Livestreaming Through the Pandemic: Shuttered Bay Area Venues Get Inventive

Robin Sloan interviews Anna Wiener in a livestreamed event for City Arts & Lectures, March 12, 2020. With most venues shuttered due to coronavirus concerns, many theaters and organizations are turning to livestreaming their performances and events. (City Arts & Lectures)

A couple of nights ago, I ventured out to the Roxie movie theater in San Francisco’s Mission District to catch a screening of The Jesus Rolls, starring John Turturro. It felt liberating, at this moment of hyper-hygiene-awareness, to see a film whose protagonist is oblivious to the concept of personal space and licks his bowling ball before rolling a strike.

When I sat down, I noticed that my nearest neighbor was sitting very far away from me, due to the Roxie’s then-newly-instituted-policy to limit contact between patrons by restricting sales to a third of capacity.

"There are people that still want to come out to the movies," Lex Sloan, the Roxie's executive director, told me over the phone the next day. "The inspiration was just the idea that the six-foot-distance will help keep you safe. And so we grabbed a tape measure and measured the seats."

The Roxie Theater in San Francisco by night. The indie theater has seen an uptick in business in recent months, thanks, in part to the dirt-cheap subscription service, MoviePass.
The Roxie Theater in San Francisco by night. (Photo: Courtesy of Roxie Theater)

With an order Friday barring all gatherings in San Francisco venues with a capacity of 100 or more, and with social distancing under COVID-19 applying to even the supermarket checkout or waiting for the bus, some live events spaces are figuring out how to share their work even as they struggle to stay open.

Enabling patrons to keep at a safe distance from one another by reducing seat sales is one solution.

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Another is livestreaming, or broadcasting performances online.

City Arts and Lectures and Left Coast Chamber Ensemble are among the local cultural presenters to have experimented with this format for the very first time over the past week.

I caught the March 12 livestream of a City Arts and Lectures event featuring writers Robin Sloan and Anna Wiener. The conversation began with a nod to the weirdness of the situation.

"This is a very unconventional City Arts and Lectures interview," Sloan said. "Because in response to public health concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, Anna and I are actually sitting together onstage in a totally empty theater."

City Arts co-director Kate Goldstein-Breyer said around 200 people tuned into the livestream, which her organization offered for free to both ticket holders and anyone else who felt like tuning in. By midday on Saturday, the video had garnered 670 views.

"We're trying to give them the same conversation they would have experienced in the theater, albeit in a different form," Goldstein-Breyer said. "One that is concerned with their health."

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble performed its March 9 concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music via YouTube instead of live, as previously planned. The musical group's artistic director, Anna Presler, called the livestreamed event a "very strange experience." She said it took the musicians a while to decide if they should take the customary bow at the end or not. They ultimately decided yes.

"There's no escaping that a live performance is so much more entrancing and wonderful, for everyone involved, than one done at a safe distance," Presler said. "But under the circumstances, the broadcast was the best we could do."

Presler said some patrons reported piping the concert into their homes over dinner and a bottle of wine. "They said they had a really nice evening."

It’s one thing to transfer relatively sedentary live experiences like talking heads and chamber music to video, but quite another to do the same for a fully staged musical or play.

Nevertheless, a growing number of theater companies, including the Hammer Theatre Center and Naatak Theatre in San Jose, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, are taking up the challenge.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre was about halfway through its run of Culture Clash (Still) in America when it had to cancel all remaining performances owing to safety concerns around COVID-19.

Managing director Susie Medak said her company scrambled to put together a presentable recording of the show in collaboration with the streaming service BroadwayHD.

"I wish that we could do the six-camera shoots like the National Theatre Live does," she said. "Not only is it cost-prohibitive to us, but we also really don't have the capacity to do that right now and under these circumstances."

Ticket buyers will be sent a code which they can use to watch the Culture Clash show, as well as another upcoming production, likely starting sometime next week. Medak said patrons will also have access to the entire BroadwayHD archive for a month. (ACT and the Hammer Theatre are also offering a similar access code arrangement for recordings of their productions.)

But Medak said Berkeley Rep is still committed to making live theater. "This is a stop-gap measure that helps us continue to support the artists," she said. "And to fulfill the obligations we feel to our audiences."

But just how obliged audiences feel to arts groups at this time is an open question.

Every group contacted for this story reported losing money as a result of seeking alternative ways of delivering their content to audiences beyond their habitual live performance spaces.

"We aren't going to be making money on this; we're spending money," said City Arts' Goldstein-Breyer. "But we are trying to minimize the impact on people who would have been working these shows. So we are still paying front of house staff for our theater, even though we don't actually need a custodian and we don't actually need ushers."

Many cultural presenters are trying to cut their losses by asking ticket holders not to file for refunds, in order to support the theater or arts organization.

So far, these requests have been getting a mixed response.

"There's the option to donate your tickets back to the theater and that can be a tax-deductible donation," said ACT executive director Jennifer Bielstein. The company is offering videos of two of its shows, Gloria and Toni Stone, also in collaboration with BroadwayHD. "We're hoping that people will do that, because I know a lot of small businesses such as ourselves are taking a tremendous hit because of this."

Bielstein estimates around 60 percent of ACT ticket holders have requested refunds or exchanges, while 40 percent have offered to donate the cost of their tickets back to the company.

As COVID-19 continues to deepen the economic strain on the region's arts and culture community as a result of lost ticket and rental income, and other longer-term factors, cultural groups are turning to funders and state legislators for financial aid.

“We are in extraordinary and challenging times,” said Julie Baker, executive director for Californians for the Arts, a statewide arts lobbying group. “It’s now more important than ever that we recognize the role art plays in our economy and our daily lives. We must all harness our partnerships with elected officials and private funders to ensure that this critical segment of the population can continue to contribute to our culture and our future. Right now, that means finding innovative ways for artists and arts organizations to deliver in a safe and compensated manner as we transition from live gatherings to virtual forums.”

The help cannot come soon enough.

Despite offering patrons antibacterial wipes at the box office and reducing seating capacity to give them more space, the Roxie couldn't keep its doors open. The day after my visit to see The Jesus Rolls, the movie theater announced a temporary COVID-19-related closure.

I'll have to get used to the fact it could be quite a while before culture fans such as myself get to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a darkened theater again.

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