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Live… from Seattle

Suzi Steffen • Projection • January 1, 2011
A moment from Transition, created by comedic musician Reggie Watts and playwright/director Tommy Smith

A moment from Transition, created by comedic musician Reggie Watts and playwright/director Tommy Smith

OntheBoards.tv streams performance to the world

Live performance can’t be replaced by streaming video, just like cellphones could never replace landlines.

Wait, what?

Turns out that performing arts groups may have to roll with the times, says Lane Czaplinski, the artistic director of Seattle’s On the Boards. That’s why the theatre company sits smack in the middle of a four-year grant cycle meant to explore a sort of performing-world Netflix, in which select performances meet high-quality video production and online streaming. Actually, for On the Boards, sitting might not be the right verb. The group’s trying to help lead the way toward new revenue streams, new ways to attract audiences and a clear path toward archiving live performances and making them useful for training new generations of students.

 

OntheBoards.tv opened for business in January 2010. “That was after a year of planning,” says OtB Managing Director Sarah Wilke. And that plotting, list-making, breathtakingly full year of planning came after other attempts to meld performance—not to mention marketing—with technology.

Go Virtual
On the Boards kicked off in 1978 as an artist-founded, nonprofit company in Seattle, where it’s now located in the Behnke Center for Contemporary Performance. The group develops and produces dance, theatre and musical works for itself and hosts festivals, most famously the Northwest New Works Festival, but also brings in contemporary artists working in and across those genres. All of that activity—and classes too—pushes the performance envelope in the Pacific Northwest and brings high-quality work to the region’s largest city.

“When you think of Seattle, we’re an edgy, technologically savvy place,” Czaplinski says. That’s one reason that the idea for OntheBoards.tv could grow beyond the brainstorming phase. One of On the Boards’ staff members knew of local independent production company ThinkLab through its founder/CEO Matt Daniels. “ThinkLab is a lot like we are as an organization,” Czaplinski says. “We’re both relatively young and focused on quality.”

Grants from the Wallace Foundation and DanceUSA moved OntheBoards.tv from a plan on the collaborative whiteboard into reality. Streaming technology (OntheBoards.tv uses Edgecam) and a dedicated crew got the website up and working in time for the launch in January. Performances available for downloads at the beginning included The Shipment by Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, an 85-minute production which, the press material notes, has been the most popular performance on OntheBoards.tv so far.

The Shipment’s also the longest performance available right now, which might counter Czaplinski and Wilke’s natural worries about how long a potential online audience can handle watching streaming video. Of course, those who learn to stream video often also learn to hook up their computers to larger screens, say, a television that’s been sitting idle. As Netflix moves to a more streaming-centered model, as Hulu and television companies make more shows easy to watch online and as audiences flock like mad to the Metropolitan Opera’s HD simulcasts, the performance consumption habits of screen-watchers may change. “I read a study saying three million people in the U.S. are accessing online content using their TV,” Czaplinski says, “and by 2015, it will be as many as 43 million.” That’s a lot of people who could be renting 48-hour access to a performance for $5, buying and downloading it for $15 or buying a year-long unlimited subscription for $50-$100. (The revenues, press materials state, are “evenly split between OntheBoards.tv and the artists.”)

In addition to its regular-speed streaming capabilities, OntheBoards.tv offers an HD option for those with fast connections (and a bit more money to spend) and mobile options for those with video-enabled mobile devices ranging from phones to the iPod Touch to the iPad.

“We were releasing this pre-iPad,” Czaplinski says, but clearly, on a tablet, “the viewing experience is a lot more desirable because the size is better.”

A moment from Construct, the final project by the late Australian choreographer Tanja Liedtke

A moment from Construct, the final project by the late Australian choreographer Tanja Liedtke

Non-Drop-Frame Theatre
That depth and richness also comes from the production values. ThinkLab uses three to five cameras, a sound operator and a lot of editing to produce each performance. Banish your memories of the high school play DVD shot from the back of the auditorium and burned during a cast party: Wilke and Czaplinski say the process of recording starts early and lasts for quite a while after filming. Daniels and the crew meet with the performers, talking about everything from what’s vital to capture at close range to how the knowledge of a camera crew might affect the performers.

Usually, Wilke says, the camera crew watches the performance once before recording it. The first and most camera-intensive performance provides almost all of the footage, but the crew returns a second or third night to do pick-up shooting. “That’s nice for the artist if a certain scene didn’t go exactly as they want,” Wilke says.
Daniels then edits the performance and sends the first edit to the performer(s), who have the chance to give feedback using the timecode. “They might ask for a closer shot or a wider shot,” Czaplinski says. “They usually do two to three passes with the artist, and it takes a couple of months” before the final edit goes up for rental and download.

Surprisingly, the camera crew doesn’t seem to disrupt the audience or performers much, Czaplinki says. “We were doing a lot of seat kills, not wanting the cameras to compromise the experience of being in the theatre.” But cameras in a theatre just don’t cause a commotion anymore. “People are so accustomed to having cameras in their everyday lives, we’ve had no complaints,” he says.

Two of the 10 productions available on the site were filmed in New York’s P.S. 122. One of those two was Temporary Distortion, whose company members use video in their work already and who decided to revise and reshoot (using their own cameras) an entire scene based on the first editing pass. Though they’re sticking to Seattle right now—each performance costs between $10,000 and $15,000 to record, edit and produce—On the Boards would like to expand a bit in the future. That doesn’t necessarily mean every recording experience would be proprietary, however; Wilke and Czaplinksi understand that the new digital world isn’t always about tight control. “Our goal is to be able to film at partner venues,” Wilke says, “and to help those organizations grow the capacity to do similar work themselves.” (A December American Theatre article notes that this goal, and the OntheBoards.tv project, works only because On the Boards is a non-union shop right now; that’s something Wilke and Czaplinski know they and other organizations will have to figure out.)

Though the performances have been rented, streamed or downloaded by people from all 50 states and 82 countries—“We’re big in Vancouver; we’re big in Norway,” Czaplinski says, and the UK, Germany, Japan, France and Australia also provide a fair amount of interest—the goal, obviously, is not to replace live performance with edited and streamed video, they say. “The more there is online,” Czaplinski says, “the more we create enthusiasm for what we do.”

Theatre professors also embrace the opportunity to show limited-run performances in their classes. On the Boards offers an academic subscription for $250 a year, which means, Wilke and Czaplinski say, that students using a subscribing university’s IP address can have access to the archived material. The Cornish College for the Arts, Ohio University and East Carolina University have all joined the academic subscription model, and they’re not alone.

“I find OtB TV to be a terrific resource to get my students up to speed on what’s happening,” says Ilana Brownstein, a professional dramaturg and professor at the Boston University School of Theatre. She says that because most of her students have their own rehearsals to attend, they often don’t get to see shows like a recent performance by Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company. “No problem! I can point them to OtB.tv,” she says. She’s made some of the OtB performances required viewing. Her only wish is that On the Boards would add more work, faster, especially with work from The Rude Mechanicals and The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma.

None of this means live performance can or should ever be replaced—some of us still have landlines alongside our cell phones, go to local movie theatres some nights and stream Netflix others … and head for live shows as often as humanly possible.

For everything else? There’s OntheBoards.tv.

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