Friday, December 04, 2020

The future of the performing arts is digital. Marquee TV has a major head start.

Jun 22. 2020
The English National Ballet in Akram Khan's
The English National Ballet in Akram Khan's "Giselle." MUST CREDIT: (Laurent Liotardo/Marquee TV.
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By The Washington Post · Sarah L. Kaufman 

With uncanny timing, MarqueeTV, a performing-arts streaming service, debuted in this country in February. None of its leaders could have predicted the global crisis to come, but the bittersweet irony is that it created ideal conditions for Marquee's high-definition dance, theater and opera offerings, available on demand.

Given the shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, the novel coronavirus pandemic "has been a game-changer," says Marc Kirschner, a Marquee founder and head of product and innovation. March and April saw a five- to sixfold spike in subscriptions, he says.

Yet what Marquee's team knew long before the virus outbreak, and believe even more fervently now, is this: The future of the performing arts is digital.

And if U.S. arts groups want to survive the coronavirus crisis and beyond, they need to focus on getting their work online, those at the streaming service say - because American artists have fallen far behind their peers overseas.

"Doing digital isn't a quick-fix Band-Aid for anyone," says Kathleya Afanador, Marquee's co-founder and head of content. "It's a fundamental layer of their overall business that needs to be prioritized."

Marquee launched in the United Kingdom in 2018, offering handsomely filmed performances from such international venues as London's Royal Opera House, Moscow's Bolshoi Theater and the Opéra National de Paris. It works much like a Netflix or Amazon account, with subscribers having access to a wide range of performances and documentaries on the arts. (Subscriptions cost $4.99 weekly, $8.99 monthly and $89.99 annually, with a current discounted rate of $62.99 a year.)

Kirschner declined to give an exact subscriber figure, but said it's in the tens of thousands, mostly across the United States and the United Kingdom. The site is available in about 20 countries.

Among Marquee's offerings are such large-scale classics as the Bolshoi Ballet's "Coppelia" and "Swan Lake" and the Royal Shakespeare Company's graffiti-splashed "Hamlet" starring Paapa Essiedu. Experimental works are equally represented, including avant-garde director Robert Wilson's multigenre "Adam's Passion."

Marquee officials describe the shows they offer as "high-quality captures," produced using multiple cameras and led by directors experienced in bringing stage performances to the screen. In most cases, Marquee has gained the rights to air existing films, though it plans to increase its commissioning of films by helping to fund and produce them. On Friday, Marquee launched its first commissioned project - Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young's dance-theater work "Revisor," based on a farce by Nikolai Gogol and filmed shortly before the pandemic-related shutdowns.

"These aren't just archived films of live performances. It's a very sophisticated operation," says Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has several recently filmed plays available on Marquee (as well as on other British streaming services).

"The challenge for us was to create a language that suited each production. Not just get the cameras onstage and get the sound right," Doran says, "but to make them stand out as pieces of art in their own right."

On June 13, Marquee aired its first live-streamed event since the shutdowns: a danced duet and music performances from London's Royal Opera House, minus the audience. Another will air on Saturday.

This is all good news for arts-starved viewers who are hungry for great works and fresh adaptations.

It also reveals what Marquee officials see as a big problem for the performing arts in the United States: They lag dangerously far behind those abroad in having a digital strategy.

"They've ignored it, to be really honest," Kirschner says. "To have a digital focus was just pushed aside. It was, 'This is not a priority for us.' "

Marquee's catalogue includes many American artists and companies showcased in gorgeous presentations - including Bill T. Jones, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the New York City Ballet. But in most cases, these works were filmed overseas by well-equipped production companies, in London, Paris, Madrid and other international cities.

Kirschner points to the example set by Arts Council England, a government-funded agency that promotes the performing, visual and literary arts.

"It started demanding digital mandates 15 years ago for their arts organizations," he says. "That grew into a production subsidy fund, to support the creation of great art, make it accessible, center it on equity and sustainability. They see digital as the solution for all of that.

"In the U.S., it's been an inversion. Everybody's been focusing on different priorities, and they see digital as a subset."

It's an age-old lament: American arts groups don't enjoy the luxuries of their peers across the pond with their greater state-supported benefits, which even include a solid digital strategy. According to Kirschner, agreements with stakeholders, including unions, often can be a complication for U.S. organizations seeking to make digital recordings.

Yet while a solution for these groups is not easily at hand, the argument that the performing arts here need to power up online is potent, especially now.

As shuttered arts groups have seen their income streams vanish and are scrambling to stay on funders' and the public's radars so they can survive until theaters reopen, a lack of recorded content is a problem. How do these groups make their work known to people staying home?

For a sector that depends on people leaving their homes, what if people don't do so for a very long time?

"Arts organizations are gasping for oxygen right now," says Alonzo King, founder of the San Francisco-based LINES Ballet. Several of his fluid, vigorous and deeply musical works are featured on Marquee, which he's happy about since the public's reluctance to gather in theaters could be long-lasting.

"So we have to change how we do things in America," King says. "For every organization involved in theater, the dream is two things: to return to that humanity" - performers and audiences in the same physical space - "but also to always have a digital presence as well."

King says he receives no direct financial benefit from having his ballets on Marquee. A foreign production company filmed the works (with King's consent) while the LINES Ballet was on tour in Europe. "Eight-camera shoots," King says, "so meticulous and well-crafted." The Marquee deal is with the outfit that produced them. King gave his blessing to including them in the streaming service's catalogue, and says he considers it good exposure as well as a public service.

"It's a library, a bank, for people who would not otherwise see these works," he says.

"Why shouldn't everyone have access to see art?" King adds. "We are producing ballets nonstop. And you can't hold everything in. You have to dare. That's part of how you connect."

As theaters remain closed, many arts groups have been posting what videos they have on their websites or YouTube channels. But as newsrooms discovered 20 years ago in awkward, ill-prepared migrations from print to digital, a hasty effort with limited reach isn't a great strategy.

Marquee wants to help.

"It's really about growing the digital operation for these companies that so badly need it," Kirschner says. He points to a key reason arts groups need to put their work online: accessibility. It's a way to invite and hook potential ticket buyers.

"In streaming, we're giving them that experience in a risk-free environment, to sample an artist they didn't know before," he says. "If someone likes wine, they need to be able to sample and experiment. That's not accessible to lots of people at $100 a ticket or more. And what if tickets are sold out or there's only lousy seats or they don't have time that evening? The additional burdens are massive.

"The future is live and digital collaborations," he adds. "We're an extension of what live organizations do, not a replacement."

The idea Kirschner and Afanador are promoting to arts groups is this: If Marquee viewers discover and fall in love with, say, Mark Morris's sumptuous interpretation of the Handel oratorio "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato" (filmed while the Mark Morris Dance Group was touring in Spain), maybe they'll buy tickets to a live show by the Brooklyn-based group when it comes to their city.

Or, since "L'Allegro" is listed on the Marquee site as part of the "Joyce Theater Collection" - a listing of works by groups that have performed at that New York venue - maybe viewers who like what they see will attend an event at the Joyce next time they're in Manhattan.

Kirschner says Marquee also aims to share anonymized data on who's tuning in.

"Presenters working with smaller, contemporary companies are perfectly suited to take advantage of our marketing and data collection, to put people back in their theaters," he says.

Linda Shelton, the Joyce Theater's executive director, says her staff worked with Marquee to curate a list of Joyce-affiliated artists from those already featured on the streaming service.

"We want to do everything in our power," she says, "to stay in the public eye."

There may be benefits to come, she adds. What if theaters, when they reopen, can sell only half their seats? "If you're getting your work out there virtually, maybe that's the other half," Shelton says.

Perhaps, she suggests, Joyce subscribers could mirror newspaper subscribers, with their access to print and digital versions. For the Joyce, an annual package might include theater tickets plus a digital membership to Marquee.

One thing seems clear: Arts groups appear to have gotten past the initial fear - which feels antiquated at this point, to be sure - that putting work online would take away from ticket sales. No one interviewed for this story expressed concern that streaming "The Barber of Seville" or "The Merchant of Venice" would harm the box office.

"Cinema didn't take away from theater, and telly didn't take away from cinema," says Doran, of the RSC. "Nothing replaces the experience of seeing a live actor on a live stage."

Marquee's RSC Collection, he adds, is "a big advert to make your way to Stratford-upon-Avon and see it live."

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