Taking Risks: Now Is the Time to Tackle Your Most Challenging Project
“Welcome to the first music rehearsal! We’re going to try running through the harmonies, and see how it goes.”
A lump formed in my throat. Multiple rewrites, scrapped production plans, and endless phone calls debating the pros and cons of the approach had brought us to this moment: attempting to rehearse the harmony-heavy score for CROSSOVER, a musical that follows the contestants of a TV talent competition, entirely remotely over web conferencing software.
I tensed in my home office chair as the assistant music director counted in the cast of actor-singers. Would it work?
I’ll spare you the unpleasant description of the resulting cacophony by simply saying: No, it didn’t. But we never expected it to. As soon as the unsynchronized harmonies poured out of my speakers, I breathed a sigh of relief.
The cast laughed, breaking the ice. More importantly, the experiment proved what we’d actually planned for: the need to schedule extra rehearsal time so that each cast member could learn their harmonies individually.
If we had known that producing a high-concept, interactive musical during the pandemic would require as many course corrections, last-minute adjustments and technological creativity as it did when we first started the project, there’s no way we would have approached it with the same level of enthusiasm.
In fact, we probably wouldn’t have even tried to produce it at all.
But tackling that project —the big, daunting one that’s been sitting on your list, with a question mark next to it, for ages — is actually one of the best things any creator can do right now. If we hadn’t chosen to create a version of this show at this particular point in time, we would have missed out on several highly unique features of the current producing landscape that may actually never occur again.
And all of these features are conducive to work that takes risks, in terms of both form and content.
A disrupted market can mean a more level playing field.
Even prior to COVID-19, it was no small feat to entice someone to spend a night out on the town when a $12.99 subscription gets them access to — quite literally — billions of dollars worth of content from the comfort of their couch. Yet, with numerous live entertainment venues shut down indefinitely, suddenly even those Broadway producers and concert presenters who would have clutched their pearls at the prospect of streaming before have pivoted to online presentations. But since remote streaming, and other hybrid theater forms, are largely untested areas for everyone, the playing field has been leveled in ways that it never has been before — and probably never will be again.
Digital theater doesn’t have to mean “Zoom Reading”
While much has (rightfully) been made about the post-COVID potential of “Zoom readings” to replace costly workshops, since they allow the cast, producers and other participants to take part from any location, there is also a virtually infinite number of other forms your project can take when unconstrained by geographic location. As a theater creator whose background is primarily in TV/Film and new media, the form-stretching possibility of digital theater is the risk-conducive feature of the current environment that I’m most excited about.
In the case of CROSSOVER, these affordances are exactly what allowed us to incorporate an interactive audience voting component that, while virtually painless to create online, would have been significantly more challenging to implement in-person. Other options for interactivity could include choose-your-own adventure clickthrough experiences. Outside of the interactive possibilities, for musicals in particular, podcasts offer the same cost and geographic advantages as works filmed remotely, but with even fewer space-related constraints — and an established distribution framework (Spotify, Stitcher, etc.) for continuing to build the audience for the piece after the premiere.
The craving for community is at an all-time high.
And theater is better positioned than other forms of streaming content to deliver it. Social distancing is entirely necessary right now, and the resulting sense of social isolation is real. Unlike film and TV, theater is a medium built around the real-time needs, desires and participation of the audience.
The promise that anything could happen — the inherent risk of live theater — is what kept pre-pandemic audiences coming to shows even when they could have easily found a dozen other ways to entertain themselves with a screen instead. While replicating that same sense of risk is, undoubtedly, difficult without having people sharing the experience in the same physical space, injecting risk via the concept or form of the digital work can help to supplement the excitement of a shared communal experience in which memorable mishaps and improvisations are always a possibility.
The press and producers are stuck at home, too.
While arts journalists often have to choose between seeing multiple shows they’re offered tickets to on a given night, and will always have more ticket offers than they’re able to accept, asynchronous forms of digital theater can help to remove this dilemma. Plus, these extremely important stakeholders in the production process are just as invested in restoring a healthy post-COVID arts sector as creators are, and therefore more likely to advocate for the work that is happening in the interim.
The same goes for producers or other potential partners with whom you might want to connect. While everyone’s trying to plan for what’s next, chances are they are much more available now than they will be once the industry returns to (something approaching) business as usual. An invitation to a unique and challenging project could easily be the best way to start valuable conversations with people whose time is usually at a much higher premium. If there was ever a time to not be afraid to reach out, it’s now.
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