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Virtual Events A Big Experiment For Performing Artists

Verb Ballets turned to online performances for its 2020-21 season. [Verb Ballets]
Ballet dancers in masks perform for a online stream.

Ben Gage, like many other performers these days, talks to his fans over the internet instead of in a music club.

The Akron musician started regular online sessions when the pandemic hit. And with no end in sight, performing online is a growing trend.           

“It's so up and down, I think, because it's such a new space for so many of us. It's just something we kind of have to take day by day,” Gage said. “And there's so much trial and error.”

Part of the trial and error is figuring out what gear to use and how to make money from digital performances. Gage started by asking for donations, basically putting out an online tip jar.

“But it's just not a sustainable model,” he said.

Gage is now exploring private video streams and charging for admission.

“If a musician is giving their time and talent, I think that they deserve to be paid,” he said.

Akron musician Ben Gage performs online during the pandemic. [Ben Gage Sessions / YouTube]

Verb Ballets needs to make money from virtual shows and will perform online until at least February, according to producing artistic director Margaret Carlson.

“The challenge is we don't have any extra, you know, money laying around for this,” Carlson said.

The Shaker Heights-based dance company ultimately invested in new equipment in order to perform online. Patrons pay for access to the live video performances.     

“It's the only way that we will survive. We have no choice. It's either shut down or adapt,” she said.

Recent streams attracted audiences from other states and countries and garnered some large donations, well above the suggested $10, Carlson said.  

Verb Ballets dancers perform in masks and online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. [Jackie Sajewski / Verb Ballets]

There’s growing competition for audience attention as more artists and organizations enter the virtual performance space.

According to a national Culture Track survey conducted early in the pandemic, 53 percent of respondents had participated in at least one online cultural activity, such as a streaming performance. Only 13 percent paid for digital access.

On Cleveland’s West Side, the Bop Stop is experimenting with online performances, too. Beyond the technical setup, marketing video streams is another challenge. 

“It seems like the strategy is find as many organizations and people that can share your stream so that it reaches the most amount of people. And then your donations are exponentially greater,” said Gabe Pollack, director of the music venue. 

Gabe Pollack introduces an online performance at the Bop Stop featuring Rob Picard and quintet. [Bop Stop]

Pollack teamed up with music festivals and venues in other cities, like Pittsburgh and New York, to collectively alert fans of their virtual concerts.

After adding necessary video equipment at the club, with the help of a grant, Pollack said he can also rent the space to musicians looking to record their own online sessions.

“We've always offered the club as a studio, and now that we have the cameras we can add this visual component,” he said.

Lexy Lattimore (above), Mary-Francis R. Miller (below) in Cleveland Public Theatre’s virtual reading of excerpts from "Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation." [Cleveland Public Theatre]

Area actors have been performing online for the last few months with Cleveland Public Theatre. While the online streams aren't moneymakers, they are a way to engage with people and continue the theater’s mission, said executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan.

“As artists we're driven. There's some hunger or drive inside of us to connect,” he said.

Many of Cleveland Public Theatre's video performances require a donation of at least $1 for access. Using Zoom technology, the actors have been able to actually see their online audiences.

“The way it works is we ask people, that if they're comfortable, to turn their cameras on when they come in, and then once the show starts everyone's camera gets turned off,” Bobgan said.

Without sets, costumes and stage lighting, the online performances aren’t quite like an in-person production. Cleveland Public Theatre plans to enhance the visual aspects of future online shows. It’s been a learning process, with some encouraging moments.

“Audience members have reflected that ‘it felt like you are performing just for me.’ And that's been really beautiful,” he said.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.