A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Three UK theater students are helping theater go virtual worldwide — and see plenty of opportunity for the future

By Whitney Hale and Mark Mozingo
University of Kentucky

Like most businesses, arts organizations have been scrambling most of 2020 to find new footing during the COVID-19 global pandemic. For many, dropping the curtain on the year, just is not an option. That said, there is a lot to problem-solve for those in the performing arts.

While coronavirus has taken away of lot of opportunities, it has also provided creative types new chances to grow their skillset. This summer, three University of Kentucky students — theatre, English and musical theatre certificate senior Abby Davis, of California, Kentucky; theatre senior Allison “Ali” Ray, of Lexington; and theatre, arts administration, musical theatre certificate and Lewis Honors College senior Chelsea Russell, of Independence, are among those rising to the occasion to find new ways to make the arts possible virtually. The trio are part of a team helping livestream more than 130 pieces of programming for the Women’s Theatre Festival (WTF) based in Raleigh, North Carolina, which runs through Aug. 1.

And their work is not going unnoticed. “I had the great pleasure of working with Ali Ray and Chelsea Russell during the Women’s Theatre Festival as I wore the multiple hats of producer, playwright, director and panelist,” said playwright and actor Christine Toy Johnson. “Ali handled the tech of my short play’s livestream and Chelsea handled the many administrative aspects of my involvement in the festival. I am so impressed with both of them and the grace, professionalism, compassion, kindness, proficiency and attention to detail they bring to every task. I can’t wait to get to work with them both again in the future!”

UK theater students Abby Davis, Ali Ray and Chelsea Russell — taking theater online.

In addition to catching their work with the national festival, Bluegrass audiences can take in the students’ virtual work locally as Davis and Ray lend their talents to Distilled Theatre Company and Studio Players respectively. This past weekend, Ray used skills honed at the Women’s Theatre Festival as the technical production designer streaming Studio Players 10-Minute (virtual) Play Festival.

UK Fine Arts: Tell us about the Women’s Theatre Festival and your involvement.

Chelsea Russell: My official title is executive assistant/WTF conference manager — those are the two hats that kind of stay on my head, but there are some other hats that I’m wearing as well — some of them I’m sharing, but those are the two that I’ve kept.

I started at the end of April, as an arts admin apprentice directly under Artistic Director Ashley Popio, which I used for school credit with UK Arts Admin. The company works with a very small staff, so I was quickly turned into an executive assistant and a conference assistant. While I completed my internship, I’m still on a contract for the rest of summer.

Abby Davis: My main contact with the Women’s Theatre Festival has been Chelsea, who turned me onto the internship. In February I joined an Early Career Professionals’ Facebook group organized by some UK Arts Admin alumni — notably recent grad Logan McDonald. The group was started at the beginning of quarantine as an informal group where recent grads and upperclassmen connect. It’s not exclusively a UK thing though, and people post resources and opportunities for arts admin positions. Chelsea posted about the Women’s Theatre Festival needing arts admin help. I’m a double theatre/English major and have done some freelance writing, so I was very interested. I submitted myself and was brought on as arts admin apprentice where I primarily worked on marketing, copyrighting and proofing. I’m also one of the streaming technicians. 

Ali Ray: I met Jeni Benavides and worked with her at the Woodford Theatre throughout high school. There, I connected with Rowen Haigh, who reached out to me about WTF. She essentially told me to create my position for the festival. I was supposed to move to Raleigh, North Carolina, for the summer, but once COVID-19 hit, I’ve done everything remotely. I kind of transitioned from a traditional stage manager and production assistant role to doing all of that online. As a stage manager with technical theatre experience, it’s been a strong learning curve, but it’s running well now.
I am the technical production manager for WTF. I coordinate all the technical needs for the four tracks. Any streaming content that happens, I’ve created and built an OBS file (Open Broadcaster Software). For all 23 of the Fringe productions, I’ve curated the design layout and hired a team of 12 individuals to be streaming technicians for the festival, who actually stream the content after I built it. We have over 250 hours of content to stream.
UK Fine Arts: What is it like working with a virtual theatre festival? 

Russell: The company already decided to go virtual in the middle of their spring production, “Freakshow” by Carson Kreitzer directed by former UK guest instructor Rowen Haigh. The production started as a traditional, in-person show and had to switch gears to go virtual due to the pandemic.
Ali was already creating the livestream technical system in order to do the show live every night. She needed assistance, so I jumped in and started helping with some administrative work. As soon as the show closed in mid-May, the company went straight into prepping for WTF, which happens July 1–Aug. 1. My email box is very full right now.
Everyone is trying to figure out how to do virtual theatre as we go. The festival is very ambitious — it’s huge. We work every day except for Sundays. There are four tracks — Conference sessions (WTF Con), the Fringe Festival, WTF Family (kids classes, Seed Art share on Fridays, accompanying Parent Coffee Hours) and Festival Fridays, which includes special events, keynote sessions and workshops such as the Anti-Racist Theatre Workshop with Nicole Brewer, Equity In Producing Workshop and The Momversations Project.
UK Fine Arts: Streaming tech — that’s a very 2020 job. Tell us about that.
Davis: It’s something I’m still learning about! We have different “tracks” with WTF —  much of the work I do is encompassed by WTF Con, which consists of a lot of workshops and panels (I participated in a young professionals panel). They have over 250 hours of content between all of the tracks including the Fringe Festival, which happens every Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 a.m. for the month of July. The streaming tech is a paid position — there are 15 of us total and my internship is in addition to that work.
The process has been to ensure that participants have all the proper equipment needed for their session. There’s a general digital literacy required, so it’s been an interesting learning curve, for sure. As a streaming tech, you’re assigned a number of sessions and are responsible for coordinating with the industry professionals who are presenting or teaching the session. For WTF Con, I also coordinate with presenters, assess any technical needs based on the nature of their session, manage the attendees and coordinate session etiquette. For example, I recently did a two-hour writing workshop — I logged onto Zoom with the presenter and we tested audio, etc., before participants entered the room. I also stream sessions to Vimeo, in order to archive each session for people who have bought a full festival pass but are unable to attend.
UK Fine Arts: OK, let’s back up. Ali, what is OBS?
Ray: OBS or Open Broadcaster Software is a free program available online. I use the program to create the virtual streaming productions. I’ll pull the file from a Zoom call and essentially cookie-cutter out each window to load into OBS, where I’ve created a visual layout and lighting for each show. Then I build the production file in OBS — I made a dummy Zoom in the background so that I can modify the shape and size of the source, virtually every feature about it, so that I can modify the looks for the finished product. Each actor has to have their own feed pool in order to modify.
UK Fine Arts: Where did you find the experience with the tech?

Ray: I use OBS at Singletary (Singletary Center for the Arts), where I work under Tanya Harper. Back in March, I had already contracted with WTF for the summer festival and Artistic Director Ashley Popio asked me if I could stream some readings, so I learned how to do it overnight.

Along the way, I’ve picked up certain tips and tricks. It’s a simplistic process once you’re comfortable with it. I also worked with Anthony Buckner, the lighting/technology designer for the May production of “Freakshow,” which was a fully livestreamed production. We built the design for “Freakshow” the same way that the WTF has been created — it’s been a six-month process.
UK Fine Arts: How do you feel livestreaming theatre is working?
Russell: I can’t say what they’re usually like in a typical season, but it’s been wildly successful in terms of audience participation. I wondered “Is anyone going to pay money to watch a livestream?” We could only sell so many seats and sometimes there are as many as 100 people buying tickets to an event — so it’s much higher attendance than I thought.

The great thing about virtual theatre is you can really rely on different people’s networks, and you can rely on people being everywhere. We do post most of our content on our Twitch channel — on a Saturday night, we had 60-70 people watching on Twitch for a pay what you can. The reach is people all over the world — we have people tuning in. We’re reaching people that we wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to connect with.
It’s interesting because a lot of the people from North Carolina assume everyone is participating locally from Raleigh, and there are actually people from all over the country. We have tons of playwrights and actors who are calling in from NYC and one in Hawaii. It’s great that so many artists and performers can reach out to their entire network across the world. 

UK Fine Arts: What do you think the future of virtual theatre is?
Russell: It’s a good substitute and can still be meaningful and artistically fulfilling. Ultimately — it’s only a stopgap — it can only sustain you for so long before you have to be with humans again.

I’ve seen some wonderful virtual theatre and some touching moments — there’s a lot of human connection virtually. I think everybody knows that it’s not quite as rich as it would be as if we were in person. I can’t see many people preferring virtual over in-person theatre, but it’s an important step and process to have in the coming years because things are not getting better in terms of the global pandemic.
Maybe the next step is hybrid theatre. Maybe it’s rehearsed online and then performed in person. I certainly don’t think all of this effort is wasted. We need to figure out how to make art virtually until artists can reconvene in person.

UK Fine Arts: What other takeaways has this experience given you?  
Russell: I think I’m going to have such a wealth of knowledge and understanding of how to run a virtual theatre festival. I’m making connections, gaining experience — this is a unique opportunity to help build what might be the first virtual festival of its kind. And I’m doing it with an organization I’ve never worked with before, it’s been wonderful working to build this thing together.
The best part of the whole experience has been the diversity and inclusion throughout the festival. WTF is focused on gender equality and making sure that women are 50% of everything that’s created. The company is almost entirely made up of women and there’s also such a wealth of representation of all types of artists. They really go out of their way to find people who feel underrepresented in the theatre industry and bring them along. We had a weekend that was essentially a mini-festival where we produced work written by Asian American women and it’s so rich, it’s not something I’ve experienced before.
I’m really excited to bring all of this virtual perspective/knowledge back! I’m a little “Zoomed out” but, I will know a lot about administrating virtual programming. If we have a musical theatre cabaret, for instance, it will be online so I will be able to help produce. I’ve been watching theatre online for months now, and I’ll have a base knowledge. I’m excited to talk it through with my Arts Admin professors in my exit interview. Remote art is going to be huge for the next couple of years — I’m excited to see how it will affect the way we go forward in terms of remote internships.  

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