Outdoor Theater Talks About Their Transition to Virtual Events (The EventBuzz Podcast)

Outdoor Theater Talks About Their Transition to Virtual Events (The EventBuzz Podcast)

Podcast speakers: Savannah McIntosh (Purplepass Marketing Director) and John Russell, Executive Director for the Montford Park Players. Jump to links and video notes below. 

The EventBuzz podcast: The Montford Park Players

presented by Purplepass

 

 

Podcast Transcript: Purplepass + The Montford Park Players

 

Savannah (Purplepass): 

Hey everyone, and thanks for tuning in to another episode of the EventBuzz podcast by Purplepass. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce today's guest, John Russell, the Executive Director for North Carolina's longest running Shakespeare Festival. He is here to talk about the theaters transition from in person live performances to now being fully online.

We will be discussing their recommended practices when it comes to virtual plays, strategies for finding community support and other tips for making it through this pandemic. So let's start with telling the listeners a little bit about your theater and the shows you guys put on and where they were hosted before COVID and just the overall mission that you guys are trying to accomplish with... it's Montfort Park players?

 

John (Montford Park Players): 

Montford, correct? 

So sure. So the Montford Park Players was founded in 1973 to produce the works of Shakespeare and other plays on a classical theme. We are North Carolina's longest running Shakespeare Festival and according to research, these are the fourth or fifth oldest outdoor Shakespeare Theatre in the United States, and one of only 15 Shakespeare companies to have performed all of Shakespeare's 37 or 38 plays.

It's our home is the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater  which is located less than a mile from downtown Asheville, North Carolina. I think lots of people have heard of Asheville. The facility was built for us by Asheville Parks and Rec and we've added on to it over the last 38 years we hold the property on a long term lease. So wonderful venue, great capacity we seat about 1000 and mission statement, yes, is making theater available, affordable and accessible to all.

And how do we do that? We perform outdoors in the summertime and that is a means of getting people that ordinarily would not go to an indoor theater. Most people think if they go out they have to dress up. Here they can go in their Bermuda shorts and or a jeans or whatever, bring a picnic bring their favorite beverage, just enjoy an evening out under the stars and a play as well.

Affordable. For all of our history, our outdoor shows have always been free. We take donations, um encouraged donations, of course, but we don't, we don't charge anyone to get in. And so this in allows folks that don't have a very large disposable income becoming system quality work and not have to worry about paying a big ticket price.

Accessible, just trying to get as many people as possible from all walks of life into the theater.

 

Savannah:

Yeah, awesome. Yeah, it looks cool. I was checking out different photos and stuff and it look like you guys did a lot outdoors. I actually don't think I've ever been to an outdoor theater, that would be really fun.

 

John:

It really is it is a unique experience. Some operate on a different basis. That's okay "You can only eat food that's purchased here or whatever." But we've always been very laid back about it. We even, several years ago got our ourselves a permanent ABC license. So we serve wine and local beer. And of course actual is known for its craft beer. So we specialize in that as well, but we allow all these numbers to bring their own in.

 

Savannah:

That's a nice little add on. And what is your role with the company?

 

John:

Well, my title is executive director, but that doesn't mean a whole lot because I have a T shirt that says, "All the world's a stage and I'm the janitor." So somebody's got to be the one that is just responsible for making sure that everything goes according to schedule. And that's my job. 

 

Savannah:

And you guys have which is one of the main reasons I want to talk to you because I noticed that you had the upcoming virtual event, Christmas themed, holiday themed. Can you tell the listeners a little bit more about that since it's going to be online for anyone that might be interested in tuning in?

 

John: 

Absolutely. We'll be doing a virtual production of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol the old story written, of course, as a novel, a Novella by Dickens, but translate it into a play format by many, many different playwrights and directors.

And that will be opening this Friday, tomorrow. And then next step, Saturday, December the 19th, at 7:30, and will be presented live on our YouTube channel. And so we, we offer free tickets and the YouTube link, which will be on www.purplepass.com/mppchristmascarol2020 

 

Savannah: 

And so YouTube is that this off the software you guys are using for all your virtual events?

 

John:

Well, that's how we stream it and as we stream it, of course, it will be recorded. So it'll be available on our YouTube channel, my preferred players for for posterity as well. But the production will actually be produced on on our zoom account.

So each member will be performing from the safety of their own residence, and can be curated by our director. And most appropriate music and things inserted as the show goes on. So it's a it's a dual, dual type platform.

 

Savannah:

Okay, how many performers are there?

 

John: 

I think about 16?

 

Savannah:

Wow, that's a lot of coordination.

 

John: 

It really is. One of the things we did we went, we went online to the you know, the ultimate online Big Bucks store. I won't name it and we bought these cameras with the halo light around them. So that everyone will look good. On their on their production. Because if you are if you like me, you've been on so many Zoom meetings where it's difficult to see.

Many, many people they don't understand the concept of stage lighting. Yeah. If we were doing a Zoom call where we could see each other, I have lighting 45 degrees, head onto me and 45 degrees down from both sides. So I'm lit like we would on a stage.

 

Savannah:

Yeah, you're supposed to aren't supposed to do like the three different angles.

 

John:

That's it!

 

Savannah:

Yeah, I took some theater classes. Yeah, I've definitely been on Zooms where I mean, people can't help but they it's everyone's has to work with that got. And it's like, "hello", like I can't like it's so hard to see you.

 

John:

Oh, you see the ones that are the only life they have comes from their computer screen? They look blue.

 

Savannah:

Yeah. Yeah, we're not all lucky to have like the nice natural light...

 

John:

Or the backlit, exactly.

 

Savannah: 

You guys are definitely making it work. Are you? Um, are you the main person in charge of like, kind of coordinating everything? Or is there someone else to direct it?

 

John: 

Oh, actually, we have Jason Williams, who is our director has put this together. And he's enlisted the help of one of our technical experts is a film producer in New York, who started out with us and so she knows a lot about the technical aspect of all that. So she's been working very diligently to make it all look good.

 

Savannah:

Yeah, I was gonna say can you definitely like, because this is your first time ever since COVID? Doing virtual events, correct?

 

John: 

Oh, actually, no, we, we we did some early shows in the, in the Oh, I don't know, March, April, May.

And I think the biggest mistake we made on that was not marketing it enough. We did these for our donor base, and just did it on Zoom. And we had four actors who were great at improvisation and they did improvisation on Shakespeare with the audience calling out people like characters to play.

And it was wildly successful and I wish in retrospect that we had marketed out to the entire community.

 

Savannah:

So obviously now having learned that how, what are your guys's marketing strategies? What's the strategy?

 

John: 

Well, absolutely. Let me explain ahead of time that about seven percent of our audience is locally based within western North Carolina, they would be the ones that would actually drive two hours or so to come and see a show. And but about 30% is from out of our market area that is outside of western North Carolina, we've had representation from all over the state, all every state in the country, probably about 15 foreign countries over the last few years.

So we've marketed with, started out with emails to everyone that's on our mailing list. And then we posted it on our social media or Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. And results didn't turn out really well, we, since we have such a very faithful local base with first opportunity on that, and rather than do our normal, wide ranging advertising all over the state in the region, as ever, that we couldn't afford anyway, so much of our income has comes from after show donation.

So what other theaters would refer to or would call ticket sales. So when when you lose 85 to 90% of your revenue. You have to tighten your belt and do what got so creative.

 

Savannah:

We've all got so creative! We're all like finding these little loopholes. And we're just like hanging on, but we're making it.

 

John:

Oh, I know, I'm talking to a friend of mine who runs the equity theatre here in Asheville, and he's saying is really interesting, he's able to get some playwrights that they work with, to allow them to live stream their shows, but he's having problems with actors equity about the getting equity to agree to let the their their their members do a live show.

So it's, it's a back and forth, it's just what it is, our actors are all volunteers. Even though many of them work professionally in other theaters. That is without an equity card, but there's a thriving theatre scene here in western North Carolina, we have about 18 different theatre companies here on ongoing basis, they some will pop up somewhere disappear.

Um, and so actors can find work here fairly regularly. Now, that's not to say it's full time work.

 

Savannah:

Yeah

 

John:

But you don't see that anywhere. You'll go to New York and you go to a restaurant, what do you do? Well, I'm an actor. Yeah, but you're my server. Waiting on a new show, right?

 

Savannah:

Yeah. So so the shows you're putting on now, just I understand that. The performers are all streaming in separately, so no one's going to be together, it's all separate locations.

 

John:

That will ensure social distancing and avoidance of like catching something. Now we did do one show earlier this year, where on we streamed it, but it was actually filmed. There was it was it was a combination of the the, well, the show was the the Trojan Women. So the Greek chorus was live on Zoom. Other parts of the show will film where you will only have two, maybe three at the most characters who had been rigorously tested. Yeah, before they got together. And, and filmed and it was all stitched together and just represented on our YouTube channel. Quite successful, a different way of going about it.

 

Savannah:

Gotcha. Um, I'm probably gonna be watching now cuz I'm just curious to see how it all comes together. It sounds like a really cool production.

 

John:

I'm looking forward to it. Yeah. So one thing I regret from the beginning of this is, is not hiring a 12 year old kid who knows more about doing this than I did.

 

Savannah:

Yeah, they could easily be like, here you go set it up. You're good to go. Yeah, it's definitely a learning curve. I mean, thank goodness, I guess for the internet because there's a answer to everything. There's a video tutorial for everything. So you definitely can make it work. But we have a lot of, we have a lot of play like theater groups that are doing what you're doing. And we also have a lot of DJs that are putting on sets virtually, which is cool. So I did want to ask you, just from your experience of doing this, if there's any like, like you mentioned, the lighting, or any other equipment or tips for putting on like making your video, making your background look better. Does that make sense?

 

John: 

One of the things that our director did was do some research on virtual backgrounds, which apparently you can put together just about any virtual background and have it projected on Zoom. And so he found a number of Victorian style backgrounds. He sent out to the actors and said, choose one or two and make that your virtual background so and of course, the costume as well.

As it just pops up. It's not like they need a green screen or anything. It just pops up.
Many of them don't require a green screen if it if it's one of these, if they have a new computer that's capable, it will generally pop right up right behind them. But in some cases, they will folks like me that have a really old laptop, they say, okay, you probably want to hang a green screen behind you to do

 

Savannah:

Yes, definitely a lot of adjustment. A lot of new equipment. Since we're all stuck at home, we have to like, update what we have. So any any plans yet for this is all this is a hard question. Because every single day, it's like we're getting better. We're getting worse. But for future events, any plans for maybe slowly, like opening or slowly doing outdoor theater?

 

John:

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Oh, yes, a pending of course, the availability of the vaccine and easing of maximum capacity. And that was one of the things that was that hurt us so much, and basically made us closed down was of course, here in North Carolina, we had a very strict lockdown for quite a while. And then when things eased off business could only reopen with like 10 people and then 25 people.

And then finally outdoor events were allowed to reopened but with a maximum of 100. We can't make any money on that. Yeah. So assuming that we can get the state to grade to a more reasonable maximum capacity. We plan to offer a live in person season in 2021, consisting of seven shows back to back over a 26 week period.

Opening May the 7th which will include a world premiere of Grimm's fairy tales written by four local women playwrights. The North Carolina premiere of The Sword in the Stone, the king Arthur legend. Four Shakespeare plays and for Halloween living dead in Denmark, think Hamlet with zombies. Right? So we'll, we'll use temperature checks social distancing proceeding will require audiences to wear the masks are actors wanting to go temperature checks and they'll wear masks backstage. We try to be just as careful as possible. And hopefully, as the year wears on, more people will be able to get a vaccination and things will ease up,

 

Savannah:

I hope. We're all ready.

 

John: 

Well, we first started working on this COVID tests weren't not readily available. So we developed some procedures from the Event Safety Alliance. We bought some thermometers we tested every actor every tech that every volunteer that came in, required them to wear masks, we had gloves for them. Required frequent hand washing 60 distance the whole nine yards. 

 

Savannah:

It's gonna be hard to like reprogram my brain eventually in time, hopefully when we don't have to wear a mask. You know what?

 

John: 

Yes. Well, you know, one of the things I've noticed, and this has happened continuously throughout this pandemic is that our audience members that particularly those that live locally, have been calling and emailing me and saying, "When can you open back up? We miss you all so much. We we've gone through the entire Netflix library."We need to get out. 

 

Savannah: 

Yeah, I it's crazy because obviously we're saying home protecting ourselves but then at the same time there's that mental aspect that's, that's, that's unhealthy. Like, it's, it's going to start getting bad like our mental health because we need those interactions. 

 

John: 

I was on a Zoom meeting last weekend of the alumni from the governor School of North Carolina had about close to 300. Then a couple of them told me he said, you know, you all are the first people we've actually seen outside our house in eight months.

 

Savannah:

Oh, I can't even imagine. I further when you guys do do the events out side, eventually, I've ever thought about doing them. If you still have to do it at capacity. Also, you could also just film it live and stream it live?

 

John:
We can absolutely. And that's going to be that'll be a plan, as long as we have capacity requirements. So right now we've got your max capacity of 1000. And right, at this point, we can put 100 people in the audience. We're hoping that we can get as much as 30% by the time we open in May, and we'll do really well at 30%.

 

Savannah:

Yeah, and then you just need to find that one person, if you want to stream it, that's really good. I'm not like, I'm younger, but I am just telling you like, I just don't understand the streaming world. It confuses me. It's I don't know, like how you can stream videos live. I don't know why it confuses me, but.

 

John: 

Well, one of the things I've been told by the technical experts is that it's much easier. And and it looks better when you have your own YouTube channel, and you can stream it on on YouTube Live, rather than on Facebook Live says it's still some glitches with that.

 

Savannah:

Good tip. Okay and I guess my last question, since you've mentioned, you guys are free events, you. It's based on donations, you guys have a strategy for kind of finding that seeking out that community support online and, and collecting donations or kind of making it easy for your audience to give back to you guys.

 

John: 

We absolutely do. We we always ask for a suggested donation amount, both online. And when we're open posted on site. And we reinforce that on site with a note in our program. And in the curtain speech. We offer multiple ways on site to donate. PayPal, Venmo, just about anything, and we do really well, by the way, when folks donate through Purplepass, that is a wonderful platform, because the average donation per person is about four times what we get at the theater.

 

Savannah:

Oh, I wonder probably because it's it's so easy, like you're already putting in your credit card information or not your credit card information, but you're already going to RSVP and it's there. So that's probably why. Convenience.

 

John: 

Makes a huge difference. So and of course, when we're even if throughout the year, we also do some annual fun drives, mail and by email and social media. And yeah, we use social media a lot on the platforms to get our message out. One of the things that we've started doing this year, has been renting out the theater for other events.

Once we were able to reopen. We've had a number of events there. Oh, the local ballet company did a two performances over Halloween weekend wildly successful for them. They they were ticketed event. And so they just did their tickets ahead of time. And then the another one just said, okay, you know, this is a free event. What's the flat rate? And we negotiated a nice flat rate. And I think we're gonna, we will be continuing that we have a relationship with the music production company. So we had planned to to have music concerts at the amphitheater all year long and that didn't work. But the musicians are rescheduling for next season next year. So that's a good thing.

 

Savannah:

And so currently people that use the venue, are there rules like is there a capacity limit to that?

 

John: 

Yes, we use the same guideline that basically I've told everybody, here's here's what, here's what's required. Um, and then that way it relieves us of liability. And that or reduces our liability the masks, social distancing. Everything else. Bigger events, we require that they name us on their liability insurance policy. It's always a good thing if you're producing or presenting venue as well as a producing venue.

 

Savannah: 

Events are so fun now, because we have all these rules.

 

John:

Oh, absolutely. We had some of them before. But this is just okay "I've got a nice large three ring binder with everything"

 

Savannah: 

Ya, you want to attend, here's the manual. 

 

John: 

Here's how to go. We're all learning to live in this new normal. And it's going to be this way, I think for a while. Eventually, hopefully, we'll get back to doing what we do best. Because to be honest, theater is meant to be experienced alive and in person. It's, it's a different show every night because the actors feed off the audience reaction. And so you can see it online, once or twice? You can see it several times when you stream live and you'll see that noticeable difference, but it's still not the same.

 

Savannah: 

Yeah. I agree. Um, and for the for like other people in your position or other theater groups out there trying to make that transition to online to getting their events out there in some shape, or form? Is there one like, tip that you can give them?

 

John:

I would say, if you've got the funding for it, try not to do it on the cheap. If you're having to do it, like on Zoom, make sure your actors have adequate lighting, many of them know this. Surprisingly, a lot of them actually don't. So, things like what we did, I think we bought these cameras with these Halo lights for like $59 as a good investment for us, because we intend to continue doing virtual programming even when we go back live. Because we've, we've seen how well it is received and we get people that we might not ever see at the theater because they just don't like to travel.

 

Savannah: 

Yeah. That is like, the one like good thing, especially for events, like, it's kind of forced people that were uncomfortable with technology before to go into the streaming side of things. And now they're like, at least from talking to everyone else. A lot of people are like, I did not want to do it and now they're doing it and they're like, Hey, I'm reaching so much more people. And I'm getting a great response. So it's kind of working. 

 

John: 

It's a wonderful marketing tool to be able to not only make present your work to people around the world, but also to drive more people back to your theater when you're live. And in person. So we we are you right? We reluctantly embraced it because we had to, yeah, we've come to the conclusion that it's a great marketing tool for us. So we will continue using it.

 

Savannah:

Yeah, but nothing does be an in person event. 

 

John: 

You're absolutely right. And we hope we can get back to it sooner rather than later.

 

Savannah:

Exactly.

 


 

Video notes and links

Montford Park Players:

About the theater group

Upcoming events 

Facebook 

YouTube

 

Software/equipment for virtual events: 

Zoom 

Zoom backgrounds

YouTube Live

Lighting 

 

Resources for planners: 

Event Safety Alliance

YouTube Live

Accepting donations using Purplepass

Streaming past events

Live streaming expert advice

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