Can Livestreaming be Stage-saving?

Nicholas Hytner (L.) interviews Tom Stoppard for NT Live broadcast

Nicholas Hytner (L.) interviews Tom Stoppard for NT Live broadcast

Livestreaming of the performing arts is on the rise and reaching down into new sectors. Attitudes within the arts world about this trend range from the apocalyptic (“It will cannibalize live attendance and pound the final nail in live arts’ coffin”) to the redemptive (“New, younger audiences will be attracted who will restore health to an ailing arts sector”).

Attendance at performing arts is not a pretty picture. A 2013 National Endowment for the Arts report stated that in the five years from 2008 to 2012 attendance at musical plays declined nine percent while straight plays fared even worse with a twelve percent decline.

The problem is not that our interest in experiencing stories has diminished. We have been craving stories ever since we gathered around a fire outside cave entrances and were taught, inspired and amused by music, dance and language. Consider this: new prime time scripted cable shows have grown an astonishing 683% since the turn of the century, according to Joe Adalian at New York magazine’s Vulture website. Mad Men and Breaking Bad were just the leading edge of a huge wave. There’s a reason lots of good playwrights in recent years have moved to L.A. and have not been writing much for the stage of late. Here in Seattle more than a few writers are gainfully employed creating narratives for mobile phone games. Storytelling has been expanding to other media.

During the last month in Seattle I have attended two livestreaming arts performances – the Metropolitan Opera’s double bill of Cavalleria Rusticiana and Pagliacci from New York, and from the National Theatre (NT) in London the new Tom Stoppard play, The Hard Problem. The production values of both were top-notch. You often feel like you’re right on stage with the actors. The operas were superb, Pagliacci being the better of the two. The Hard Problem, while a worthy exploration of thorny philosophical questions, will not claim a place among Stoppard’s superior plays. In this play ideas dominate emotion and character, always a hard problem to overcome in dramatic structure.

The NT Live broadcast included a short interview with Stoppard by the play’s director Nicholas Hytner. When I later visited the “NT Live” website I discovered that the brief interview offered prior to the play was an excerpt from a 40-minute interview with Stoppard, the full version of which is posted on the NT Live website. This points out a benefit of livestreaming: features such as interviews with artists or showing activities backstage can be added relatively easily.

Ticket prices were about $20, roughly what one pays in Seattle to attend the equivalent of an off-off-Broadway play, and far less than for a ticket to Seattle Opera or a play at a top Seattle theatre company. I didn’t take a head count but estimate 250 opera lovers attended the Met Live broadcast (it began at 9:30 a.m. Seattle time). The Hard Problem was screened five times in a 100-seat cinema. Perhaps half the seats were occupied at my performance. That would yield an approximate total attendance of also 250. These numbers pose no threat to Seattle Opera or local theatre companies; fears of cannibalizing live attendance are not warranted. Rather, I have to believe that any impact on local live performance ticket sales is net positive. The live-streaming reinforces or stimulates new interest in attending local arts events.

I wrote a recent post about London’s Royal Opera House’s remarkable 2012 video production of Act Three of Wagner’s opera Die Walkure, which deployed 17 cameras. That effort represents the extreme high-end version of this trend.

The New York Times just reported that European opera houses plan to broadcast 15 operas free via livestreaming over the Internet. They can be accessed through the Opera Platform website. This project has a $4.5 million budget, with half of that coming from the European Union’s cultural budget. Don’t hold your breath for American taxpayers and politicians to support such initiatives over here.

While large institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theatre have been the trailblazers in livestreaming for performing arts, their success combined with improved and cheaper technology has opened up live-streaming opportunities for smaller arts players.

Kathryn Jones, CEO of VirtualArtsTV (and a veteran actress), is a leading advocate for this second wave of livestreaming. She recently wrote an essay that has gotten wide play in the arts world. She understands that just pointing a camera at a play and streaming it produces a product that’s unwatchable. Jones believes that for livestreaming to provide a satisfying audience experience, you must shoot with multiple cameras and edit those camera live. “Your audience,” Jones writes, “has to feel like they are in a front row seat, that they are part of an event that is bigger than themselves, is global in reach, and which makes them feel like they are gaining access to something unique and ephemeral.”

According to Jones, a Met Live HD broadcast costs $1.5 million to produce. She estimates the cost to broadcast a Broadway play would be in that neighborhood. Her company has so far produced more than 50 livestream broadcasts for the performing arts, and she reports that her costs are about one percent of what the Met spends. Asked to demonstrate the production values of her company’s livestreaming, Jones offered this 11-minute excerpt from a modern dance performance, titled “Burnt Edges” (choreography and direction by Lindsey Dietz Marchant). This broadcast utilized four cameras. Instead of doing the editing in a broadcast/satellite truck, the editing system fits atop a standard five-foot conference table.

Jones told me that another advantage live-streaming offers smaller arts companies is it expands their pool of potential sponsors. Some sponsors who fail to see a marketing fit with a live stage performance might be enticed to sponsor a live performance plus a livestream broadcast over the Internet that can be viewed literally anywhere in the world.

Another option for a theatre, opera or dance company is to purchase their own production system. The prices have decreased in recent years to the point where smaller companies could afford them. NewTek is the leading manufacturer of these systems. Livestream and Black Magic are also sources. NewTek’s TriCaster systems range from $6,000 for a four-camera system small enough to fit in a backpack to $40,000 for an eight-camera system with a variety of I/O options. All have HD-SDI camera inputs which is what professional broadcasters use, according to a Newtek representative.

Companies could also consider implementing a pay-to-view model. That of course would generate another set of challenges involving marketing and financial transactions, but which may not be insurmountable.

Livestreaming by smaller arts organizations is now only in its infancy. Whether the current trend gains momentum and critical mass remains to be seen. If I were running a performing arts company today (which I have no desire to do), this would seem to be a propitious time to examine live-streaming. As Hamlet observed, “readiness is all.”

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