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St. Louis arts groups went online during the pandemic. Now they’re staying there

Jeremy D. Goodwin
In a room tucked away in Powell Hall, David Torretta, Audrey Kwong, Maria Fette and Sandy King prepare to capture a concert with eight remote-controlled cameras. St. Louis Symphony Orchestra began offering videos of concerts online when the coronavirus pandemic restricted audience capacity.

On an upper level of Powell Hall, behind a spot where ushers stand and greet audience members, there is a nondescript door marked “Firehose Room.”

Behind it is a narrow space with a high ceiling where, on a recent Friday night, a four-person crew huddled to capture the concert on high-definition video, operating eight cameras by remote control.

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra started offering concert streams and online education programs when the coronavirus pandemic made gathering in person unsafe. Capacity restrictions are now long gone, but the organization will create more online offerings next season.

Many other organizations took their programming online early in the pandemic, in what they saw as a short-term, emergency measure that falls short of the in-person experience.

Then they found online programming offers its own advantages and can draw huge audiences. Many arts leaders, once skeptical of online programming, now plan to continue it even after pandemic restrictions go away.

'It was an emergency' 

Many arts educators initially saw digital programming as a poor substitute for in-person work with students. But they found the new programs reached much larger audiences, making it possible for young people in rural areas of Missouri and far beyond, or who lack reliable transportation, to participate.

“We were all in territory that we had no idea how to handle. It was an emergency, to come up with this material,” said Allison Felter, director of education and engagement for Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Opera Theatre finished its in-progress education programs online in spring 2020, as a last resort. Then it began planning ways to use online technology to its advantage.

The organization had to scrap a planned school tour of a lively, abridged production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” But freed from the constraints of a mobile production, the creative team set up shop in a rehearsal studio and built out more-extensive set pieces and costumes.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis
When the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible for Opera Theatre of St. Louis to take a production of "The Pirates of Penzance" to schools, the organization filmed a performance for online distribution in a rehearsal studio instead.

A typical tour would reach about 4,500 students. The audience for the online version was 87,000, Felter said.

“The impact? Huge. I mean, exponential,” she said. “What we discovered was not only did quite a few St. Louis schools take advantage of this, but schools across the world took advantage of this because everybody was in the same boat. Everybody needed programming.”

The digital programming comes with trade-offs. Students miss the raw excitement of a live performance, and post-show video calls with the cast don’t pack the same punch as in-person meetings. For online music lessons, a voice student will sing along to a prerecorded piano track rather than pairing with a live accompanist who can be a creative partner.

“We should never go exclusively digital. We need to stay in person,” Felter said. “It's a live, living, breathing art form that requires a live audience, I think, to fully enjoy and appreciate. But this is another way to deliver that excellent product.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
David Torretta directs webcasts of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts. As the ensemble plays, Audrey Kwong reads ahead in the score and tells the rest of the team which musicians will be featured next in the performance.

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s education department developed a video series for elementary school students called Soundlab. It combines instructions from an arts educator, footage of St. Louis Symphony musicians performing the music under discussion and video-recorded comments from children.

This school year, 84,000 students worked with Soundlab in their classrooms, said Maureen Byrne, associate vice president for education and community partnerships. That’s 20,000 more than the already-impressive total from the previous school year.

“It was kind of an amazing realization for us, that this kind of program is so needed and desired in the early-childhood classroom,” Byrne said.

In-person programs are back, but the organization plans to produce a third Soundlab series next season.

A play? A movie? Maybe both

Video presentations of performances, for students or general audiences, have advantages and shortcomings different from a live event's. One approach is to simply record a live performance onstage, as is. Another is to treat it more like a film or TV show, making creative decisions about close-up shots and camera angles.

Metro Theater Company has tried both approaches. In the early days of this experimentation, Artistic Director Julia Flood said, the troupe’s managing director, Joe Gfaller, would ask her why she seemed so stressed.

“He would see me pulling out my hair, and I’d say, ‘You don’t understand, now we’re making a play and a movie at the same time,’” Flood said. “It’s a different language and terminology and visual vocabulary.”

But the troupe found that online programming attracted viewers from well outside its usual geographic reach. Viewers from 40 states and six countries watched a stream of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Gfaller said, and 565 first-time donors gave money to the organizations.

A February production of “Last Stop on Market Street,” which included live shows at the Grandel in Grand Center plus an online version, became the company’s highest-grossing show ever.

St. Louis Symphony had planned to branch into concert streams sometime in the future — after a planned $100 million renovation of Powell Hall.

“When the pandemic hit, we put the foot on the accelerator pedal,” Vice President and General Manager Erik Finley said.

Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Sandy King operates four remote-controlled cameras from a small room within Powell Hall.

The organization invested $150,000 in the video equipment it has used to record concerts and develop online education programs. Through January, music fans in 10,000 households have viewed St. Louis Symphony concerts online.

On-demand ticket sales don’t turn a profit, Finley said, but he expects that to change as the organization builds its video library over time.

Many in the industry expected demand for online content to drop once in-person events returned, said Gfaller of Metro Theater Company.

“At least so far, knocking on wood, we have not seen that happen,” Gfaller said. “I’m sure it will even off at some point. But what's been most heartening to me is that the streaming audience for each subsequent production only grows.”

As arts organizations continue to adapt to an evolving pandemic, many will look for more ways to make online technology an asset — rather than just a last resort.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.