Finally, You Can Stream Chicago Theater. But What’s Next?

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Chicago theater
Allyce Torres in Something Marvelous's production of Don't Look by Gina Doherty. (Photo: Laura Nash)

In a significant milestone for Chicago theater, Something Marvelous, Chicago’s magical realism festival, has become (as far as my research has been able to tell) the first theater company in the city to make their work available for full online streaming across all major platforms—desktop, mobile and TV via Roku, Chromecast and Apple AirPlay. The process itself was fairly straightforward. After using The Stage Channel to record their 2016 production of Don’t Look, an adaptation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice by Gina Doherty, they submitted the video to Stagecloud, which added some additional edits to the video and made it accessible in the appropriate streaming channels.

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Before I go any further, I must note that I am writing about a project with which I was directly involved—Stagecloud is, as I’ve written before, my own company, and I am Something Marvelous’s Company Dramaturg. But I do think this arrival of Chicago theater into the streaming landscape is relevant news for the whole industry, and it creates the perfect opportunity for commentary on where we’re at with theater streaming in the U.S. right now. In my last post on Stagecloud, I wanted to dispel some misconceptions that exist about digital recording of plays and show how theater streaming would be a natural, and inevitable, part of the future of the industry. For this one I want to offer some additional observations, now that I’ve gone through the process a few more times.

  1. Theater streaming works

Watching Don’t Look is not the same as being there for the live performance. There is, of course, a completely different energy to watching something on TV in your living room compared to being in the room with the actors. But it’s still a perfectly watchable and engaging experience, and in some ways the camera is able to compensate for the lack of full live immersion by providing an even closer look at the action. Theater streaming may actually provide an experience that is almost too authentic for some. (During our production, for example, the air blowing in through the ventilation is noticeably audible at times, and members of the audience are occasionally visible. While it wasn’t distracting to me, and it was the way the real play sounded and looked, I wonder if some people may mind these kinds of ambient quirks more on screen than they do in person.) While it might not be for everyone, plays do translate well to video, and I’ve gotten positive feedback from others on their viewing experiences.

  1. Professional videographers may not always be necessary

Comrade Rabbit
Ilia Volok in Who Killed Comrade Rabbit? (Photo: Phi Tran)

There are advantages and disadvantages to hiring professional videographers to record a play, as opposed to just recording it yourself. One advantage, of course, is that recording a play professionally, with more than one camera, can produce a first-rate final product. Having multiple camera angles creates a much more dynamic viewing experience, and professionals have equipment that can deliver the best quality audio and video. That being said, videographers are expensive, especially considering how affordable HD video cameras are these days. You also don’t need more than one camera for a play to look decent. Who Killed Comrade Rabbit?, a play in our library by Willard Manus and Ilia Volok and directed by triple Emmy winner Barbara Bain, was shot with only one camera, and it looks fine. The camera still pans and zooms (you wouldn’t want it just fixed in place) and the perspective ends up being a lot like what you would have in a theater, confined to one seat but able to turn your head and change focus as necessary.

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Using a professional, multi-camera setup also makes for a much longer turnover process. With multiple shots for every moment of the play, substantial editing has to be done to create the final product. While this part went smoothly during my first shoot for the play collection Hyperreality Show, during Don’t Look the videographers experienced unexplained delays and were sometimes hard to reach. The finished result was well done, but we ended up getting the play back months later than expected. When a company records a play themselves with one camera, however, they wouldn’t have to go through these steps and can release the digital version much more quickly.

Smaller companies can save time and money by recording themselves.

Ultimately, while I don’t regret using multi-camera shoots for the first few plays on Stagecloud, as I think it was necessary for these plays to look their best as proof-of-concept for regional theater streaming, I think it would generally be an unnecessary expense for storefront-level productions. Smaller or midsize companies should be fine recording themselves, and if they want more than one angle, they can always get an extra camera. For larger plays, two or three cameras become much more necessary, but at that budget level the added cost is less of a concern. (Of course, before filming any play you should always have artists’ permission and make sure streaming is included in any union contracts. Stagecloud does not accept plays that do not have signed clearance from the production team.)

  1. The next hurdle is getting audiences interested in work that is new to them

Streaming theater is no longer new, and interested audiences have a few options available to them. BroadwayHD has a wide library, but it mostly draws on older work or British imports. Digital Theatre also offers work from England, including The Globe’s digital collection, and Cennarium has a variety of international performance and performance-related material. But American theater is still hard to come by online, in part due to Equity’s strict and reluctant policies on recording actors. While Equity has told me they are comfortable with unionized actors being recorded, they’ve also said it comes with additional costs. When I inquired further about what those costs would be, they said they wouldn’t say until they had a specific contract from a theater; this creates an awkward situation in which Equity theaters are unwilling to commit to a project they won’t know the cost of, but in which Equity also won’t tell them until they blindly agree to at least begin the process of writing up contracts for it. I have no doubt that these reservations can be sorted out, and I appreciate Equity’s desire to protect actors from unlawful distribution of their work, but this lack of transparency does make things seemingly more difficult than they have to be.

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Until these laws are clarified—and most likely, updated—documenting Equity performances will continue to face hurdles. This makes professional non-Equity theater the ideal demographic for streaming American work, but this work, while still often of great quality, also tends to come from smaller or midsize theaters that will have lower budgets to invest in streaming and may be more obscure to wider audiences. This has proven to be the case with the work in Stagecloud’s library so far—while it has found an international audience among people who already know the artists and companies involved, reaching new audiences and the greater theater landscape has been harder (although not without some progress). Regional theater, without Broadway’s star power and big name shows, can face attendance challenges even among regular live theater audiences, and we have much work to do in continuing to make our service known and convincing people to take risks on shows and companies they may not have heard of before. Regional theater is, after all, regional—what may have a following in one city will not necessarily be known elsewhere. This kind of isolated theater landscape is part of the reason we need theater streaming, and overcoming it will the digital medium’s biggest nut to crack.

Regional theater streaming offers publicity to lesser-known companies and actors

Streaming professional American theater is, and will likely be for some time, a bit more difficult than it is in other parts of the world. But, as Something Marvelous has shown, there are companies and plays just as worthy of streaming as the usual Broadway classics and British theater—even if they lack opulent budgets and famous names. Smaller regional theaters will likely be better off with homemade recordings and will have to work to win over audiences who don’t already know them, but Stagecloud is otherwise free, with the majority of proceeds going back to the original artists, so there’s little risk in trying. Either way, whether you make theater or just watch it, I hope you can start integrating streaming into your theater routine—be it through Stagecloud, BroadwayHD, Cennarium, Digital Theatre or elsewhere. Streaming is not to replace live theater, of course, but it’s for the times when a live performance isn’t an option. It lets you watch plays during your commute, your lunch hour, in the airport or at home on your TV. It lets you see and support amazing artists working beyond Broadway whose work you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. American libraries may be limited, but we’re making progress, and with companies like Something Marvelous willing to take the leap, I’m optimistic about the future.

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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.