5 Reasons Digital Streaming Won’t Kill Theater

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In the past, if you wanted to see a play but couldn’t get to the theater in person, you had few alternatives. You could hope a film would get made, that a special broadcast of the show (live or taped) might be offered on TV or at your local movie theater, or you could search the Internet for a less-than-legal recording.

But thankfully, in our era of on-demand streaming for movies and TV, theater has finally gotten in on the game. There are established British streaming services, like Digital Theatre and The Globe’s Globe Player, a new Broadway-oriented player, BroadwayHD (which also relies heavily on a backlog of British plays), and finally, for regional theater, Stagecloud — which puts streaming directly in the hands of playwrights and companies.

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Stagecloud lets playwrights and companies sell their shows online. Plays can be bought or rented and streamed across any device. (via Stagecloud)

Let me be transparent here and note that Stagecloud is my company, but I founded it because I believe streaming benefits all playwrights, and that making theater available digitally has the potential to expand the theater’s audience and influence in the 21st century. Stagecloud makes plays available to rent or buy at prices on par with movies on iTunes or Amazon. We use a content delivery system called VHX — the same platform delivering content for Comedy Central, Vice and This American Life; purchased plays can be accessed via computer, phone, tablet, or on your TV through Chromecast, Apple’s AirPlay (through the VHX app) and Roku (through the VHX Roku channel). And unlike Netflix or Hulu, Stagecloud is not subscription-based, so you only pay for the plays you want.

Currently available is our first production, Hyperreality Show: A Few Plays on the Media and Popular Culture. It ran this summer in Milwaukee, and was recorded by The Stage Channel, Chicago’s primary theater videography company. Hyperreality Show is four plays about living in a culture saturated in digital media, in which Aaron Sorkin tries to adapt the Pinterest story into a Hollywood blockbuster, Disney-esque royalty face difficult questions about their marriage, a group of people have a religious debate scripted entirely from YouTube comments, and a Mexican family confront the farcical situations of a telenovela parody. It’s a mix of genres, mostly comic, to offer a little something for everyone while we get the streaming ball rolling.

While Stagecloud will occasionally continue to produce work of its own (similar to Netflix originals), the main goal is not to share our own work, but yours. Any professional theater can submit plays to be added to our library at no cost. They can set their own pricing, add their own trailer, and the majority of the net revenue from sales goes back to the artists who originally worked on the production. We’ll also help you promote the play to make sure it gets seen by as many eyes as possible. We’ve already heard from several companies in the Chicago area interested in streaming work with us, as well audience members as far ranging as India and South Korea who are eager to have more access to American plays.

Streaming theater is still new territory, and there is some trepidation among audiences and artists alike about what impact digitally accessible plays will have on the industry. So here are five legitimate concerns and five realities that show streaming will be a productive tool for American theater going forward:

  1. Streaming theater will hurt ticket sales. If people can watch theater at home, they’ll never go see a play in a theater again.

Actually, evidence suggests just the opposite. In a recent conversation Stagecloud had with Broadway producer Ken Davenport about the digital distribution of his work, he told us:

We’ve seen this time and time again on Broadway, you know, when movies started to be made about Broadway musicals again, people were freaking out that ‘Oh my gosh, if you release a Phantom movie now, Phantom will die at the box office. Oh my God, what about Rent? Oh my God, what about Hairspray, oh my God!’ And every time, even if the movies have sucked, the Broadway box office has gone up. It happened every time. So we know it doesn’t cannibalize.

It’s also important to remember just how often in the past we’ve used media to transmit events previously only available live, at no cost to their live attendance. Despite the myriad ways to watch football digitally without setting foot in a stadium, attendance at games continues to trend upwards, even as ticket prices are more expensive than ever. Live Nation Entertainment has recently reported that concert attendance is also rising, even though one can watch any singer they want perform for free on YouTube. We see consistent evidence across Broadway, sports and music that streaming an event does not negate an audience’s interest in the unique palpable and communal joy of the live experience. This should reassure both playwrights with longstanding popular works who don’t want to see a decrease in their live productions, and playwrights with new work who are concerned that recording their plays will prevent anyone from producing them again. Companies want to produce plays that are popular and don’t carry heavy risk, and having an online following waiting to see your show live could actually be an excellent case for further productions.

  1. Filming is expensive. There’s no way theaters could afford it.
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Aaron Sorkin (Joe Picchetti) and his new writing partner (Nate Press) wrestle with the Pinterest startup story in Hyperreality Show. The play also stars Mitch Weindorf, Alex Johnson, Elodie Senetra, and Jolie LeBell. (Photo: Ryan Blomquist)

Filming prices are flexible, and the scale of a shoot can be catered to a company’s budget. Many companies already film archival videos of their shows. While a fixed wide shot in the back of the theater won’t be sufficient for streaming, I have seen inexpensive archival recordings of shows that were engaging to watch and did justice to the play. One experienced camera operator, who knows how to appropriately adjust a shot for onstage action, can produce a solid, if not quite cinematic, viewing experience that actually feels similar to sitting in an audience and watching a show from a single vantage point. On a larger stage, or when a theater can afford it, multiple cameras are much better: they offer a dynamic presentation translating better to the screen, and bring a new level of immersion that compensates for the lack of liveness. They are also better for more casual theater audiences who are more used to watching movies than plays.

I think, ultimately, a multi-camera shoot is worth investing in to present a play in the best light possible. (More cinematic recordings can also be sold to customers at a higher price, generating more profits for the company in the long run.) But single or multi-camera shoots can both produce good results, and companies like The Stage Channel offer different packages with different numbers of cameras, making it easy for theaters to decide which option is best for them. For Hyperreality Show, we decided to go with two cameras, and that was more than enough for a 99-seat theater.

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  1. Theaters can’t get the rights to film plays, from either the playwrights or the unions.

It is true that established playwrights and their agents will not be interested in handing over recording rights to just anyone wanting to stream their plays. These rights are closely guarded: playwrights must protect their intellectual property. However, rights can be granted in situations where a playwright works directly with a company s/he trusts on a given production, where the two parties can have a direct conversation and discuss the potential benefits of making a digital version available. And any original work devised by a company itself would be available as well, as would works in the public domain. When a playwright is open to a company streaming their work, our agreements are based on the Dramatists Guild standard contracts with some streaming terms added; we work with the company, the writer and the Guild to make sure the terms are fair. While DG has no established protocol yet for streaming playwrights, they are interested in in our idea and glad we’re looking out for the writers. We’ll work with DG on every contract.

We’ll also work with Actor’s Equity, which has given us their blessing as long as they can approve any contracts given to their members. We’ll continue to act as a liaison between companies and other unions as well, to work out the best contracts for all the artists involved in our shows. Because streaming must be approved in unionized artists’ contracts in advance, this does mean that any shows already filmed for archival purposes, that would not have had streaming in the initial contract, cannot now be used on Stagecloud. But any future shows are fair game, as long as the streaming details get worked out before rehearsals begin. (As for nonunion shows, restrictions are of course much looser, and as long as the actors sign new streaming releases outlining their rights and residuals, archival shows from years ago can be sold on our site.)

  1. If a theater knows it can make money by streaming its plays, it’ll start to care more about the movie than the live production. Quality will suffer, and seeing a play will start to feel more like attending the live taping of a TV show.

This is more of an imagined scenario than anything that would logically take place in a theater that actually cares about its work. People work in live theater because they want to work in live theater. It doesn’t usually pay much and it tends to require long, irregular hours, so the people who do it by and large care about it as an art form and choose to do it above more stable or lucrative career paths. So the idea that a company would suddenly no longer care about live productions and just start making cheap, mass-produced shows that feel like multi-camera sitcoms for the Internet feels like a stretch. Especially since (going back to concern #2) a professional recording of a play naturally translates just fine for the screen, and no live audience is going to put up with starting and stopping a show to get the best take, a different angle or other luxuries that film and TV afford.

Also, the cameras are only there for one day (or perhaps multiple days, if a theater has a particularly large recording budget and wants to ensure they end up with a flawless final edit). So for the vast majority of the run, the theater experience is exactly the same as it normally is. A theater could, presumably, just stage a production for one or two days of recording and never have an actual run. But if we get the sense that a company is more about movies than live theater, we’ll talk with them about whether or not their artistic goals make them the best fit for our service. And we do gently screen for quality, so if a submission just feels like a low-quality sitcom, we may decline to feature it or ask if a better recording is available.

  1. Recorded theater is an oxymoron. It’s just not “theater” anymore if it isn’t live.

Streaming theater is not the same as watching theater live. But I still consider it theater, because watching a digitally streamed play is still a very different experience from watching movies or TV. A good recording of a play can still capture the distinct energy of a live production, and while it may be mitigated somewhat by one’s inability to be physically there, I’m fine with saying the digital result counts under the genre of “theater.” (If we really want to split hairs, we could even consider it a kind of hybrid genre as a classic art form meets modern technology.)

There are those who may never choose to watch theater digitally, and that’s entirely fine. Theater streaming is not here to replace live theater. It is not a replacement for theater, but a new way to enjoy it when attending a live production is not possible. Theater streaming is for when you want to watch a play in the morning, or over your lunch hour, or late at night, when you might’ve chosen to watch TV or a movie instead. It’s for seeing plays in other cities, states or countries you wouldn’t have access to otherwise, or for broadening audiences, especially those younger demographics theaters struggle to reach. And it’s for bringing theaters additional revenue, to help their organizations (and artists!) stay afloat and allow them the freedom and resources to produce their best work possible.

Theater streaming is here, and while the industry is still getting acclimated to the new technology, it carries with it significant opportunities. It will take a while for the libraries of these new theater streaming services to grow, and digital distribution won’t be right for every company or audience. But as the contract process becomes more formalized, and streaming media becomes an even more regular part of the way we consume other forms of entertainment, this technology will be an essential tool in bringing theater to a wider audience than ever before. Professional companies and playwrights looking to sell their own work online can take a look at Stagecloud’s submission policies and consider adding online streaming to their next production. You can also visit us on Facebook or on Twitter at @Stagecloudplays. And for everyone else, I encourage you to take a look at all the theater streaming services that are currently available. The industry used to be anxious about letting theater swim across our digital devices, but if the genuine interest I’ve heard from companies, playwrights and audience members around the world is any indication, the winds are shifting; the technology people thought would stifle live theater may just turn out to be the catalyst that lures them back to it.

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Sean Douglass
Sean Douglass is the Managing Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, as well as an author, playwright and dramaturg. He is the Company Dramaturg for Something Marvelous, Chicago's annual magical realism festival, and has previously worked at Northlight Theatre and Chicago Dramatists. His plays have been produced or developed at UW-Madison, The Vermont College of Fine Arts, The Chicago Fringe Festival, Luminous Theatre of Milwaukee, Something Marvelous, Chicago Dramatists and Stagecloud. He hosts the CFR's podcast The Scene and is also an arts writer for the digital news publication Rantt.
  • Kirk Thomsen

    This is wonderful I see this as a way to add to the Experience for any audience, in the theatre setting and any number of locations. There are so many possibilities I’m excited to add this to my productions and form relevant collaborations .

    Thank you.

  • For over 30 years I have been involved in making theatre available to as many people as possible. So the idea, of spreading its reach, naturally appeals to me.

    I am sure that streaming will become popular – mainly just because it can: not because it is a good idea or not. There are enough vain writers, actors and directors to make it a certainty long before all the good stuff gets digitised!

    But theatre is just as much about the building as it is about the people and the words. Fortunately, people like going out. The theatre is a social occassion – where people come “to see” and “be seen”, to be able to say “I was there”.

    I don’t think a streamed performance to a person’s personal screen will actually scratch that itch and the show will go on!

    As a side thought, it would be nice to think that improved availability and an additional, open-ended, income stream, might have a beneficial (downward) effect on ticket prices… but I guess that is a bit too much to ask.