On January 21st of this year, my producing partners and I began previews of the first of its kind, interactive live streamed play. This was a full length production of Joey Brenneman’s Better Left Unsaid, cast with professional New York actors, staged in a small off-off broadway house in front of a live audience for a three week run. AND simultaneously Better Left Unsaid was shot with four cameras, mixed in real time and streamed live to the internet so that anyone, anywhere in the world could Â see the show. The bonus for online viewers was that they could interact with the live streamed theater experience via Facebook, Twitter and chat rooms.
Producing a play is complicated. Producing a live streamed play incorporates everything it takes to produce a play and adds to that everything you need to do to produce a live television show — with the always wavering unknowns of live streaming technology thrown in to the mix. We climbed a lot of hurdles to reach opening night, almost as many to arrive at our final performance and ended our nine month journey on the highest of notes. We had over 50,000 unique viewers join us for the final three performances of Better Left Unsaid. We received virtual standing ovations from people all over the world. We proved that people will in fact pay for online video, at least if it is positioned as theater. Finally, we had the great honor, joy and sometimes nervous breakdown of launching a brand new theatrical paradigm, born of today’s technology.
Why live stream a play? Honestly there are a million reasons- the most obvious are…
– Live streaming gives theater artists the opportunity to present our work to an unlimited global audience. Today, as off-broadway and regional theaters are struggling to stay alive, the opportunity to expand our audiences beyond our local communities and across the globe could be invaluable and indispensable
-Live streaming is inherently community building. When you live stream a play you combine the excitement of live theater with the community of live streamed video events, nurturing the strong community that is the cornerstone of building a long term audience.
– Live streaming more deeply engages a wired audience in theater, without alienating theater goers who prefer the more traditional play going experience.
– Conversation goes hand in hand with online communities. People come to live streamed events to both participate in the event and to see their friends in the chat rooms, and often come back more than once. These conversations are simultaneously broadcast to Twitter and Facebook, increasing word of mouth and interest in your work.
– Live streaming platforms have a dirth of compelling quality content. Live streaming theater is a natural to fill that vacuum.
For an inaugural live streamed play, Better Left Unsaid was a perfect fit (short, two person scenes, complex but linear storytelling which would limit the technical challenges of an already very difficult project, the play’s exploration of how our lives are all connected – the perfect internet metaphor). How the project evolved from two women in a coffee shop to opening night nine months later is a story unto itself which involves a video, a Kickstarter campaign, a theater eviction, hundreds of hours or preparation, incredibly supportive families and a cast and crew of more than 25 people. I am so incredibly grateful to each and every one of them.
More pertinent perhaps to anyone who may be thinking of live streaming their own production are some of the technical challenges we faced, the stylistic choices we made and how we measured our success.
Technically, live streaming is hard. There are hundreds of individual elements that can go wrong on any given night, from mics, to cameras, to cables, to projectors to audio cues to bit rates to streaming platforms to ticketing to servers . Even when all those elements are in place and with a perfect connection sometimes the stream is jumpy, or even fails altogether. Our first weekend of previews was tricky. Slowly but surely though our stream became smoother, our sound became almost flawless, and, as our run continued, we were able to layer in additional interactive elements to our stream.
An equally challenging technical issue was how to bring our various theater, film and TV personnel together and get us all to speak the same language. An identical job title or technical term often means entirely different things in different mediums and it would sometimes take us days to realize that we were having two completely different conversations.
Shooting style is also incredibly important when translating theater to video. I have worked in online video for years and have very strong opinions as to what creates a compelling experience to an online audience. Shooting for online video is very different than shooting a film, and very different from shooting a play- which most people will agree is almost always unwatchable. We were determined that the online experience of watching Better Left Unsaid would always feel theatrical but be shot in a way that felt intimate and powerful on a small screen.
We also felt that it was integral to the audience experience that both the live theater audience and the online audience be aware of one another and of the global event that they were each a part of. Â So, we had a Director of Digital whose sole purpose was to facilitate communication both online and in the theater, we began every show with a shot of our live audience, streamed live interviews with our theater audience during intermission, and projected comments from our online audience into the theater during scene changes and intermissions. It was thrilling to hear our theater audience exclaim about a comment from a viewer in Barcelona or Australia, and equally thrilling when someone online twittered that they had just seen a friend or family member on their computer screen.
A few weeks ago Josh Cohen in an interview for Tubefilter asked me how I would evaluate whether we were successful. There are so many ways in which I can say unequivocally yes!
-We succeeded in engaging viewers from all over the world in New York theater.
– 50,000 is a pretty exciting number and paves the way for a viable business model.
– Our chat rooms were booming and many viewers came back to see the show and participate in the chat room for a second, even a third time
– Online viewers repeatedly remarked on how riveted they were and how surprised they were by how well we had translated theater to video
– We proved that people will pay for online video if it is positioned as theater, and will pay higher ticket prices than we had expected.
– We were able to produce Better Left Unsaid on half the budget of a New York Showcase, and paid our actors- a small amount- but we paid them! In addition our actors and crew each own a piece of the show, indie film style, so if we make additional money, so do they.
Most importantly, we created a whole new idea of what theater can be, and it is just the start. The possibilities of live theater and streaming are endless, from allowing your audience to dictate plot turns, to shooting different scenes in different locations, to expanding the theatrical experience across multiple interactive platforms, the list is endless (Leigh Hile started her own fantastic list in her post — Connectivity and Possibilities)
I know we are on to something here and I can’t wait to see where it leads. Is live streaming a replacement for live theater? Absolutely not. But it is a wonderful AND. The opportunities for small theaters to expand their audiences and generate new revenue is almost boundless. The chance to create more work and more money for actors is equally thrilling- and we get to invent a whole new art form along the way. Perhaps one day live streaming theater will even have a name all of its own, but no matter what we one day call it, it’s roots are unequivocally deeply embedded in the soil of live theater.
The final saturday night performance of Better Left Unsaid is currently available at at BetterLeftUnsaid.tv for a micropayment of $2.99.
Kathryn and her partners are currently developing their next live streamed project.
Recently Kathryn has beenseen in White Bird Production’s “Born of Conviction” at the Irondale Theater. Other theaters she has worked at include George St. Playhouse, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Actor’s Theater of Louisville, Pennsylvania Center Stage, Mill Mountain Theater, Center Stage NY, Theater Row Theater, Gateway Playhouse, The Blue Heron, HERE, American Globe Theater, and Show World as well as various arts festivals in the US and abroad.