Theatre licensing allow live streaming, since large groups of people cannot gather at theater

Theatrical Licensing Raises Curtain on Live Streaming

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
  • video recording

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.

…and scene

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

Photo by Tuur Tisseghem on Pexels.com

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:

  • audience size
  • ticket prices
  • 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:

  • box office
  • theaters, including lobbies
  • programs

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!

Stay healthy and keep streaming!