Livestreaming Defined the Performing Arts in 2020. How Can it Be Sustained?

San Francisco Playhouse filmed its production of Yasmina Reza's 'Art' on their main stage with Johnny Moreno, Jomar Tagatac and Bobak Bakhtiari. (Donny Gilliland)

The last in-person performance I saw in 2020 was Toni Stone at A.C.T.—a show that opened and closed on the same night in early March, right before the city implemented its first, strict, stay-at-home orders of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since it wasn’t clear in those early weeks just how long the shutdown would last, theaters continued to be optimistic about their fall and winter shows, and in the interim, many branched out into broadcasting previously filmed shows (Toni Stone among them), as well as staging readings, discussions, and original content on Zoom—a web-conferencing software many had never used before.

While those first heady weeks of streaming everything available were fun, a saturation point was quickly reached, and performers watched audience numbers dwindle as their own enthusiasm for the limited capabilities of streamed content waned. As drag performer Honey Mahogany mentioned recently on KQED Forum, discussing the Stud’s regular livestreams on Twitch, “The numbers have been going down week after week. It’s really unsustainable.”

Even so, just like local music venues, it’s unclear when theater spaces will be able to open their doors again to live performance. So continuing to innovate new ways of creating and presenting their works in the interim is crucial to their continued survival.

New Formats, New Platforms

For many, July 4 means opening day of the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s annual show in Dolores Park. This year, while other theaters were still tentatively trying to figure out whether or not they could schedule any shows at all, the Mime Troupe had their decision made for them in April, when the City told them they couldn’t have a permit to present in the park.

San Francisco Mime Troupe's Velina Brown and Micheal Gene Sullivan recording 'A Red Carol' at home. (Zachary Sullivan)

A lifelong love of radio plays offered an idea to the company’s chief playwright, Michael Gene Sullivan. He’d already toyed with the idea of a show in which four interconnected stories come together in a blockbuster ending. Why not write it for the radio? When he brought the idea to the rest of the company, they quickly approved, and the company’s 10-episode serial radio drama, Tales of the Resistance, was born.

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As company member, Velina Brown had already been on deck to direct their live show this year, and she gamely took the lead on directing the radio series, working closely with sound engineer Taylor Gonzalez and music director Daniel Savio. After becoming frustrated with Zoom as a rehearsal platform due to its delays and bandwidth usage, they hit upon using Discord, a chatroom app popular with gamers. This made it possible, Brown says, to rehearse with fewer delays and glitches by using Discord’s audio-only features, all while developing their own radio play “vocabulary” as a group. That vocabulary was passed over to Sullivan, for directing their brand new holiday play, A Red Carol (which opened Dec. 11).

Drunk Theatre Company on the PianoFight Gather "mainstage." (Nicole Gluckstern)

And Discord isn’t the only gaming interface being used by theater-makers. Companies such as PianoFight, Dragon Productions, and Mystic Ventures Collective have all built out virtual spaces in retro-cute, pixelated graphics on a program called Gather. For myself, rolling up to PianoFight’s pre-Halloween fundraising party felt almost exactly the same as in person. I staked out a hiding place in the bar and watched the crowd trickle in, and once everyone had found someone else to socialize with, made a beeline for the main stage to watch some Drunk Theatre Company. That's one of the big upsides of a Gather space: being able to move around and encounter fellow attendees spontaneously, without losing the ability to watch the entertainment.

Queer Cat Productions sending out packages of postcards to campaign participants. (Queer Cat Productions)

Bringing it All Back Home

Exploring tangibility as a theatrical imperative was the driving force behind Queer Cat Productions’ pre-election postcard campaign in October, Faultline Theater's F*CK 2020 Bingo Game, and Play On!, the latest project from Bay Area Children’s Theater. Recognizing a need to move “zoomed-out” children away from their screens, BACT’s narrative activity kits come with all of the materials kids need to develop and stage their own shows at home.

“As we created the kits, we really put the process through a traditional theatrical design lens,” BACT’s executive director, Nina Meehan, explained in an email. “So each element is created with the notion that the story will activate the imagination and the element will support that activation.” For example, in their holiday edition, The Gingerbread Family, families embark on an interactive adventure to “Grandma’s” house, accompanied by a stuffed purple reindeer and a suite of physical activities, crafts, board games, and singalongs.

Bay Area Children's Theater debuted their Play On! kits, including this holiday-inspired one, 'The Gingerbread Family.' (Nina Meehan)

Artist-Oriented Streaming Models

For many performers—such as comedy artists Edna Mira Raia and Marga Gomez—the pandemic has meant brushing up on tech skills and upgrading personal equipment in order to stream live from home (Raia on OBS, Gomez on ECAMM). But Raia, who performs most often as a pantheon of comedic characters and drag personae, has found filming and editing comedy videos for YouTube to be ultimately more satisfying, although not without its drawbacks.

“Recording allows me to make mistakes and correct them, which I can't do onstage,” she admitted. “The advantages are that editing gives a soloist more room to play multiple characters or easily change costumes...the downside is that the audience feedback is so delayed because you have to wait for people to watch on their own time to leave a comment, if they say anything at all. I miss hearing laughter and applause.”

Edna Mira Raia and Jamin Jollo clown for the camera. (Edna Mira Raia)

That loss of interactivity with an audience, as well as with other performers, is one of artists’ biggest gripes about Zoom. But artist-led technology projects are in the works, being designed to specifically address those particular aspects of the user experience. One of these, Pineappl, being developed by long-time improv artists Chris Griswold and Michael Parlato, is currently in its beta-testing stage. In a tour conducted by Griswold, he showed how easily performers could interact on the screen, as well as maintain (or swap) position. Backgrounds can be preset and easily switched around, and it’s easier for multiple people to speak at the same time.

“There are types of improv that I teach that were not translating well to Zoom,” Griswold said about the impetus behind his custom app. “So we built a tool that we could do all kinds of things on!”

Chris Griswold and Michael Parlato test-drive Pineappl with friends. (Chris Griswold)

Back on Stage

Meanwhile, in a considerable leap back towards performer interaction, San Francisco Playhouse was recently given a green light from Actor’s Equity to film shows on their physical stage with rigorous testing and social distancing protocols in place.

“Our space has a capacity of 700, so limiting it to ten people in the room at any given time feels really safe,” explained producing director Susi Damilano as she described the three-camera shoots of live-staged performances. To date they’ve presented Yasmina Reza’s Art, and Brian Copeland’s The Jewelry Box, and opened Songs for a New World, by Jason Robert Brown, on December 12.

If there’s one thing that artists are uniquely suited for, its creative problem-solving in the face of adversity. And while it’s impossible at this point to make a solid prediction for what the face of theater will look like in 2021, what is certain is that there are still surprising discoveries to be made, as artists continue to build new methods and tools for themselves to create with.

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“This has been an incredible time for theater, keeping it alive while the ground keeps shifting,” reflected Damilano. “It really feels like we are all in this together and by holding each other up, we will come out of this stronger than ever.”