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Behind the Scenes at Meany on Screen

December 18, 2020

When the pandemic shut theaters down in March, Meany Center, as with many other performing or presenting arts organizations, had to confront an existential crisis: after more than forty years of presenting artists on our stage, we suddenly had to ask ourselves, what does it mean to present without a live audience?

This is not a new question—for at least the last 20 years artists and arts organizations have grappled with the impact of the internet on traditional live performance as platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and others make it easy to share virtual content with audiences who can access it at any time, from anywhere.

The way art is made, the way it is promoted and the way audiences access it is changing; at Meany, we knew this was a challenge we needed to explore, plan for and implement, but with all the live performances happening on our stage throughout the year, we never seemed to have the time.

Be careful what you wish for; when the Meany Stage went dark, the one compensation was that it cleared the decks of everything except thinking about digital programming, both in the immediate present and also in the future when live performance will once again be possible.

The Meany Center technical crew has been at the forefront of this effort. Shortly after the lockdown began, Tom Burke, Juniper Shuey, Brian Engel and Matt Starritt pivoted from managing live shows to shooting, editing and producing videos for the Meany Center Visiting Artists program.

In the early days, they used the equipment Meany already had on hand but a generous grant from the Floyd and Dolores Jones Endowed Fund provided the resources to develop a whole new system, including multiple cameras. “We only had one camera before; we can now run a four-camera shoot, with different shots and angles, close ups, fades—it makes the performance more dynamic,” says Meany stage manager Juniper Shuey.

The Jones Endowment also funded lighting specifically intended for television, allowing us to essentially build a TV studio inside the theater.

“Stage lighting and television lighting are very different,” lighting supervisor Brian Engel points out. “Cameras ‘see’ much differently than the eye does. Now when we shoot a Creative Process conversation for Meany On Screen, or livestream an event, we’re not using stage lighting, we’re using TV lighting.”

The benefits of the new “Jones System” extends far beyond the Meany Center Visiting Artist program, however. The UW Arts academic units—particularly the School of Music—have been taking advantage of both the new equipment and the Meany tech crew’s expertise in order to enrich their students’ learning experience and continue to reach their audiences during the pandemic.

For example, the UW Symphony recently livestreamed an event for which they wanted to do multi-camera shots. “We wanted to support them in this, but we don’t have the time or the staff to do it all for them,” Brian says. So, working with several Ph.D. conducting students, the team taught them how to stage manage—how to look at the musical score and script the shots they want so that the performance is not just about how it is heard, but how it is seen.

The students came into rehearsals with the list of camera shots they wanted for each moment, from which the tech crew positioned the cameras. The students were responsible for cueing the stage crew while the performance was happening—which camera to use and which to reset; when to take the shot, or how long to fade.

It turns out being a music conductor requires much the same mindset as a video director—you have to know where you’re going before you even start. “There are three conducting Ph.D. students,” Juniper says. “All three of them are now able to direct videos. Stage managers often take years and years to develop these skills, but these three are knocking it out of the park after just a few months.”

Although Meany Center Visiting Artists won’t be performing on our stage this season, we’re also using the new Jones System to connect our audiences with the artists on this season through virtual Creative Process conversations that accompany every featured performance on Meany on Screen.

“As presenters, we have a unique opportunity to offer access to an artist’s mind as well as their art,” Juniper says. “And if we do it right, the conversation can really elevate the performance because audience members have some insight into how the artist thinks about what they are doing.”

This isn’t just advertising, Juniper emphasizes. It’s communicating with the people who you want to have in your audience. “Live audiences are getting their content in multiple ways these days. Yes, there are people who only want to come to live shows, but not everyone wants that all the time. And there are huge numbers of people who won’t come unless they’ve already seen something on YouTube.”

This is how performing arts will talk to people in the future,” Brian says. “Sometimes live, sometimes digital.”

Thanks to the Floyd and Delores Jones Endowed Fund, Meany Center is ready to facilitate those conversations, either way.