This article was first published in the April Issue of Scene4 Magazine
The American theatrical blogosphere has been awash these past few months with responses to Rocco Landesman’s recent speech in which he asserted that the supply of arts in America has outpaced demand. If, as Mr. Landesman believes, attendance at American theater is decreasing while simultaneously the number of theaters is increasing, than clearly we have created an unsustainable business model. There has been both outrage at Mr. Landesman’s comments, and some agreement. Are there too many theaters? Are there too few theatergoers? Is this the wrong time to start a theater company? Whose work is worthy of support in such a competitive atmosphere? Has the American theater community nurtured a business model that is destined to fail?
But perhaps the heart of the issue isn’t that American theater audiences are declining, but rather that American theater isn’t finding its audience. Perhaps the most important question is where are today’s audiences – and how do we reach them?
In a recent article for American Theater Magazine, Susan Miller wrote of the joy she has found as a theater artist discovering that she can write, produce, distribute and have full creative ownership of her projects when she works in online video. Susan writes that working online harnesses all the energy of our younger years when “Lets put on a show!” was a thrilling call to action, be it in a high school auditorium, an out of the way black box, or even a barn – Mickey Rooney style. The key difference? This show has the capacity to be seen by thousands and thousands of people and continues to be seen long past the final curtain.
I love Susan’s notion that online video is the next great frontier for theater artists. And I think there is a specific facet of web video that holds the most promise to those of us who have spent our careers on stage. The natural pairing of theater and online video …live-streaming.
As theater artists who thrive on the spontaneity, danger and electricity of live performance there is no better technological fit than multi-camera live-streaming theater. Live broadcasts of the UK’s National Theater and the US’s Metropolitan Opera have already proven that there is a hunger for the live theater experience that transcends the proscenium. But as opposed to expensive broadcasts to movie theaters and complicated distribution negotiations, live-streaming requires nothing more than a robust internet connection and voila! Your production is now available, live, to anyone anywhere in the world with Internet access. In addition, by streaming theater to the internet we have created the capacity to incorporate the kind of social interactivity that speaks directly to today’s wired audience, thereby generating online conversations around our work that lends our audience a sense of ownership of the production, all while building long term audience loyalty – a great advantage over the more expensive movie theater broadcast.
But even more exciting? Here, Mr. Landesman, is where we find our audience! I have been working in live streaming platforms for almost as long as they have existed, launching the first live, scripted video series in September of 2007. This past January however was when I began to experiment with live streaming theater. On January 21st of this year my company began previews of Better Left Unsaid, the first of its kind, interactive live-streamed play. Better Left Unsaid was performed in front of a live audience in a small theater in New York City. And, Better Left Unsaid was simultaneously shot with four cameras, mixed in real time and streamed live to the Internet so that anyone, anywhere in the world could watch the show. And watch it they did. During our closing weekend Better Left Unsaid had more than 50,000 unique viewers from all over the US and the world. Not only did we “put on a show” – we put on a show that was viewed by more than 50,000 people!. The reason Better Left Unsaid had so many viewers? We took our production to the place where the audience already is…online.
Did the theatrical experience suffer for either our theater audience or our online audience? No. The theater audience experienced a play just as they would in any theater, the only difference being a few cameramen in the wings. The online audience experienced something entirely new – a play that was theatrical in design and structure, but shot and edited with the intimacy and authenticity that an online video experience requires. Over and over again viewers commented that we succeeded in translating the theater experience into a compelling online video experience, and sent us virtual standing ovations from around the U.S., and the world.
So let’s get to the other half of Mr. Landesman’s economic equation…supply. I would argue that with 24 minutes of video being uploaded every hour to YouTube, the online video supply is super saturated. Live-streaming however is a different story. Live platforms have grown by leaps and bounds since the fall of 2007. Last year alone experienced a 648% increase in live streaming viewers with more than 7 million unique viewers tuning into live programming in July 2010 alone. Clearly the audience loves the excitement, community and interactivity of live. But, while live-streamed platforms are jam packed with sporting events, religious events, music events, red carpet events and talk shows, there is no narrative work what so ever. In terms of supply, live streaming is a virtual vacuum of sophisticated, compelling, professional narrative content.
Yes, video adds an entirely new skill set to the theatrical production process, live-streaming still another – however there is an unlimited audience out there in the cloud where the tenets of supply and demand are skewed strongly in the theater artists favor. The skill sets are surmountable and the increased costs far out weighed by the possibility of increasing our audiences indefinitely and without borders. Even more exciting, multi–camera interactive live-streamed theater is an art form in its very infancy. It will no doubt grow and evolve in ways I can’t even conceive of today and in ways that are sure to surprise and inspire us. Imagine if we begin to create a strong, varied and expansive online theatrical community. We have the potential to generate an entirely new revenue stream for the arts, one with strong supply and demand ratios that would satisfy Mr. Landesman’s desire for an economically sustainable arts culture in America, and we will have created more jobs for actors, writers, directors and designers alike.
What a brave new world! I can’t wait to put on my next show!