September 17, 2021

Can Community Theaters Survive The Pandemic?

Man singing in theater, viewed from behind.

Cross-posted from The Connecticut Callboard –

Community theaters, performing arts and entertainment worldwide, were compelled to shut their doors to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This jeopardized the long-term viability of theatrical plays, productions and content creation for film, television, and streaming services.

“Theater is a live art form that was invented as something to be communicated in person and portray the human experience,” suggests Patrick Olsen, a professional actor and voice-over artist, “So finding out how to accomplish it via the web was a significant challenge,” he continues.

Local Theatre Companies Are Especially Endangered.

Many community theaters have seen a significant decline in their primary revenue source, and many have already shut their doors. The Royal Shakespeare Organization in London receives almost a quarter of its revenue from charitable contributions, and up to 70 percent of its theaters may shut by year’s end.

Certain outdoor locations expressed an interest in hosting concerts, however considerable logistical preparation is often required for social distance safety precautions.

The Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) and the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA)  worked with medical specialists to provide scientifically sound recommendations for members’ return to work. Their objective being to create an action plan to safeguard the well-being of union employees on the job.

In some nations, including Norway and South Korea, with the resumption of film production, the entertainment sector embraced remote work procedures when feasible. Although economic conditions differ significantly between countries, the World Economic Forum reports that customers’ declining trust in actual venues, including community theaters, poses the greatest immediate threat.

Modern Problems Make for Modern Solutions

At New York University’s Tisch School of Drama, the Brendan Bradley Integrative Technology Lab incorporated virtual reality (VR) equipment for students to utilize during rehearsals, as well as a production for an audience in a social virtual reality environment.

Michelle Cortese, a virtual reality product designer for Facebook’s AR/VR Experiences team, walked six pupils from the Drama and Game Design areas through the process of designing and building a social VR performance for an online audience. The course did this by fusing elements of the performing arts, animations, and Facebook’s Oculus Quest virtual reality device.

Students were provided with complete avatar personas with whom they could communicate in the digital world. Professor Orlando Pabotoy guided the students as they prepared for their play, “The Clouds,” broadcast online in May.

With the successful performance of New York University’s virtual reality play, the hybrid education model that combines acting and technology demonstrates how community theaters and performing arts training may be delivered online in the future.

However, whether these models can be used in other situations is a source of debate among experts and entertainment industry employees throughout the pandemic.

Contant Innovation

The performing arts and the entertainment sectors never cease to inspire. Consequently, future study into community theaters and performing arts in the internet age has a great deal of potential. According to two specialists with whom we spoke, the technique may be readily taught online.

‘In Love and WarCraft,’ a drama produced by Northern California’s American Conservatory Theater, was transformed into a Zoom theatrical experience by a friend of mine,’ Olsen said. “It also received an amazing amount of positive feedback.”

Summer Solon, an actress, performer, and fitness trainer with a bachelor’s in theater arts at the University of Arizona, says she has been dabbling with the creation of performing arts in the cyber world in her own practice and with others.

“That is absolutely possible,” Olsen asserts, “but then you get caught up into the philosophical argument of ‘what is theater?'”

Film, Internet and Streaming

While film performance is the offspring of theater, when combined with the filmed digital internet form of theater, complications arise. Hamilton is a relatively recent release, having premiered on Disney Plus in July. Thus, the issue is whether this is theater or something else. In contrary to community theaters, where you may sometimes hear the audience, this version has none.

“It is not the first time software has also been utilized in community theaters,” Solon said carefully in response to a question about how to combine new technology such as VR with acting. Other performances required audience members to use virtual reality goggles, which I found to be an intriguing idea. The musicians were then invited to perform on the site’s virtual reality set. Even after that, the performers and audience stayed physically in the same location.”

According to Solon, while virtual reality is an intriguing technology to investigate for its potential application in performing, one must also consider the practicalities of both performers and members of the audience getting access to a Virtual reality headset and supporting digital infrastructure which is not always the reality. And, so far, the general public has seen virtual reality technology as a novelty item, with the overwhelming number of people not directly owning one.

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