The pandemic has forced St. Louis arts groups to go online for good
On an upper level of Powell Hall, behind a place where ushers stand and greet members of the public, there is a nondescript door marked “Firehose Room”.
Behind is a narrow space with a high ceiling where, on a recent Friday evening, a team of four gathered to capture the concert in high definition video, operating eight cameras by remote control.
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra began offering concert streams and educational programs online when the coronavirus pandemic made in-person gatherings unsafe. Capacity restrictions are now long gone, but the organization will create more online deals next season.
Many other organizations moved their programming online early in the pandemic, in what they saw as a short-term emergency measure that doesn’t match the in-person experience.
Then they discovered that online programming offered its own advantages and could attract large audiences. Many arts leaders, once skeptical of online programming, now plan to continue it even after pandemic restrictions end.
“It was an emergency”
Many arts educators initially viewed digital programming as a poor substitute for working in person with students. But they found the new programs reached a much wider audience, allowing young people in rural areas of Missouri and far beyond, or who lack reliable transportation, to participate.
“We were all in territory that we didn’t know how to handle. It was an emergency to find this material,” said Allison Felter, director of education and engagement for the Opera Theater of St. Louis.
Opera Theater completed its ongoing online educational programs in Spring 2020 as a last resort. Then he started planning ways to use online technology to his advantage.
The organization had to scrap a planned school tour of an animated, abridged production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” But freed from the constraints of a traveling production, the creative team moved into a rehearsal studio and built more elaborate sets and costumes.
A typical tour would reach around 4,500 students. The audience for the online version was 87,000, Felter said.
“The impact? Huge. I mean, exponential,” she said. “What we found was that not only did a number of schools in St. Louis benefit, but that schools all over the world took advantage of it because everyone was in the same boat, everyone needed programming.
Digital programming comes with tradeoffs. Students miss the raw excitement of a live performance, and post-show video calls with the cast don’t pack the punch of in-person meetings. For online music lessons, a vocal student will sing along to a pre-recorded piano track rather than teaming up with a live accompanist who can be a creative partner.
“We should never go exclusively digital. We have to stay in person,” Felter said. “It’s a living, living, breathing art form that requires a live audience, I think, to fully enjoy and appreciate it. But it’s another way to deliver this great product.
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Education Department has developed a series of videos for elementary students titled sound laboratory. It combines instructions from an arts educator, footage of musicians from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performing the music in discussion, and videotaped commentary from children.
This school year, 84,000 students have worked with Soundlab in their classrooms, said Maureen Byrne, associate vice president for education and community partnerships. This is 20,000 more than the already impressive total of the previous school year.
“It was kind of an incredible realization for us, that this type of program is so needed and wanted in the early childhood classroom,” Byrne said.
In-person programs are back, but the organization plans to produce a third Soundlab series next season.
A piece? A movie? Maybe both
Performance video presentations, aimed at students or the general public, have different advantages and disadvantages than a live event. One approach is to simply record a live performance on stage, as it is. Another is to treat it more like a movie or TV show, making creative decisions about close-ups and camera angles.
Metro Theater Company tried both approaches. At the start of this experiment, artistic director Julia Flood said, the troupe’s general manager, Joe Gfaller, would ask her why she seemed so stressed.
“He saw me pulling my hair out and I was like, ‘You don’t understand, now we’re doing a play and a movie at the same time,'” Flood said. “It’s a different language, terminology and visual vocabulary.”
But the troupe found that online programming was attracting viewers far beyond its usual geographic reach. Viewers in 40 states and six countries watched a stream of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, Pfaller said, and 565 new donors donated money to organizations.
A February production of “Last Stop on Market Street”, which included live shows at the Grandel in the Grand Center as well as an online version, became the highest-grossing show in the company’s history.
The St. Louis Symphony had planned to branch out into concert streams in the future — after a planned $100 million renovation of Powell Hall.
“When the pandemic hit, we put our foot on the accelerator pedal,” said vice president and general manager Erik Finley.
The organization invested $150,000 in video equipment which it used to record concerts and develop online education programs. Through January, music fans in 10,000 households watched St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts online.
On-demand ticket sales aren’t generating a profit, Finley said, but he expects that to change as the organization builds its video library over time.
Many industry players expected demand for online content to decline once in-person events returned, Metro Theater Company’s Gfaller said.
“At least so far, knock on wood, we haven’t seen that happen,” Gfaller said. “I’m sure it will even be okay at some point. But what comforted me the most is that the streaming audience for each subsequent production only increases.
As arts organizations continue to adapt to an evolving pandemic, many will be looking for other ways to make online technology an asset – rather than just a last resort.
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