Crossing the Streams


By: David J Loehr

Wynton Marsalis gets it.

For the second year in a row, we rang in the new year with a livestream from Jazz at Lincoln Center, the late set with Marsalis and his quintet. No need for Dick Clark’s New Ryan Seacrest Eve or any of the other nearly identical broadcast network offerings–now we have a choice, thanks to the internet.

More to the point, this was a concert I might not otherwise have seen. I live about a thousand miles away, I wasn’t planning to be in New York City for New Year’s, and even if I were, I probably wouldn’t be going out anywhere, ticket cost aside. But out here in the hinterlands, I was able to enjoy the concert through the wonders of livestreaming. In fact, I used the AirPlay function on my iPad to beam it to my AppleTV so we could all enjoy the show on the big screen.

This wasn’t a unique event, either. Jazz at Lincoln Center has been livestreaming concerts for a while now. I still remember their Dave Brubeck festival last spring–that’s how my now 10 year old son fell in love with Brubeck.

It was the song Unsquare Dance to be precise. Marsalis set up the song by explaining its rhythm–it’s written in 7/4 time, seriously–and how, if you listen carefully to the original recording, you can hear laughter at the end. Why? Because his band didn’t think the rhythm was going to work, but they agreed to record it the one time and see what happened. When it worked out in one take, drummer Joe Morello couldn’t help laughing. And then, Marsalis’ band began to play–most of them were clapping the rhythm–and my son was mesmerized. (As well he might be, it’s an insanely catchy song.) The next thing I know, he was hunting down the original song–he was thrilled to hear the laughter, just like Marsalis said.

YouTube video

About a week later, I picked him up from school, and his teacher asked me what “this” was. She started clapping, and he joined in. “This” happened to be the rhythm from Unsquare Dance. Apparently, he was spreading the word of Brubeck far and wide in the third grade. After that, he dug into my records & CD’s, he started going through Beats Music and iTunes Radio, he found videos on YouTube, he went through the Brubeck catalog and went right to Wynton Marsalis next. From there, he discovered that Marsalis also played classical music–“did you know about this, Dad?” Why yes, yes I did, see all these CDs over here? Now, he’s going through “related artists.” He’s the only fourth grader here who knows about Horace Silver and Sonny Rollins and Tomasi and Jolivet and…you get the picture.

All this from one song in a random livestreamed concert beamed from New York City into our home in the middle of nowhere, Indiana.

Recently, my wife and 13 year old son went to see an NT Live screening of Frankenstein. There was a little more friction to the experience–they did have to drive to a movie theater about 45 minutes away and reserve tickets well in advance–but they had a blast. It was a production they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to see, since it was only in London several years ago. But it got 13yr intrigued in seeing more live theatre. (He was already hooked–he’d wanted to see “what Dad & Jim do” at work, so he’s seen a few of the shows we’ve produced.) I caught him browsing through the Digital Theatre website a few days later, wondering what we could watch at home. (He’d found the app on my iPad. Yes, they have an app, and yes, you can AirPlay videos to your AppleTV as well.) “You know it’s not the same as being in the room, right?” I asked. “Yeah, but what if there’s no way for me to be in that room for that show?” he replied. Needless to say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

But of course, in theatre, we have unions and rules and restrictions that mean we can’t just record or livestream any old show. And then, even if you work out the logistics of it, you have to get past the attitude. Theatre people seem to get the vapors whenever anyone suggests being able to see a show without being in the room.

We need to get over ourselves.

A lot of the arts hacks you’ll read here are at base just common sense when you come right down to it, ideas and actions that compliment and reward natural human behavior. “Make your venue welcoming” is something I’ve heard over & over again at audience engagement workshops, and it floors me that we need to say this.

Well, livestreaming events when you can is just good common sense.

This is already happening with music, even in smaller venues. You don’t have to be Lincoln Center to use StageIt or Concert Window, any venue of any size could use these. For my money, I’d go with Giving Stage— they have better terms and options, plus they partner with nonprofits to raise additional money for charity. All of them offer various options for charging patrons to view livestreams, too. For purely audio events, there’s also the Spacebar app. If you have music events in your venue–and if you’re a theatre with a building, you really should consider hosting more music events–then here’s an easy way to reach out beyond the people in the building for those events.

And hey, you don’t have to livestream, you could do like Jason Robert Brown–his concert with Anika Noni Rose appeared on WNET in the New York area, but not online and not on the national PBS, so he’s set it up on Vimeo for streaming or downloading. It’s not free, but that’s a good thing–bring in a little revenue while you’re at it.

I know what you’re thinking. Music is easy, set up a camera or three and ignore them. Live theatre is different, how can we possibly stream something without cameras getting in the way of the audience’s view? (At least I hope that’s what you’re thinking. If you’re still gasping and sputtering about how I dare suggest such a thing in the first place, you might just want to visit another site and take five.) This is something we’ve been working on at our venue in Indiana, the Red Bicycle Hall.

Did you know that GoPro cameras also have an iPad app that allows you to control and record with multiple cameras at a time? Get four, five, ten, and mount them around your venue. Call a rehearsal to get a general idea of blocking and adjust your focus. Play with them, play with the app–if you have someone trained in video, great, but this is pretty easy to pick up as you play. If we can do live edits from camera to camera and stream the output, great–this is something we’re working on–but we can certainly record and edit the show to stream later, not a problem.

Reach your audiences–and more important, your potential audiences–where they live. Literally. Make it easier for people to sample your work. Save the show to stream after the production has closed, or stream it with a few shows to go. In every case, frame it with the idea that yes, this is convenient, but it’s still not the same as being in the room. Fill the intermissions with cast and crew interviews and a pitch for the next show, the next season, the subscription packages. Offer a subscription package where patrons might get exclusive access to a streaming show. Stream behind the scenes previews and ancillary events related to the shows ahead of the run, build interest and even word of mouth that way. So many possibilities. Look at Live From Lincoln Center and other PBS series as models for how to present and promote during such events. (Heck, just watch them in the PBS app on the iPad or the AppleTV like I do…boy, if there were a live theatre app on AppleTV that picked up performances from theatres around the country, around the world even…I’d subscribe to that in a heartbeat…)

Because your audience wants options. They want the arts on demand, whether movies or tv or video games or what have you. Theatre isn’t even in that equation. But we could be. Getting into that equation, getting on peoples’ radar as an entertainment option week in & week out? That’s just good common sense.

And who knows, maybe you’ll stream a show that’s viewed a thousand miles away and gets a ten year old hooked on your work, your version of Shakespeare or Gilbert & Sullivan. And maybe they hunt down other work you’ve put online. Maybe they pester their parents to take a trip to your city to see your work sometime in the future.

All I know is, next time we’re in New York City, the kids want to go to Jazz at Lincoln Center.

I’m quite okay with that.

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David J Loehr
Writer, podcaster, husband, father, catbed. David is the writer of the Incomparable Radio Theater series. He is also a regular panelist on the Incomparable series and the TV Talk Machine, the host of Turns Out, and the host & writer of the upcoming Red Bicycle Revue series, all from the Incomparable Radio Network. He's also the co-founder and artist-in-residence of the Riverrun Theatre Company in Madison, Indiana, as well as the editor of 2amt. His work has appeared onstage at South Carolina Repertory, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Red Bicycle Hall, Capital Fringe, Chicago Fringe, Riverrun Theatre, Glass Mind Theatre, Caps Lock Theatre, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and more. He has also been a contributing writer to The Magazine. In addition to writing, he also consults & designs marketing for other theatre companies. He's also been known to work in sound design and even get on stage.
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