Streaming studios is a new option for anyone who wants to digitally deliver a theatre productions. In a recent article, Playbill wrote about several Digital Streaming Platforms that have emerged to fill the gaps created by COVID-19. In addition to MTI, which I mentioned in an earlier post, and On The Stage, the Playbill article highlighted another alternative. Up to this point, we’ve discussed solutions for theatrical groups with existing access to a physical performance space. If you fall into that category, digital platforms make it easy for take your production and put your show online.
On the other hand, if you do not have a dedicated space you can now rent one. This also applies to you if you are an individual performing artist, not only theatrical groups. In response to the current climate, there are several theater companies converting parts of their theater to streaming studios. Renting these streaming studios, you can capture a play, reading, or even a short film. While fairly new, they already span from California to New York:
One director, Ralph B. Peña, explains how he came up with this idea provide a way for artists to create. More importantly, a way to keep performing artists employed. And, last but certainly not least, to keep performing artists in NYC, an important creativity hub. You can watch Ralph give an overview of Ma-Yi Studio in the video, below.
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At my local production, the first vocal rehearsal had the entire cast spaced out as best the could in the stage room. To my surprise, everyone kept their face coverings on for the duration. The vocal director himself used both a cloth face covering and a face shield. He also threw out the idea that in addition to being mic’d for the performance, the cast may be asked to wear face shields.
The first set of questions that came to mind were all around the microphones.
how are they going to handle the mic distribution?
Will each performer have dedicated hardware?
How often will they disinfect mics?
Once those logistics are in place, the combination of face shields and mics could offer your theatrical group a safe pathway to a streamed show, live or scheduled. Personal face shields is just one of many precautions that you should consider. In addition, I’ll restate disinfecting. This applies to the usual high touch areas, but also props, costumes, and mics. Last week I also mentioned using digital backgrounds instead of physical sets. If this isn’t feasible for your theatrical group, consider putting up partitions as barrier shields.
I look forward to these elements bringing added safety to theatrical productions and becoming creative elements. Directors can break the fourth wall and draw attention to the added scenery barriers. Costume designers have freedom to style face shields as part of traditional headpieces or new one altogether. It could turn out to be a lot of fun.
The important part is the safety and the integrity of the performance, especially if you are considering a live stream. Ask your performers to face shield up when they can’t distance and a mask would prohibit the proper facial expression the role demands. Yes, they may be uncomfortable. Yes, the acoustics may not be ideal. But it will keep everyone on stage and safe.
Theatrical licensing agencies, including MTI and Concord, have secured rights to live stream select musicals, comedies, and dramas. This has occurred all in the last month as a direct response to COVID-19. During this quarantine period, schools and theatrical groups cancelled performances. These licensing houses had no choice but to seek alternatives to stay in business. Live streaming to the rescue!
An Example Close to Home
Here in NY, I know of one community theatre group that is conducting outdoor, socially distanced rehearsal. And the demand was great! They purposely chose a show that has
a small company, with no ensemble
a simple set, keeping stage crew to a minimum
a short runtime
Their expectation is that in another month’s time, restrictions will allow large enough groups to gather indoors for performances. However, the musical in question does not include streaming rights. For this reason, backup plans for the culminating performance include:
limiting the show to a selection of songs
a suitable outdoor venue
My expectation is that this proves you can produce live, stage performances; musical, comedy, or drama; in a safe manner as we reopen. If you are a theatrical group exploring this new delivery mechanism, let’s take a quick look at some factors to consider.
Licensed Productions: The Plays the Thing
It all starts with the license. Your theatrical group must sit down and decide what kind of production you want to run. Then, you review the list of available shows and select a suitable match. On the other hand, theatrical licensing agencies I have spoken with assure me they are continuing to seek out rights holder to partner with and grow their existing catalogs. For that reason, bookmark the plays and musical catalog sites. Check back frequently as the list of shows with streaming rights should be updated constantly.
Rights can vary in a few ways. While I’m biased towards live streaming, some shows only allow scheduled streaming or on demand viewing. Furthermore, rights to a particular show may limit you to a school or kid’s edition and not the full version. In those cases, agencies may only grant the rights to a school.
In the example above, the play choice had a small cast and minimal sets. Focusing on the sets for the time being, they have two main aspects: structural and labor. For safety reasons, your theatrical group will want to keep staff to a minimum. Here is where live streaming has a major advantage: digital scenery.
completely virtual, move and transition with just clicks
less crowding backstage
frees tech staff up for other task
Depending on your theatrical licensing agency, these may be included for certain shows. Most likely, backgrounds and drop will add cost, but a fraction of physical sets. On top of that, your budget may even allow for more locales than you originally planned, when considering storage is now hard drive space not a warehouse.
Theater Crowd Control
Last but not least, special consideration must be given to the audience. When considering safety, the critical factor will likely be restrictions on large gatherings. In my opinion this should be the deciding factor to live stream or produce a virtual event (pre-recorded, remote productions, et al). Similar to keeping backstage at a low occupancy, the house should be empty of patrons.
Prior to going live for a “full house” your company should get used to the technical aspects. A few of the theatrical licensing agencies allow dress rehearsals and the ability to offer complimentary tickets. As a result, you can test your show to make sure it looks the way you want. Afterwards, you can open it up to bigger audiences.
An exclusively web-based audience now provides your theatrical group with new possibilities. With a firm grasp on the technical side of the house, you can sharpen the live streaming costs and find sweet spots for:
budget, in comparison to renting a larger theater
My hope is if you are a theatrical groups that previously had to rent an outside space, you can re-purpose your budget, or a portion, into offsetting the live stream costs. And if you own your own space, live streaming will allow larger audiences beyond your usual capacity. Lastly, in both cases, as you get comfortable with the technology, the streaming budget increases, improving production quality.
Standing Room Only
This is by no means a complete and comprehensive guide to producing a musical or play during a pandemic. One glaring omission at first reading this should be: I don’t mention video requirements. In my experience, many theatrical groups have a house videographer or often work with a video production company. But, there are many other considerations, that video will not solve. Just to name a few:
testing or screening of cast, crew, and staff
socially distancing rehearsals and blocking
disinfecting rehearsal spaces, costumes, and props
From a technical perspective, take a look at my gear page for ideas on what you will need to live stream your performance. Depending on your level of comfort and expertise, a mobile device may be all you need. But you will need to convert the video into a web friendly format. You can use software or dedicated hardware. Just like set, costumes, and props, you may choose to buy or rent.
Once your show is on the web, you need a video player for your audience to watch. Again, theatrical licensing agencies are delivering turn-key solutions that offer virtual:
theaters, including lobbies
Make sure to contact your licensing agent and find what show options, technical capabilities, and customer support they are offering. We are in a pandemic, but the show must go on!