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Business Unusual

How to support outdoor entertainment indoors

8 April 2020 7:15 PM

Theatres across the world have gone dark, but you can still support and watch the arts while at home

Live performances are possibly one of the first industries that were not involved with feeding or sheltering us. From the earliest cave paintings which some speculate were actually sites chosen for musical performances to the TikTok clip you watched today, humans have always sought to entertain. Those with the gift of storytelling transporting those who otherwise would never hear about distant places and grand adventures to balance a life of work and child-rearing.

From the most basic stories told around a campfire to the most elaborate stage productions ever staged (I am watching Aida performed at the Metropolitan Opera House as I write this), the history of the arts is as old as the history of humans.

Covid-19 though has forced many to draw the curtains and extinguish the stage lights, placing thousands in peril on a scale that rivals the epic plots of the best-known operas.

This is a small effort to acknowledge the contribution of the art world and encourage ways to watch and support their work until they can raise the curtain once again.

Before the world knew of Sars-Cov-2, the theatre world faced a challenge of a different sort, online entertainment, TV, radio and the gramophone before that have all threatened to diminish the starring role of live performances. I hope to explain though that each apparent threat actually helped grow the world of entertainment.

A brief history of performance

Until the 1880s and the invention of the gramophone (an early non-electric record player) all performances were live, wether spoken word, singing or instrumental if you wanted to hear you would need to go to an event or do it yourself.

Not only were venue sizes limited, but a performer’s voice also had to rely on the acoustics of the stage and theatre to be heard. The Greeks determined that an amphitheatre shape could allow thousands to hear one person speak.

The gramophone changed that. Now a popular performer could record their show on record and have it performed everywhere, whenever and as often as was needed. An industry that would support hundreds of sought after performers could now create superstars. Fewer successful performers, but those that did succeed were huge. Rather than drive people away from the industry, it attracted even more to take their shot at stardom. It was one of the first winner-take-all economies but would not be the last.

Radio could take recorded performances and distribute them to even more people. Microphones and speakers could allow one person to sound as loud as an entire choir.

Marlene Dietrich was able to make a version of the song Lili Marleen so popular with both her German and English versions that the track was a hit with soldiers across Europe and Africa despite them be locked in a World War, thanks to the song being broadcast to the troops and Dietrich’s performance of it.

Rather than fewer live performances, there were now even larger crowds hoping to attend a live performance of their favourite performers.

What radio did for singing, the movies and TV did for acting. While TV provided an easier alternative to attending live shows, it did not kill it as some feared but attracted even more hopefuls to enter the industry. Many did not make it and there certainly was a lot more competition, but the show went on and the industry grew.

Now with the rise of internet streaming especially on mobile devices, it appears all other forms will be relegated to a diminished status, their heyday over.

But rather than being a death knell, the internet may prove to be a lifeline. Offering the chance to watch great shows at a time when you can’t leave the house and still support the performers until they can return.

Potentially the special performances and access that has been made available now, will become a regular part for how to access and enjoy live performances in the future.

Here are some you can watch now.

5G or not 5G, that is the question. The Globe Theatre is the home of Shakespeare and you can watch their performance of Hamlet at the moment via YouTube.

Also from the UK, the National Theatre will stream Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre until the 16th of April

Over in New York, you can watch Aida as I did in full HD until the 12th from the Metropolitan Opera. There are many more that will be available free until 19 April.

Andrew Lloyd Webber will make a new production available each week for 48 hours, this week it is Jesus Christ Superstar.

Locally the Market Theatre has taken to social media to share well-known pieces from South African productions. Follow #theatrewillriseagain for more details.

VW and the Goliaths have created a streamed show called GoliathsGoLive which airs each day at 2 pm.

Savannah Cider has sponsored a virtual Comedy Bar starting on 9 April.

Music has also had to move online, not that it was not already, but for live shows which are all cancelled many artists have opted to do an impromptu performance and online collaborations.

Billboard has a listing of all the event planned for April

But some have gone further The Grammy Museum is making parts of its catalogue available while the museum is shut down.

There is also

This is not an attempt to replace live performances, but all venues know they have a physical capacity limit and the best-known venues know that most will not be able to travel to watch a show live.

Instead, like the gramophone over a century ago, it may allow the best performances to be seen all around the globe, first via online and on-screen, but the real innovation may come from improvements to the camera and projectors that will allow performances to be “screened” in theatre venues.

Musicians love performing live, but struggle to make all the venues that have adoring fans calling for them, a version featuring all the sound and stage set up with a holographic performance may be the solution. A version of this is already happening with holographic performances of Roy Orbison.

Having more live shows that are recorded and screened should allow it to both be more affordable and generate more revenue to support that venue’s own productions. I have been to watch a production of Hamlet at the Fugard Theatre with Benedict Cumberbatch and it offers a similar experience to watch a movie in a cinema rather than at home.

The revenue model will be tricky, often the vast audience with a near-zero marginal cost of distribution may seem like a great deal, but determining how artist royalties can be calculated and what amount the public would be willing to pay for a subscription or a particular performance which is compounded by just how much choice there is now will not make this an easy transition, but if or when a situation like this happens again, the live performance industry would want to be better prepared than it was now.


8 April 2020 7:15 PM

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