in a city where you’re lucky to get 6 inches let alone 6 feet. Rather than shocking the community, this announcement reiterated once again that the performing arts industry will be one of the last to return. So it’s time for organizations to ensure their digital solutions are going to service long-term needs, and seize underlying opportunities. 

One Step at a Time

Performing arts’ biggest strength has been the live in live theater. It’s a double-edged sword: creating economic barriers and gatekeeping for many, but also generating a unique high for those that are able to experience it even on a small scale such as school recitals, or indie theater. At the beginning of the pandemic, artists at every level of the industry rapidly pivoted to produce content without its biggest strength. 

Zoom became prevalent not just for teleconferencing, but for digital events and classes. One of the most common requests I’ve gotten in the past few months is “can we embed a Zoom link in our order confirmation?” (the answer is “yes”). But while artists explored radio dramas, wrote plays specifically for digital forums, held digital festivals, and tried to make do, the focus was always on what it would look like to return home. As often as I’ve been asked about embedding links in confirmation emails, many organizations have opted to hold off on radical changes because of the ever shifting landscape and the knowledge that the current state of affairs is temporary. 

Last Friday’s announcement makes it clear that “temporary” is going to last a lot longer than we hoped. Even regions that are beginning to reopen for outdoor or distanced performances need to find a way to cater to patrons that cannot safely return to venues, and contend with the impending arrival of winter. This is no longer about creating a safety checklist, and measuring the width of seats. Top to bottom, organizations must consider digital viability in all programming for the next year. We can no longer say “hold, please” to infrastructure changes that will support the performing arts during the rest of this pandemic, particularly when it has the potential to increase accessibility across the board.

Plan Ahead

Distance makes planning even more important than when leadership was able to collaborate in person. In a normal year, every production season is planned to suit a wide variety of audiences, tastes, and artistic messages. Once shows are selected, resources are allocated and accounted for. A formal delay in the return to venues means these conversations now need to include digital logistics. Content curation must consider what pieces will work best when performers must be distanced or in completely different locations. Think carefully before slating a piece that requires physical intimacy or confrontation, consider smaller pieces over large ensemble productions.

No matter what content is selected, organizations should get in the habit of identifying opportunities for content creation. For many organizations, the Watch & Listen section was a repository for the passionate user, and good for SEO, but not a priority. Other organizations were only able to record content for archival purposes rather than public consumption. The early days of the pandemic quickly revealed this produced a gap between the potential of the digital space, and the available content. As we continue to oscillate between digital and physical spaces, and reach out to patrons who cannot safely attend performances, generating assets and high quality recordings will be a priority.

A 5-Star Hotel, not a Bates Motel

Digital content is a great way to continue to foster relationships with patrons while in-person interaction is limited or impossible, so organizations must ensure that the experience is a positive one. If you don’t have a natural home for videos already, start having conversations with hosting platforms to see which might be the right fit for you and your website. Consider whether you want to make the jump towards OTT platforms which allow users to access content on other devices rather than being tethered to a phone or computer. Whether you’re new, or a seasoned digital veteran, keep an eye on analytics to identify pain points in the digital path. Ensure that the journey through your content is a curated, and welcoming experience for patrons. Just as you would provide users with additional event information before expecting them to book, avoid abandoning users in a vast sea of videos with no context. Your event pages likely don’t bury the link to purchasing tickets, similarly your video landing pages should make it easy for users to choose what they want to watch and navigate to other recommended content. 

Nice to E-Meet You

While it is tempting to stick with known, and familiar faces during uncertain times, the pandemic has also raised a fear that the performing arts will become even more exclusive. Organizations must take advantage of the opportunity to diversify and expand their network of collaborators and audience members. With no additional travel or housing costs, organizations can now reach and collaborate with people that would have been inaccessible before. Use this to your advantage - increase the diversity of the artists you work with and collaborate with organizations around the world that are succeeding in producing theater that represents their audience. Revel in the fact you can now compete for audiences that are outside a one hour drive of your venue. Expand your community and make your art more accessible to everyone so that when we are able to return, you’ll have an even wider community. 

White Noise or Unique Contribution

The performing arts doesn’t have to beat Netflix at its own game, we need to stand apart. Before the pandemic every million dollar media company in entertainment was already entering the “streaming wars.” 10 years ago there was Netflix and YouTube, now there is a specialized streaming service for every channel and category of content clamoring for people’s cash and attention. It can be daunting for nonprofits to enter the ring without the massive production budgets available to cinema and television unless you remember what makes live art precious. 

A live event is a unique blend of elements that can be recorded, but never be replicated. Even shows with extended runs will never have the same performance twice whether it’s a stubborn wig, a backstage prank, or the crash of thunder outside. Live art is real. There’s no CGI, no second take, it is all happening before your eyes. Hollywood spends millions of dollars every year trying to replicate reality by using extended takes and marketing multi-class actors doing their own stunts. I’ve binged more Netflix than I care to admit during the past 7 months, I’ve cried and cheered at my local AMC, but theater brings an audience together down to its pulse. And I get the same buzz of nerves before a digital performance that I did putting on my makeup in a utility closet turned green room, because live art done right is lightning in a bottle. 

Nothing can be accomplished overnight. Everything I’ve mentioned is a long term commitment to the digital sphere, and there will be many trials before we reach tribulations. No matter how successful, none of this will replace live theater. It never could. Under the current timeline, Broadway will be shuttered for a total of 14 months, and smaller theaters are unlikely to lead a charge that Broadway won’t. An entire year, both creatively and financially, will be gone and many organizations with it. Broadway’s announcement sent only the most recent national wave of grief through the performing arts industry. Audiences are hurting over the loss of these shared experiences that made up their community. Hundreds of thousands of artists are yearning not just to perform, but to create and play without endangering ourselves. We miss creating with our friends and colleagues. We miss watching their performative joy, pain, and skill. But while we grieve, reality waits, and it is your responsibility to make sure that if you can survive, you do everything possible to thrive.