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The Top Ten Things I’ve Learned from Going Digital: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Zoom

Now that we’re careening toward the one-year anniversary of all us having to learn that our faces look best when a ring of light is aimed at them, I thought it might be a good time to take stock and figure out what exactly I’ve learned and which mistakes I’ve made when it comes to taking the oldest “you really had to be there” industry, namely theater, into the digital age.

This is in no way an exhaustive list, although I am exhausted.

It is also not meant to come from a place of “Here are the things you should have been doing, other theater people” as much as it is “Look at everything I learned after I did everything wrong four or five times over.”

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That aside, the mantra that I wrote down on a Post-It note last March that I almost immediately lost had one sentence written on it–

“Every crisis presents opportunities.”

In this instance, it was the opportunity to watch all of “Drag Race: Holland” and learn to say five different words in French.

Plus, I took my theater online.

In no particular order, here are the 10 things I learned from going digital–

10.  It took a pandemic to make me stop paying lip service to accessibility and really think about it.

Everything we’ve done up to now on my theater’s social media platforms has been free. We also have a service where you can sign up, and give us money, and we give you some cool content, and baptize your children, but other than that — all free.

And while the refrain I heard as we began taking programs online was “But is anybody watching this?” I was watching the numbers, and the answer was–

Yes.

And not only were they watching, whoever “they” are, but they were watching in bigger numbers than would have watched a play in a theater. It’s amazing that someone like me, who saw nothing wrong with performing a one-man show about Herbert Hoover for an audience of 10, suddenly felt like there wouldn’t be enough eyes on a digital production for it to be “worth it for me.”

The biggest takeaway was that while we were reaching people from all over the country, and in some cases Japan (?), the most surprising thing was hearing from local people who had no experience with our theater previous to the pandemic, but were now familiar with us and watching what we were doing.

When I reached out to a few of those people and did the standard “I hope you’ll join us when we’re back in the theater even though we’ll need you to wear a mask and sit inside a plastic bubble,” those people confessed that they never considered seeing live theater. In most cases, it wasn’t because they weren’t interested, but because they consider it a luxury. Something they can’t afford, or an outing that wouldn’t be welcoming to them because their idea of a person who goes to the theater doesn’t resemble them.

We clearly have a lot more work to do, and not just finding ways to get all kinds of people from all levels of the economic spectrum into the theater, but making them feel like they belong there. There’s more to say on that, but it’s probably best addressed in another essay that’s too long and features way too many commas.

9.  Shorter Is Better

I’m not just talking about French emperors. When “all this” (my preferred term for the worldwide trauma we’re still very much in) started, there was an impulse on all sides to rush to that obvious audience favorite — a reading. I don’t know how so many of us forgot, myself included, that while sitting in a theater and watching people read can be somewhat boring, sitting at a laptop while watching it feels like a nightmare dreamed up by Rod Serling. And boy, oh boy, did some of us pick some lengthy nightmares. There are plays out there that can be read in an hour’s time, but apparently, those were all uninteresting to us in March and April, and instead, we opted for perennial mood-lifters like The Lower Depths and Mourning Becomes Electra. My favorite experience was attempting to watch a bunch of A-list actors perform a Mamet play on Zoom, only seeming to realize, in real time, that cross-talk doesn’t work so well on Zoom, and Mamet is, aside from being a colossal prick, really into cross-talk. You would assume that in the age of TikTok and Insta-stories that we’d understand people want less not more, but then again, Quibi failed miserably, so what do I know? I think the point is, at least if you plan on doing something brief and it doesn’t work, it’ll be over soon. If you start reading Long Day’s Journey Into Night and you realize your mistake early on, you’re still in for a very long night.

8.  Everyone Is Available

Some of the people I’ve gotten to agree to talk to me on my theater’s interview show are people I’m assuming I never could have gotten during normal times. It took me way too long to figure out that NOBODY IS DOING ANYTHING. The fact that most of the guests are also very kind people doesn’t hurt, but scheduling sure is easy when there’s absolutely nothing going on. Initially, I was only asking the people I regularly work with, and then a very bright person, who I no longer speak to because interacting with bright people is bound to lead to insecurity, suggested that I try expanding my range of guests. So I started reaching out to friends in far away places, then strangers, then strangers in far away places, and I’m sure, at some point, this will all lead me to Angela Lansbury. I can’t wait.

7.  Give Out Your Passwords

If you had told me a year ago that I would willingly give out the passwords to my social media pages to 10 different people, I would have assumed that it was under duress, like, I don’t know, perhaps I’d be kidnapped or Channing Tatum was blackmailing me with that video of me at his 27th birthday party (it’s hardly the worst anybody’s behaved at an Outback Steakhouse). It turns out that when you need a wonderful, talented, generous group of artists to create content for you, the easiest way for that to happen is to loosen up on the reins and let them have as much agency as possible. While I think nearly anybody in charge of anything prefers to keep as many cards close to the chest as possible, it’s so much easier to put them down on the table. (I don’t play cards, so I have no idea if this analogy is working. The point is, learn to give up some control.)

6.  It’s Okay to Be Silly

Some of the programming we’ve created over the past year has been frivolous. Goofy. Nonsensical. And that’s on top of posting tweets about dogs that look like Paddington and people who dip their french fries in milkshakes (I know, I gagged as well). Somewhere along the way, I came to believe that theater was a very serious thing that needed to, at all times, convey its seriousness. Yes, we could be irreverent, but at no time could we be silly. The trouble is, when a plague is sweeping the land and all you have at your disposal are memes, silly goes a long way. Silly actually tripled my engagement on our digital platforms, and, I don’t know, it just feels good? It feels like playing. Remember playing? Being at play? Maybe we can go back to that. I forgot how much fun it is.

5.  Everything Is Going to Go Wrong and Then It’s Going to Go Worse

For a while, I was one of those people who strove for perfection, like Martha Stewart or every character Reese Witherspoon plays. When I started curating digital content, I was immediately taken aback by how many errors I was expected to just brush off. People on mute when they were supposed to be talking. Bad Internet connections. Shoddy video. Videos that wouldn’t upload. Disappearing posts. The choice was: Either learn to live with all this and assume people are cutting you more slack than you’re cutting yourself, or give up. I’m glad I didn’t give up. Theater was never perfect, not even at its best. Why should this iteration of it be?

4.  Audio Is Your Friend

I think that when losing a very visual medium, it’s understandable to try and recapture the spirit of that medium as much as you can, which, to many, meant video programming. But, oh my god, video is so awful. It is so, so awful. And difficult. And audio–

Again, podcasts are so popular.

They’re so, so popular, and I listen to at least six a day, and somehow, it didn’t occur to me until MONTHS into the pandemic that maybe we could do audio programming as well as video programming, and things immediately got easier. Like, overnight. Sound is your friend, everyone. Maybe your best friend. Have you called your best friend? Give them a call. See how they’re doing. But first–

3.  Try Everything

We’re told that branding and sticking to a mission and having a cohesive look and style is important, and it is, or rather, it was, before the entire world got turned upside down and we threw all the rules into a bonfire along with all that sourdough bread we made, but couldn’t bear to eat. So just try everything. A lot of what we’re able to do now, we’re able to do at a much lower cost than what the productions we usually mount require, and the stakes are so low, they may as well be at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, so just throw a bunch of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. If you try out 10 digital programs, and one really connects, never talk about those other nine failures, and hope everybody forgets about them.

2.  Remember Those Talented, Wonderful, Generous People I Mentioned Before?

I’ve never seen a theater that didn’t have at least two brilliant people working at it, and so while it may seem like the only people who should be creating content right now are artistic directors, actors, and that guy who stands outside the theater selling Hall and Oates t-shirts (Is that just my theater? Ugh, okay. Great. Gotta figure that out before we reopen.), the truth is that there might be people throughout your organization who have interests and hobbies and passions that they want to share with others. And what a great opportunity (there’s that word again) to showcase the many different personalities that populate your theater, and hopefully they don’t all exist within the head of the t-shirt guy (I really need to check in on Gary). We all talk about how we can get the general public invested in the lives of artists and their well-being, and the first step would be giving them every chance to get to know us as people who have lives and homes and bills just like everyone else. Again, give out those passwords. Then write down what they are, because you’ll never remember, and neither will anybody else.

1. Take Yourself Off Mute

Need I say more?

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