It seems like everywhere you look these days, you'll find theatre-makers doing something new and interesting, including online production. Faced with a challenge, you can always count on artists to find the creative opportunity!
For better or for worse, theatre streaming is the medium of the moment. New technologies open up all kinds of possibilities, but they can also be intimidating if you're used to producing your work in a more traditional way. The good news is that these tools are a lot easier and more accessible that they may seem at first glance.
Let's break it down to basics in order to figure out the best approach for your organization and your show:
Self-assess Your Vision & Needs
Whether you're excited to explore new tech or feeling overwhelmed by the learning curve, it's important to begin with your situation, your organization, your show. If you get caught up in all the shiny (or scary) possibilities before getting really clear about your unique set of needs, you risk losing sight of what matters most: telling the story in a way that expresses your vision and conveys meaning to your specific audience.
Things to consider
- What type of show are you producing? Is it a play or a musical? If musical, do you intend to work with live musicians or a recorded score?
- What are you allowed to do with the material? Is your show an original work, or have you licensed the material from a publisher? If licensed, what does your license allow?
- What amount of public gathering is allowed in your location? If small gatherings are allowed, would you be able to get the cast/crew you want/need to commit to an onstage production at this time?
- What’s your creative vision? Does your project require sets, props, costumes? Are there love scenes or fight scenes that require physical contact to be played effectively?
Once you've answered these questions you will have a much better sense of the parameters within which you'll be working. Now, you're ready to look at the technological options and make the best choices for your production.
So, which streaming pathway is right for you?
Before we take a look at the different ways of presenting theatre online, let's make sure we're working from a shared understanding of the basic terminology.
This is the general term for sharing a video feed over the internet. A stream can be live or pre-recorded, and can be captured in a number of ways.
When a stream is live, it is being shared over the internet in the moment.
Most people think of live streaming like watching the news on television, or a live stream on social media. In other words, the video is being captured and shared on-screen as the action unfolds.*
In the context of a streamed theatrical production, live streaming can also refer to pre-recorded content that is manually shared over the internet at a specific time. The stream might be manually operated by a person (like the operator in a movie theater), or it might be pre-scheduled. The important distinction here is that the video is only viewable during the timeframe in which it is being streamed. This may seem like semantics, but it becomes very important once licensing is a factor.
*It should be noted that any "live" stream involves a slight delay between the actual event occurring and the feed appearing on screen. This buffer, however, is only a matter of seconds and is only discernible if a viewer happened to be watching from inside the production software and also, simultaneously, on the viewing platform.
As the name suggests, on-demand streaming allows the audience to access video content at any time they choose to watch. This term always refers to pre-recorded video and is not to be confused with a pay-per-view model, which could refer to live or recorded content.
While many theatre organizations are exploring the possibility of on-demand streaming, be aware that the publishing houses tend to have very specific requirements and restrictions around this. If you are working with licensed material, be sure to check the terms of your agreement carefully before moving forward with an on-demand presentation.
So far we have discussed various ways of presenting video content to your audience. The term virtual, however, refers to the way that the video itself is created.
Unlike in a traditionally staged show that is being streamed over the internet to a remote audience, the participants in an online production or performance (performers, Director, Stage Manager, and anyone else involved) are also in different places from one another.
Think of any of the video conferencing tools you are probably familiar with and you can get a good idea of what virtual production in general entails. Just don't assume that the physical limitations of such a format mean you have to give up your artistic vision! Theatre makers today—from Broadway professionals to school drama departments—are doing all kinds of interesting, innovative work in a virtual environment. If we've learned anything during this pandemic, it's that this community will always come through with creative solutions to keep making theatre.
Now, let's look at the various production methods in greater detail so you can decide which option is best for you.
How It Works
Record your online production in any location, broadcast the feed by streaming over the internet.
Record and stream your traditionally staged production, or get creative with your shooting locations. You can even record remotely and edit your virtual feed.
Allows you greatest creative control of the end product, since you can edit before you stream. Best choice for musicals, since sound can be captured with all your performers in one place (no concerns about sound delays) and can be edited in post-production.
For a traditional theatre person, this may be a step in a whole new direction with the accompanying learning curves. Some rights holders are limiting licenses to live streaming only.
Things to Consider
When you license your material, make sure that you are purchasing rights for pre-recorded streaming performance. Know that you will likely be required to limit the number of viewers with encrypted streaming and to make the stream available only to ticket holders. Your contract may or may not allow for on-demand streaming, depending upon the title and license holder. All such details should be clarified before you sign your licensing agreement.
If you’re working in a union house or with union talent, there will be specific contract elements to address in a streaming context. It is critical that you handle such scenarios professionally and according to current regulations. When in doubt, talk to the union before decisions are made.
Equipment & Tech Requirements
At minimum, iPhone or video camera, tripod, sound board and cable that connects it to your laptop, plus a hosting site for your video and streaming platform for distribution.
Whether you're looking for an all-in-one platform to record, edit, and stream your pre-recorded performance, or you have your own production equipment and just need to connect the finished video to your audience, On The Stage has just the solution to get your production off the ground.
Plan, plan, plan, and allow plenty of time for rehearsals, recording, and editing.
For day of show, have a member of the organization introduce the online production before starting your stream, and have cast members log in for a curtain call or talkback at the end for more of a live theatre experience.
Live (Onstage) Performance
How It Works
Film your traditionally staged production live in your theatre and stream it in real time over the internet.
Most akin to traditional live theatre. Stream live from a theatre with an empty house if you’re restricted for live events in your area; or stream expand your audience reach even if you have on-site patrons.
Live theatre + live technology means you’ll need to plan carefully in advance for potential problems that might arise. You’ll need good, dependable equipment and a crew who’s very comfortable with their roles to respond in the moment if anything goes differently than planned.
Things to Consider
Weigh artistic vs. technical priorities when deciding where to place your cameras, especially if you’ll have a live audience in the house.
Equipment & Tech Requirements
At minimum, an iPhone or video camera, tripod, sound board, and cable that connects your input to your laptop, plus a hosting site for your video and streaming platform for distribution. At most...your imagination, your budget, and your technical know-how are the only limitations!
Chances are, if you're planning to live-stream a staged performance you'll have a fairly sophisticated camera setup. It is possible, however, to produce quality video on simple equipment. Either way, On The Stage's streaming platform was designed to support you from pre-production through final curtain and beyond.
If you're mounting a full-scale online production, especially a musical—and especially if you'll have a live audience in the house at the time of streaming—keep your technical production as simple as possible. And add plenty of time during the rehearsal period for your performers and camera crew to get used to working together.
We've all seen amazing live-on-camera theatrical productions, so we know exactly where your imagination is taking you. If you're looking to get fancy with your camera work, be sure that you are very, very comfortable with your tools, your camera crew's choreography, and the effect it has on your in-house audience's experience.
How It Works
Produce live in real time in a video conferencing platform, stream it to a remote audience either in real time, as the performance is taking place, or as show time-specific pre-recorded video.
Maximum accessibility when you and your cast can’t be in the same location. Virtual is also a great option for rehearsals when it is necessary or desirable to limit in-person meetings.
As with any technology, there is a learning curve involved in using a conferencing platform as your performance space.
In order to produce the best possible experience for participants and audience alike, you’ll want to anticipate any issues that might arise before the digital curtain goes up. This is, after all, live theatre...and the unexpected can happen! If you’ve taken advantage of your tech rehearsal and familiarized yourself with your tools, you’ll be prepared for even a 21st-century challenge.
Keep in mind, too, that virtual production is generally not a great solution for live musicals. The often uncontrollable differences between your performers’ individual devices and data speeds aren’t typically noticeable in a spoken scene unless you are doing a show that depends on precision timing for comedic or dramatic effect. Once you add singing into the mix, a little bit of lag becomes a major issue.
If your cast is unable to perform in the same space and you have committed to producing a musical, you will need to record the performance feeds separately before the “live” event, edit them together, and then stream that edited feed through your online production platform at showtime.
Things to consider
Everyone involved in your performance should have good WiFi connectivity (especially the host). Without it, not only can your production quality suffer but your stress levels as a director/producer will skyrocket. Trust us on this one.
In a virtual performance running on Zoom technology, you have the option to select the audience's view of your performance. Do you want them to see each speaker, one at a time, or to watch your entire cast at once in gallery view? Or, do you want to get creative and change the view at different points in the show? With creativity and practice, it's possible to direct inside of Zoom in a simplified, but similar way to how you would direct in a more production-specific tool.
Equipment & Tech Requirements
At minimum, each participant will need a laptop with a built-in or external camera. Ideally, everyone should also have a physical (vs. WiFi) connection to the internet. You should also be sure that each device is updated with the most recent version of all relevant software.
Make certain that all devices are fully charged prior to a rehearsal or performance, and that each participant has access to a power supply during use.
If you have participants without access to laptop, make sure whatever mobile device they are using is on a tripod or other stand for stability.
For the best possible sound quality, consider using external microphones. Most external mics have at least some level of noise blocking, which will significantly limit the amount of background noise that might interfere with your performance.
On the Stage's all-in-one platform includes all the tools you need to create, promote, ticket, and stream your online theatre production. You can even use virtual backgrounds for cohesive set design, host a live talk-back after the performance, and more.
When at all possible, everyone involved in online production should be in a quiet, dedicated space for both rehearsals and performances.
It's important that your cast understands and is comfortable with all aspects of the technology that they will be responsible for using during performance. Schedule time during your rehearsals for your entire company to practice using the video conferencing tools, including:
- Check individual wifi connections;
- Rehearse entrance/exists by turning cameras on and off;
- Add/change virtual backgrounds;
- Anything else you will be doing with the tools for general or artistic effect.
You or your Stage Manager should also practice streaming live (without an audience), so you can see what the performance will look like from your patrons' perspective.
Be sure to experiment with lighting during the rehearsal period, as well, just like you would in the theatre. There are a number of easy-to-follow tutorials for DIY lighting in a video conferencing setting. Figure out what will work best for your show and make sure that everyone is set up to create a cohesive visual experience.
Above all, embrace the opportunities and the limitations of online production, and focus on the elements of theatre that can really shine in a stripped-down environment. With a good script and solid acting, your audience won't miss the elaborate set, fancy costumes, or song and dance numbers. We promise!
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