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What would the digital performing arts look like if the arts had their own software platform, responsive to artistic needs? Ron Evans explores the possibilities.

The Virtual Choir/Orchestra's rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone, release during the Covid-19 pandemic, had 300 contributors from 15 countries as they entertained millions.

Screenshot taken from YouTube | Harrison Sheckler

I know Zoom. At this point, most of us are experts. Broadcasting original sound, rapidly managing many participants at once - we’re on it. But we're still working around the fact that Zoom was not designed for a performing arts experience. What would things look like if the performing arts had a software platform of their own? What might a ‘Zoom’ for the performing arts look like?

Experimenting with software for performing arts events isn't a new concept. Back in 2008 artists were playing in this space. I remember Chris Elam's work with the Audience Engagement Platform. I had attended one of Chris' livestream events when he and his dance company broadcast from a bank vault in New York City. It was the first time I'd experienced artists turn toward the camera during their bows and recognise the viewers at home. I felt more connected to a live performance than I ever had before. But I still had to type "clap! clap! clap! applause!" into the text chat. It loses something.

We've come a long way in tech since then, but some things haven’t changed. From the performer’s perspective, there is still a loss of connection with the ’audience energy’, which is a difficult concept to explain but one that every actor understands. Playing to a digital room, even with faces watching you, doesn’t create that energy dynamic, and above all others, this is an area where we need to experiment over and over again until actors and audiences feel that it’s right.

We must also admit that the technology itself creates an obstacle. Each viewer has a different technical setup, and thus a different viewing/listening experience. Some organisations are creating guides for audience members on how to experience the art through home platforms such as Roku, Apple TV, etc., as well as providing technical support to those who need some hand-holding.

It’s clear that a ‘Zoom for the performing arts’ would need new functionalities never seen before. But what exactly? I’ve put together a few thoughts.

We need digital stage managers, and controls for them

Currently, meeting hosts do everything. Software needs to allow for DSMs who can bring actors on and off, mute and unmute sound, activate complex sound and lighting effects at the actor’s location, control the brightness of how audience members appear to everyone, put the audience members’ equipment into a “theater mode” to reduce distractions, and control cameras (focus, position of people in the frame, etc.). Audience members and actors should be playing their regular roles, not running the tech. Artificial intelligence may help with this in the future. 

We need new views for both actors and audience members

DSMs should be able to control what an actor sees (shutting off their “selfie” screen, selectively showing other performers who are in the current scene, and showing/hiding audience members as appropriate). Audience members should appear to be seated like an audience. (Microsoft Teams is already working on a “together” mode.)

We need to appear to be speaking to the camera, not to the screen

The distance between laptop cameras and the faces of those on the screen breaks eye contact and intimacy. Intel researchers have been developing an eye contact correction system which will help bring some intimacy back.

We need the ability to cue up recorded video or additional livestreams seamlessly, without needing external software

Currently, broadcasting a video is done poorly via screen share (videos stutter in feedback, aren’t synced with sound, and look pixelated… all contributing to a lackluster experience).

We need interactivity and engagement options for audience members

Audience members want to play along, and could do so pre-show, at intermission, and after the show. Many years ago, I remember testing out interactive emotional word clouds with Alan Brown. Audience members used their mobile phones to text a response to questions such as "How did the end of Act One make you feel?" and then watching them see their response form word cloud art on a projected screen in the theater lobby. It was an insightful experience for them, and for me.

We need flexible ways to purchase and attend a performance

Access should include variables such as the number of times a link can be viewed and by whom. Also, is the admission cost a fixed or sliding fee and is it payable before the performance, after the performance, or even during? Donations and/or payment during a performance might unlock experiences for all watching.

We need artificial intelligence which recognises hand gestures

When an audience member raises a hand, the system should flag them to be called on. Applause or the facial expressions of laughter should unmute them while it’s happening. If you’ve ever scrolled the For You Page on the social media network TikTok, you’ll see that we have this technology already, and it’s amazing.

We need to support new types of storytelling

In addition to utilising the traditional narrative, artistic directors should have engagement tools that allow audience members to vote on story paths. (For example, in every performance of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, audience members choose the murderer, among other roles.)

We need compatibility with home theatre setups

An iPad screen and speaker should not be the ideal destination for digital performing arts. Many audience members have big-screen TVs, surround-sound systems, smart speakers (Alexa, Google), etc., and experiencing digital art using these tools should be superior. As home theater setups don’t often have cameras or keyboards, interactivity tools will likely still come from a second screen/mobile device, at least for now.

These are just a few ideas, and they focus mostly on better creating a ‘traditional’ experience. But remember, this new medium allows us to do much more than we can in a traditional venue.

For example:

  • ‘Green screen’ technology allows us to perform on literally any set on (or off!) this world. Live or recorded video backgrounds work right now. What new kind of artistic options might this open up for us?
  • Fascinating people with incredible life experiences can attend, engage, and co-create art from wherever they are in the world. What perspectives might this bring to the table? How might this increase our ability to hear from those who don't often get to speak?
  • In a digital realm, performers might interact with digital characters. We will one day see Star Wars-level animated characters appearing alongside real actors at your local community theatre.
  • With timing and time-lag issues solved, groups of performers who could never be under the same roof at the same time might be able to perform together. 
  • Real theatrical virtual reality? The emotional impact could be boundless.

Many people have lamented the poor experience of watching performing arts online. Pricing for these experiences often reflects this low expectation. But this is the wrong approach. Artistic directors, I want to see your full creative ability focused on taking advantage of the unique capabilities of the medium. Constraints often drive creativity. 

How might we create an experience that is unique, not possible in a regular venue, and so amazing that we can charge more for it than for a traditional experience if we wanted to? Focus on the possibilities. 

While it would be amazing to have software built specifically for the needs of the performing arts, don’t let the lack of it stop you from experimenting. Artists create art with whatever they have available. Electric mixers are nice to have, but you can make delicious bread with your hands. 

Let’s stop apologising and setting low expectations for online experiences in our communications, our pricing schemes, and our choices of programming. The time we put in now, creating memorable digital experiences, will support us as a new revenue stream when traditional venues reopen. And that additional sustainability will be one of the best things to come out of the cultural sector due to the pandemic. 

Ron Evans works as a trusted advisor to nonprofit leaders around the world. He dramatically improves individual and organisational performance, and teaches others his process. 

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Hello, Have you or your colleagues tried Jacktrip? It is open-source software for networked sound performance. Mark Powell Cappella Romana