Theater companies have found the benefits of online offerings
The haunting, pearl-white set of Portland Center Stage’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has sat silent for over a year. As COVID-19 restrictions lift, the company will resume its long-delayed production as part of a new, slimmer season.
Because of the revenue lost during the pandemic, and stalled funding from the Shuttered Venue Operator’s Grant — a performance space-specific addition to the American Rescue Plan — most theater companies will not be able to afford a robust 2021/2022 season. Budgets are lower and it remains to be seen how quickly theater audiences will return to live performance after a year at home.
COVID-19 forced theater companies to get more creative about how they delivered content. In July of last year, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival launched O!, a digital platform which aired its first-ever livestream production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland created a collection of 21 short films, digital performances and audio dramas through the Mercury Company, an artist-led collective tasked with creating content accessible under pandemic conditions.
Artistic director Dámaso Rodríguez at a recording of Magellanica. Photo by Kathleen Kelly
Across the country, theater companies have found success with digital audiences, especially newcomers. A JCA Arts Marketing study conducted last year and released in March found 43% of people who watched a live digital performance last year had never attended an in-person performance at the theatre hosting the event.
Dámaso Rodríguez, artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, says digital offerings have led to inspired, unexpected success.
“There has been a lot of play development work that has happened just in Zoom Rooms,” says Rodríguez, who expects blending digital and live performances to be part of the company’s strategy moving forward. “The works can be unconventional. They can be digital, they can be in-person, they can be hybrid. We are trying to capture the creative spirit of the online performances we did.”
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On Oct. 22, Artists Repertory Theatre will premiere The Chinese Lady, the company’s first indoor live performance since COVID-19. But from September 18-25, the company will perform Campfire Stories, an outdoor, site-specific version of a storytelling series created during the pandemic.
Artists Repertory Theatre will continue to create short film content available online. Rodríguez also wants high-quality, multi-camera recordings of live performances for online audiences. Online members will be offered tickets to these shows on a sliding scale, sometimes free, to grow the company’s awareness nation-wide.
Theater classes, another source of revenue, will also feature more prominently online going forward.
The cast of Portland Center Stage's Freestyle Love Supreme. Credit: Portland Center Stage.
“We’re not going to let go of what we learned from working across disciplines. It's very encouraging to keep thinking this way,” says Rodríguez. “Why are we often told theater isn’t for everyone? Because prices go up every year and the audience base doesn’t grow. This is a chance to grow and diversify our audience.”
Portland Center Stage has also felt the pandemic budget crunch. Instead of A Curious Incident, the company's first post-pandemic production will be a one-woman show based on the life of Frida Kahlo, using the Curious Incident set as a backdrop.
Cynthia Fuhrman, managing director of Portland Center Stage at the Armory, says her company learned a great deal about the online space during the pandemic. Online theatre classes will become more prevalent. The digital space also offers audiences the unique opportunity to interact with performers in real time without derailing the show, something the company will capitalize on moving forward.
Inspired by this concept, Portland Center Stage will perform a “Choose Your Own Adventure” theater piece, where audiences will be able to choose certain elements of the performance as they watch in real time. The company will also expand digital talkbacks and digital happy hours.
Fuhrman was clear, however, that the theater will be focused first and foremost on live performances.
“We’re not sure how much we can support digital work,” says Fuhrman. “The live theatre experience is irreplaceable.”
Renovations at Eugene's Very Little Theatre. Credit: Very Little Theatre.
It is not only the biggest performance spaces making the foray into online permanent. For the Very Little Theatre in Eugene, the pandemic provided an opportunity to remodel, as well launch the Virtual Little Theatre, an online platform of video and audio performances with content for children and adults.
The online platform was a success in bringing members together, many of whom could not attend live shows due to mobility challenges. Additionally, the new virtual offerings have encouraged viewership from member’s families on the East Coast.
“Before the pandemic, monthly membership was dwindling. People had mobility issues or scheduling problems. Now our member meetings are full,” says Jessica Ruth Baker, development coordinator of the Very Little Theatre. Baker says the online offerings will become a mainstay of the theater company moving forward.
The company’s reopening ceremony on July 11 will be a livestream event.
“The lesson we learned is that you have to meet people where they are at,” says Baker. “This has really changed the fabric of who we are.”
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