Food for thought

Since the lockdown, unplanning has replaced planning: dance performances, concerts, theaters and associated travels. I am eager to go back to theaters and fully defend the importance of being physically in cultural venues. I want to cite A.O. Scott here: « Art is a way of knowing, of seeing and feeling, the borders that separate work from leisure, the sacred from the secular, the ordinary from the exalted, passivity from action, life from death. »

The Covid-19 suspended my calendar of cultural events but not my mind. As a marketer, I want to share my own observations during this period, as well as some food for thought aiming at inspiring professionals of performing arts to come back stronger.

1. Digital transformation

Probably you read the joke that instead of CIOs, Covid-19 successfully executed companies’ digital transformation. A number of theaters and dance companies react impressively during this period with their generosity and care. As a spectator, I am overwhelmed and try to manage a new agenda: a documentary for lunch, a dance recording for evening, a theater matinee for weekend… Facing this unprecedented situation, professionals have shown their passion and compassion though they may not be sufficiently equipped to deal with it at ease.

1) work from home. No theater team would expect working from home for such a long period. Their primary task is to manage the cancellations for spectators. Philharmonie de Paris implemented automatic refund till end of season without any action needed from spectators while certain theaters still work on solutions. These examples are extreme but admittedly there is a gap here, possibly a technical one. Another priority for theaters is the program for next season: When to start? What is the best scenario to respect the sanitary regulations? Possible to include some cancelled performances? … This requires a lot of meetings and coordinations. How many of them installed for the first time a messaging tool? How many of them created a temporary drive to co-work online? For the next seasons, we may see investment in related areas: booking system update, hardware procurement, IT training, etc.

2) digital content supply. Bigger theaters, larger archive of digital contents. They can share continuously digital contents. How about small venues, small dance companies or independent artists? As long as artists are not against recording (and I hope that more and more will consider it after Covid-19), a good quality of full-length recording could be standardized for new productions with necessary legal support and facilitation. There are already many established audiovisual professionals and a long-term collaboration could also be considered. That theaters have their own audiovisual team is not impossible if they manage to find a sustainable way of monetizing recordings. On top of images, Marketing team may prepare more short videos for promotion purpose; Communication counterpart needs to re-think the budget for online vs. offline.

2 Paid digital theater experience

Technically speaking, this is not an issue: theater/opera live transmission, concert live streaming, movie VOD release to name a few. So far, most contents are free of charge with certain constraints related to either geography or period of availability. It is the first time for everyone so is worth testing different options. However, I did not have an example of VOD-type paid experience till April 26 when I received an email from Sharon Eyal Dance: Vimeo on demand charging less than five euros for streaming one of two previous works with a limited of time. For previous works, another good practice is from Schaubüehne in Berlin: a donation button next to streaming window.

How about new creation with tour cancelled? BalletBoyz digital tour of latest creation Deluxe (Sadler’s Wells theater Facebook page, JoyceStream and later BBC Art) was quite daring (Bravo for this initiative) but I would love to see a ticket button before the streaming. Technical constraint? Too shy to ask? As a testing phase, we can also imagine a « no, thank you » button side by side. If we cannot go physically to our « temple », the act of buying a ticket is still symbolic for this ritual. At least, the call out for donation currently on their website should appear at the end of the streaming.

Another option to test paid digital experience is to exchange a cancelled performance for a streaming. I did not receive a proposal like this. So I want to imagine one using The Seven Deadly Sins from Tanztheater Wuppertal as example (Yes I am a big fan of Pina Bausch and this was one of the most expected performances in Paris for season 19/20). Think about this: Théâtre du Châtelet (with Théâtre de la Ville) gives all ticket owners the option of watching the recording for a reduced price (10€ for example) deducted from the amount they initially paid. The setup may take time but it is worth testing. And this could be an addition to the current refund plan of Théâtre du Châtelet which I consider exemplary.

Known as THE digital platform for performing arts, Vimeo, during this period, is frequently present in form of hyperlinks . However, they did not take a leading role reinforcing legitimacy in the field of performing arts. Unless I did not find the right place, performing arts is not yet a distinguished category on their website. They could also have set up their own pick or collaborated with journalists/critics/influencers leveraging the contents. Apart from Sharon Eyal, how many dance companies have they used Vimeo on demand so far? Did Vimeo promote it among performing artists? We heard a lot about Zoom recently but it seems that Vimeo has some similar functions. Again did they target online workshops, online festivals, or online exchange with artists?

3. Online Program

Certain initiatives caught my attention such as Au creux de l’oreille (in the hollow of the ear) by La Colline. Anyone can register online to have an artist to read a poem or an extraction of theater by phone. The most impressive one (if I can give an award!) belongs to la Comédie Française. It is a well constructed program per week with daily activities and part of them target specifically young audience. Certainly it is a state-owned theater but they could also have done a much simpler program.

In 2019, the Theatre Times teamed up with Digital Theatre+ to launch IOTF: The International Online Theatre Festival and the ongoing 2020 edition probably earns more awareness than last year. Some offline festivals tested and will test online edition this year. Spring Forward Festival was maintained as the « show must go on-line ». I registered and it was overwhelmingly successful (I will write about this experience separately). Now I look forward the Holland Festival 2.0-2.0.

After Covid-19, online program could be a complementary module for theaters: it can engage a larger audience, increase interactions with the public (e.g. The fABULEUS Rosas Remix Project) and offer another stage for artists. There will probably be some investment (or covered by digital transformation) but like the normal program, online program can be a combination of free and paid experiences. Depending on the assets, theaters can use it smartly bringing added value to the current program as well as social media.

4. Revenue & Fundraising

Revenue & Fundraising are essential for performing art organizations as well as other cultural institutions. It becomes even more critical this year. I fully understand the request for solidarity from theaters but it lacks a bit transparency. I bought a ticket for a specific performance in a specific venue. If I do not ask for a refund, will the artists of the selected performance get the exact share as if the performance maintained? What is the exact loss for the theater after, if any, insurance (Only one email I received from a museum mentioned cancellation insurance) and government support? If I say yes, am I considered as a donor? In this case, am I, if applicable, supposed to be informed how to get a donation receipt? Certainly, you can say that I am difficult since so many spectators did so: e.g. 20% of spectators of Chaillot, 1,200 spectators of deSingel.

I also want to share two emails I appreciate about ticket refund: Danseaujourdhui offered me either refund or donation of the value to support young choreographers with information on donation receipt; Théâtre du Châtelet suggested me either getting refund later or donating my ticket for Gisèle Vienne thru their Les Robin des Bois (I will come back to this later) with information on donation receipt. I chose donation for both.

Refund will decrease revenue then the question is how to minimize the loss. As I mentioned, I personally love the step-by-step approach of Théâtre du Châtelet as they proposed two alternatives before direct refund: 1) Retain the revenue in fundraising. Les Robin des Bois is an existing project: you can offer a seat for those who are not used to the theater experience. In this context, the theater asked if you want to use the ticket as donation for this project. 2) Retain the revenue for future purchase. For those who cancelled recently any travel by plane, you must be familiar with this practice: refund with voucher/credit for future use. In the event of subscription for the next season, this is brilliant. Besides, the theater is willing to repeat the cycle for each and every performance. This allows theaters to adjust the communication (test & learn), personalize the message, stay connected with spectators. Also if you slice a subscription into individual performances, spectators may think about fundraising differently. It is easier to donate the value of one ticket than the value of a subscription. For sure the workload is more important for theaters than one-time communication.

Another appealing initiative comes from Kunstfestivalarts: Ghost Ticket, a fake ticket to support the cancelled festival. In my opinion, this is particularly suitable for festivals as probably they have not yet started selling tickets. Creativity is important to engage the audience. I bought a Ghost Ticket as the festival has a great program and it is a fun way to donate knowing that I did not plan to go to the festival. Fundraising should not be boring and I can imagine an even funnier version with the spirit of gamification: Ghost Ticket Office. In this version, you can actually select the performance for the ticket, you can buy a bundle ticket, you can initiate a group ticket with friends, you can buy a ticket for a friend, etc. After the purchase, the ticket owner will receive something virtual from the selected artist: photos of rehearsal, a short « thank you » message (text/voice/video), performance teaser, a link to watch an old performance, etc. Even for the current Ghost Ticket, the festival could have looped in their social media: e.g. share button in the email for ticket, a ticket format allowing donors to easily share, etc.

I still want to remind that all the recordings currently provided could be an opportunity to increase revenue or to fundraise. The online program mentioned earlier can also make future programs bolder so as to increase the average spend. A customized fundraising program will be helpful for theaters, dance companies and festivals.

5. E-commerce

Big venues such as Opéra de Paris and La Comédie Française have already had their E-shop. La Comédie Française promotes it on their page of program but in the newsletters of Opéra de Paris, there was not a specific mention apart from the navigation bar at the bottom. E-commerce could become a growth potential and I am not only talking about now. To diversify the portfolio, we can also get inspired from museum shops. Dance companies could think about derivative products starting from the creation process. Again VOD can also be listed. Logistics will probably be the main challenge and an alliance of shops could be considered.

6. Performance/Creation from Home

Do you still remember Jérôme Bel’s Skype rehearsal and retrospective last year? He is really ahead of time when you think about the current situation. Certainly, in the last few weeks, we had many joyful moments: Serbian National Theater’s Bella Ciao, Mehdi Kerkouche’s #Confinected, Olivier Gabrys’ solo, home version of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece, and so on.

As long as social distancing is requested, this type of experimentation will continue but I do not think that creating a 60-minute piece in long distance with ten dancers in different places is imaginable when a solo is already complicated. Here, the condition is that the creation must be presented in theaters one day. That is why Diego Tortelli calls 1 meter CLOSER as screendance.

In Dimitris Papaioannou’s latest interview with Philippe Noisette, he confirms the risk of stopping completely the new project but does not think that it will be a tragedy. A friend recently started writing to memorize this period of time and in the latest one he mentions life continues though. I agree with Xie Xin from a Zoom exchange organized by Along the Edge Arts Festival, that probably BalletBoyz’s Deluxe (Note: she choreographed one part) reached more people online than would have done theaters. If they can come back to theaters in the future, it will be fantastic. From March 17 to April 14, Opéra de Paris received 1.33 million online views from their online recordings. Theaters will come back and shows will go on; how can theaters bring these people back supporting performing arts so as to be stronger facing another crisis? This is another question and maybe online program could be part of answer.

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