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Oct. 23, 2020: On Tomorrowland

Good day, 

Mixed in all the news of the past few weeks was one that really didn’t have to do with not-for-profit cultural and performing arts organizations but one I felt was very telling.

It was about Disney.

And no, it wasn’t about its struggles with its theme parks and cruises and its Broadway theaters. I was drawn to the story in The Hollywood Reporter that looked at Disney’s pivot to streaming. The successful mega-corporation that brought us “Tomorrowland” so many years ago — and which has survived nearly a century as a leading entertainment brand — appears to be bracing for a different sort of future.

"Managing content creation distinct from distribution will allow us to be more effective and nimble in making the content consumers want most, delivered in the way they prefer to consume it,” said new Disney CEO Bob Chapek.

Writes Hamza Mudassir in The Conversation: “What this means is that Disney will be reducing its focus from (and potentially the investments routed to) theme parks, cruises, cinema releases and cable TV. From a corporate strategy perspective, the move is remarkable on two fronts. Firstly, the sheer velocity of this pivot for a company the size and age of Disney is, for lack of a better word, unprecedented….The fact that in just seven months of the pandemic breaking out, Disney decided to reinvent itself primarily around streaming speaks volumes about its expectations regarding the pandemic length. Clearly the group decided that waiting it out was no longer an option.”

Even if some sort of vaccine is available in 2021, it’s unlikely to counter fears and concerns. Our surveys show that audiences won’t be rushing back right away in full force and would gradually, cautiously, return and it’s not clear exactly when the numbers return to pre-covid levels. On-line product, streaming and alternative outdoor options will certainly be part of the landscape for not only this “asterisk season,” as I’ve been calling it for the past seven months, but the indefinite and perhaps permanent future.

Zoom, for one, is certainly hearing the distant drums of on-line engagement and are looking at ways to monetize it. Writes Igor Bonifacic in : “So it should come as no surprise Zoom plans to capitalize on that trend. The company has started beta testing a new service called OnZoom that allows Zoom users to host and monetize online events.” 

But arts and cultural groups are looking at their own on-line needs and alternatives to the Zoom model that will address artistic and audience needs as never before. Audience Outlook Monitor's Ron Evans writes in Arts Professional: “What would things look like if the performing arts had a software platform of their own? What might a ‘Zoom’ for the performing arts look like?”

Sometimes these new works, new platforms, new ways of presenting not only connect with audiences but can actually make money. 

Take a recent show in California. Jessica Gelt, an arts journalist for The Los Angeles Times, writes: “Is box-office magic even a thing during the coronavirus pandemic? It is when the show stars a sleight-of-hand master who can perform jaw-dropping tricks, erase the sense of isolation for theater-starved audiences — and sell more than 6,000 tickets for a single evening on Zoom. The show is called ‘The Present,’ the magician is Helder Guimarães and the theater that captured lightning in a pandemic bottle is the Geffen Playhouse, which launched its Geffen Stayhouse banner to keep audiences digitally engaged after COVID-19 closed theaters nationally.”

The Stayhouse initiative is exploring interconnectedness in a wide range of ways that is true to its mission, lifts the spirits of audiences during dismal times and just sounds like fun.

Sometimes innovation can even come by mail.

Other creatives from New York’s The Orchard Project launched the Liveness Lab to brainstorm with artists to find ways storytelling could expand beyond live-streamed video platforms. American Theatre reports one result with Artistic Stamp, “an immersive theatre experience that connects far-flung playwrights, actors, and audiences via handwritten correspondences over the course of four months. ‘We’re all trying to find out what are these new forms that we can create theatre in, and how can we create something that’s really interactive and exciting,’ says [director West] Hyler. ‘The fun thing about plays by mail is the history of snail mail art, but I think in terms of theatre, it’s relatively new.’ ”

And yes, there is fresh, good art being made. My favorite critic, Helen Shaw writing for New York magazine went ga-ga over a recent work: “Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley’s berserker comedy ‘Circle Jerk’ is a coup. Filmed and broadcast live with multiple sets, a trillion costume changes, and an aesthetic of relentless stimulation, it’s the first digital production I’ve seen that’s a true, non-sterile hybrid of theater and film. ‘Circle Jerk’ was born for the online environment, suckled on the dankest basement memes, an overstimulated baby of the present moment. For once, here’s a digital-theatrical performance that wouldn’t be better in person.”

So it’s not just bleak times but creative and watershed times, too, with plenty of artists stepping up and stretching the concept of what theater is, what it is to be live, even what it is to be a member of an audience, as Vinson Cunningham writes in The New Yorker: “...something else, perhaps even more important for the future of the art, is happening, too: we are undergoing a worldwide reconstrual of what it means to be a member of the crowd.”

Tomorrowland just may be closer than we think.

— Frank Rizzo


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