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Will Coronavirus Convince Theatre to Innovate?

Does it take a deadly virus to force industries to innovate?

That appears to be happening. With shelter-in-place requests and social distancing, I propose that Coronavirus has increased pressure on theater companies around the world to show them a new emerging reality that will require new ideas if theatre is to continue.


Hopefully, when this virus passes, theater will be able to return to a somewhat normal period. The leaders that innovate can return with an increased reach, larger audiences not physically bound and more output and income.


The allure of theatre is the opportunity to sit in a full auditorium to watch artists tell a story on stage. A once in a lifetime moment, shared by all who attend.


Behind the scenes, producing that content is fraught with a show selection process that takes many months, requires cooperation and approval from third parties and has significant costs. Selecting a show that puts butts in the seats, garners sponsorships and aligns with the charitable mission is a time-consuming endeavor. There is only so much time in a day and that is a natural limitation on live theatre output.


Live theatre depends on output, and any opportunity that can help increase that output only aids our mission and potential income. I propose that online platforms give us the ability to increase output.


For years, I’ve wondered why more theater companies don’t take advantage of producing content for an online audience. There are handfuls of companies that use online methods to attract attention to their physical productions. Some go farther and produce interviews and “bonus” behind the scenes footage. Not many produce actual online theatre performances.


Why is that?


The benefits are massive.


When you take advantage of online production, you are no longer limited to the number of seats in your auditorium – and how many of us wish we could add another hundred seats to accommodate a sell out production? Online capability has no limit. As long as you have the bandwidth, you can accommodate all that want to experience your production. Audience-building is no longer limited by who can travel to your venue. Your reach can go global.


For the production itself, costs are lower. You no longer require full stage sets as the camera only sees what you allow it to see. With the aid of green screens and physical locations in and around your venue, you can produce a full length recording of any show you want. Through the power of the camera, you may be able to produce shows that you wouldn’t normally be able to present live on stage due to special effect requirements that are cost and/or safety prohibitive. Filters, video effects and cameras are a fraction of the cost.


For playwrights, this online platform opens doors to getting work produced. There are thousands of new scripts written by first-time, hopeful playwrights that never get produced either due to a need for more development or because the person selecting content doesn’t think it will sell enough tickets to be eligible for a full-scale production. Online platforms eliminate this requirement. If a script resonates with your company, you can produce it online without the expenses that come with a physical event. Pull some of your performers together, put them at a table, start recording on the camera and read the script. Not only does this get more work seen by an audience, it helps playwrights better their scripts from a live read through. To take this benefit one step further, you can include a link to an online survey and gather feedback over a period of days, weeks or months to assist your playwright in their development process.


There are many other benefits to producing content for online that I haven’t mentioned here, however, I’d like to touch upon one more: Maximizing output.


I’ve always hated that it takes anywhere between 4 and 12 weeks to get a script ready for the eyes of an audience. As I stated earlier, it’s a natural limitation built into the physical production process. Online platforms allow us more opportunity.


At any given time during your season, you have numerous participants that aren’t able to commit to be a part of a physical production. The participants are a captive audience that would commit to a smaller project such as the read-through of a local playwright’s script.


Online productions allow us to align with our charitable mission to provide theatre to all audiences including the under served and youth markets. All they need is an internet connection. No longer do you need to worry about “pay what you will” policies and group discounts to create this connection.


Many theater leaders are starting to warm up to the idea, such as podcasts designated for new play readings and even Broadway productions offering streaming of their shows.


Also, I mention live productions here, but live could be previously recorded. Some platforms allow you to schedule an event with a limited viewing time period. By recording the production, you can replay the event as often as you’d like. Eventually, you’ll have an entire catalog of content that could be digitally downloaded for a small fee, as long as you’ve worked out the arrangements with the playwright and others that contributed to the project for their share.


Imagine… you produce 5 main stage productions annually. Now imagine you produce a monthly online production – a read through or full scale “movie” of a theatrical performance. That’s 12 more opportunities to keep your community of performers, crew and volunteers active. 12 more opportunities to keep your name in front of your physical audience and 12 more opportunities to connect with potential volunteers, performers, writers, audiences and donors.


Not only that above suggestion, but you are no longer limited by time of the event either! You can do an afternoon performance and a late night performance… YouTube, Facebook Live, even Virtual Reality – imagine the possibilities!


With the effects of the virus on our industry, we must take a second look at some of the old and outdated systems that hamper us from innovating. With 7 Billion people in the world, there are plenty of eyes to go around to experience the content our theater companies create.


I’m sure that’s just one possible way to innovate and I’m excited to see what other ideas come forth!


Alan Saunders, WRITEineer.com

Friends told me I was late to the game for writing musicals, even though I've been writing them almost my entire life. so this blog is my journey into writing professionally for the stage.

Check out WRITEineer.com for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!