A photo from WETs COVID-era production of Vote Art Vote. WET is one of four theater companies we spoke to as a part of a virtual discussion on the state of theater in Seattle.
A photo from WET's COVID-era production of Vote Art Vote. WET is one of four indie theater companies we spoke to as a part of a virtual discussion on the state of theater in Seattle. Photo by Maria Manness; Performer featured is Randy Ford

2020 put theater artists and live performers through the wringer. With the year wrapping up, we virtually popped in and took the temperatures of four local theater companies. We pruned these interviews for clarity.

PORK FILLED PRODUCTIONS: Roger Tang (Executive Director)

Van Lang Pham, Kathy Hsieh and Sean Nguyen in Pork Filleds production of The Brothers Paranormal.
Van Lang Pham, Kathy Hsieh and Sean Nguyen in Pork Filled's production of The Brothers Paranormal. Photo by Roger Tang

Do you have any shows coming up?
TANG: No shows until Spring 2021, I think.

However, we just finished up Unleashed 2020, which is our staged reading festival of new works by POC playwrights. Eight new scripts, presented in a new version for the very first time.

To what extent has Pork Filled pivoted to live-streaming, and how has that worked out financially and artistically?
Livestreaming seemed to work out artistically and financially. Our intake was about the same as before. And we were able to do some innovative things that were tailored for virtual theatre; our version of miku, and the gods was uniquely suited for livestreaming. An in-person version would have to use entirely different methods of presentation. It probably helped that we did a lot of staged readings. It adapts well to virtual, and you can really hide scripts in hand very well virtually.

We also were able to do re-presentations of old productions, using archival video of those works, which helped keep a presence, and seemed to have been a nice diversion for folks undergoing the pandemic.

Did you have to lay off staff?
We're all-volunteer, but staff is still hanging around.

When do you expect you’ll start producing in-person shows regularly again?
Not until 2022....even if a vaccine gets distribution in 2021...

WASHINGTON ENSEMBLE THEATRE: Maggie Rogers (Artistic Director) and Erin Bednarz (Producing Director)

How did Vote Art Vote go?
ROGERS: Producing Vote Art Vote was a completely new experience for WET in a multitude of ways, including producing virtually for the first time, experimenting with a brand-new sliding scale ticketing model, and producing work that centered on voices 100% outside of the Ensemble. Vote Art Vote provided a platform for brand new work from local artists across multiple disciplines, which is a large and exciting departure from producing a scripted piece of theatre.

BEDNARZ: Producing digitally removed many of the interpersonal dynamics that 'define' our work as a theatre ensemble—hanging out together during build, watching a set come to life day-after-day, holding community with our audience members in the 12th Ave lobby, or getting to see each person's face before and after they've witnessed something in a dark room of strangers together.

Experimenting with a brand new ticketing model improved the accessibility to our work and placed value on the community whose stories we are calling into our space.

WET isn't shy about taking on a challenge, and we lean in to producing work that feels impossible. However, bringing art to the community has never before included the need to set ticket goals without any market research on ‘pandemic sales’ or what size of audience you can expect for something digital. We were also diligent to ensure everyone involved felt safe and healthy while COVID protocols are changing by the day. We aren't seeing the pay off in the ways we are used to. As an Ensemble that is so used to camaraderie and interpersonal communication, it's taking time for us to adjust.

Let's talk live-streaming. Did you pivot to streaming?
ROGERS: So far WET hasn't done any live-streaming, but we may be experimenting with it in future projects (like our gala on February 20). Our commitment to production is a core company value, and we've been able to articulate that best in digital content that is pre-recorded and edited. But we wouldn't count live-streaming completely out as an option in the future.

Financially we've had to pivot, knowing that while digital art is one of the only ways we can reach audiences right now, there is an abundance of it and only so many hours in a day you want to be glued to a screen. In no way are we able to meet the same ticketing goals as when we are providing an in-person experience, by any means. Making digital art is so different from live art when it comes to production budgeting. That said, the position we are in to be able to experiment and make art at all this year is a privilege.

Are you still in the process of trying out new ways to connect with audiences, or has the experimentation phase more or less stopped, and now you’re just hunkering down and running with what you got?

ROGERS: WET has only just begun our experimentation phase. Part of this process involves coming to terms with how long our inability to produce in-person could last. So in many ways, we are still grieving that. However, it's our hope that as long as we're in this situation we'll continue to ask questions and challenge the form—that's what we're most excited about. You’ll see this at play as we translate our gala experience into the digital realm early next year and collaborate with Cherdonna on a virtual world-premiere this spring.

Have you had to let any staff go?
ROGERS: The circumstances of the virus have not made layoffs a reality for us, as we're a largely volunteer-based organization with a small staff that gets paid in stipends as a mere token of the work they do. We're fortunate no one has had to leave the company in order to prioritize other parts of their life, but that is a reality when our organizational benefits don't include a fair wage.

When do you think you'll produce an in-person show again?
ROGERS: As soon as we're able to do so safely, in a way that feels inclusive for as many folks as possible. Many of the plans to reopen made by the city, the county, or the governor’s office don't fully consider those who are at-risk or immunocompromised to be able to attend an event, and we need to examine what we're saying to those folks should we choose to reopen even though it may not be safe for them. We aren't making any decisions at this time, but are continuing to weigh every factor.

SOUND THEATRE COMPANY: Aimee Chou (PR Manager), Teresa Thuman (Co-Artistic Director), and Aaron Jin (Marketing Manager)

Aishe Keita in Sound Theatre Companys January 2020 world premiere of Darren Canadys REPARATIONS.
Aishe Keita in Sound Theatre Company's January 2020 world premiere of Darren Canady's REPARATIONS. Photo courtesy of Sound Theatre Company

Do you all have any shows coming up?
CHOU: CHANGER: THE STAR PEOPLE was canceled in March, so we released a radio play in November as a way to bring the story to audiences. We are not planning live or in-person productions until Fall 2021—we reserved a theatre venue for that time, but programming for it is TBD.

To what extent has STC pivoted to live-streaming, and did anything work especially well or not well? 
CHOU: STC along with Fern Naomi Renville and Roger Fernandes decided an audio drama/podcast play would be the best fit to reimagine our canceled live production as CHANGER: THE RADIO PLAY. Did the format translate well? Totally. Oral storytelling is a huge part of tribal and indigenous cultures. Fern and Roger explain it a lot more eloquently in this Crosscut article. Without butts in seats, measuring artistic success is different. Sure, we look at analytics like clicks and views, but more importantly, premiering a radio play is a “pivot pilot” to learn from.

JIN: On financials, we adopted Radical Hospitality pricing in 2018 and it has carried through for digital performances. We've shared all of our content for free (with donations encouraged). CHANGER: RADIO PLAY is available to stream without registration. It’s our first foray into digital distribution. This format is easy for people to access and lets us share on many platforms, including Spotify and Apple Podcast. Plus, it gave us a chance to figure out our new CRM/ticketing/fundraising platform. Many theatres have start/end dates for streamed and recorded shows. We've departed from that by choosing to release content indefinitely.

THUMAN: We are not yet sure how to plan for any earned income from our digital offerings. We are anticipating this in our budget planning for 2021, 2022, and beyond.  We will continue to be very dependent on grants and fundraising. Shifting to Radical Hospitality ticket pricing (audiences choose from $5, $25, $50, $75 tiers) in 2018 was very effective in 3 ways:  

1) Average ticket prices actually rose as audiences recognized the value of the work; 
2) We were able to diversify our audiences by eliminating price as a barrier; and 
3) We were able to identify potential supporters for our organization  

Are you still in the process of experimenting with new ways to connect with audiences, or has that phase mostly ended?

CHOU: Honestly, Sound Theatre is always in experimentation mode even pre-COVID. The difference is, it’s digital now. Jay O’ Leary-Woods leads a digital arts task force as we learn new storytelling tools and techniques. We’re certainly hunkering down internally - like transitioning to new CRM system and diving into anti-racist work ("We See You W.A.T" discussions are held at meetings weekly). 

Have you had to let go of any staff?

CHOU: No. Not only did we add two staffers, we have huge news: our associate artistic director Jay O' Leary Woods is advancing to a new co-artistic director role alongside founding A.D. Teresa Thuman. STC also paid out stipends of all artists cast/hired for postponed productions. 

THUMAN: Adding staff as part of our multi-year professionalization plan (moving from a volunteer to paid staff) has been absolutely essential during this time of working online and in a digital capacity. We’re working to create as many paid opportunities for artists as we possibly can—including hiring them as paid consultants for ongoing equity work and deepening our mission to empower artists. In 2020, over half of our budget went directly to artists, even in these challenging times. That’s something to be proud of at any time.  

When do you think it'll be safe for you to produce another in-person show?
THUMAN: We have a theatre reserved for October 2021, so we will see. Your guess is as good as ours. Details to follow as we learn about progress of rules for gatherings.

THEATRE BATTERY: Logan Ellis (Director)

One of Theatre Batterys YouTube short films, When Doubt Comes Knocking by Charles Hawkins. The image featuring Charles Hawkins and Chyleah Hawkins.
One of Theatre Battery's YouTube short films, When Doubt Comes Knocking by Charles Hawkins. The image featuring Charles Hawkins and Chyleah Hawkins. YouTube screenshot

How are you all doing?
ELLIS: With our performance space being donated by Kent Station, we weren't hit with a major financial burden through the cancellation of our season. Instead, after lengthy discussions within the company, we shifted production entirely into film/YouTube projects and also participated in the making of a documentary about Kent's political and community response to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter discourse through the summer. We're developing a stop motion animated series (using LEGOs) about transphobia and Harry Potter, and also an interview-based exploration of the lives of the victims of the Green River Killer. 

Creative morale was extremely low over the summer, but we have started to collect more momentum through baby steps into our web projects that don't require strict timelines for the artists.

How have those film/YouTube projects been received by the community—do you get much in the way of feedback? Have they been working out okay financially?

We're learning that it's trickier to gauge the effectiveness of YouTube/Facebook videos in comparison to live shows, but the feedback from our core supporters has been thoughtful and warm. View counts, likes, and a comments section don't exactly indicate engagement in the same way that you can feel when sitting with an audience in the same room. Though the number of views listed (especially on facebook) would count up to much more than the numbers we would have sitting in the theater, it is much less clear to see how the material is being received. Since we're still figuring out how to optimize audience experiences online, we're more intent on the fulfillment of the artists, safety and flexibility of our process, and the development of new skills. 

As a somewhat grassroots Kent organization using Radical Hospitality and focused outreach, social media has never been the best way to get audiences into our space. It is now the primary channel to get our material seen, and we're on a learning curve. With Facebook, we have run into the challenge that we cannot reach all our followers (around 1,000 people) without paying Facebook to boost posts. This wouldn't be an issue, except that we have artists creating material about Black Lives Matter and other political topics, and those pieces get flagged by the algorithm and cannot be boosted. We're reaching into our network for advice on our web presence, and I think many other theater makers are in similar positions. These are the kinds of obstacles that seasoned YouTubers and film creators have learned to manage, but we are just starting out in this experiment, and so our web audience will grow as we learn how to best promote and deliver the material.

Financially, the production of the short films has been affordable and everyone has been paid, especially since the commitment of time and physical resources is much less than would be for a play. We had grant funding in the bank going into the beginning of this year, and even with another series of 10-12 YouTube videos currently in the works, we're still well under what our annual operating budget would be for the creation of a live production. We have lost the income that would have been made from anonymous individual donors attending live events, but since we haven't charged for tickets in the last six years, the hit is not substantial. Our recurring donors and granting organizations have been supportive through the pandemic, but any plans to grow the budget this year have been put on indefinite hold.

About how many company members are you working with? And have any had to take a step back during this time?

Our core staff has 5 active members working as volunteers or on stipend pay, with the designers and technicians among us mostly taking the year off from participation. We have several associates and members that have experienced health, family, and mental trauma this year, and so we have been operating with a very relaxed schedule on each project and focusing on being a source of healthful creative release.

When do you expect to produce another live production?

As for live productions, we will be working on a consensus basis with our core artists and in solidarity with the regulations set by the City of Kent, the unions, and regional theaters. Other than that, we are buckled in for the long winter!

This Slog post is part of State of the Arts, a new series that looks at the ways Seattle's arts communities are dealing with our darkest winter. Check Slog daily for fresh updates.