Beyond the Back Row: The Breakthrough Potential Of Digital Live Entertainment and Arts

Jim McCarthy was as charmed and cheered as everybody else by the online shows in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many, he soon tired of these spontaneous, slapdash productions, mostly on Zoom, a platform built for meetings, not theater. Yet it wasn’t long before McCarthy saw the limitless possibilities of a new medium. 

Forget the “half-baked Zoom events” of 2020; that’s not what’s happening now, McCarthy writes in Beyond the Back Row: The Breakthrough Potential of Digital Live Entertainment and Arts (Houndstooth Press, 140 pages.) The short, slight primer has two explicit aims and a third implicit one:

  1. to convince the naysayers that live online events are worthy, profitable, and here to stay
  2. to offer general, practical advice for producers to get started
  3.  to promote Stellar, the platform for livestreaming events that McCarthy developed during the first year of the pandemic. It is the latest endeavor by this serial entrepreneur who co-founded Goldstar, a twenty-year-old online seller of tickets to live entertainment,  and TEDx Broadway, a ten-year-old annual conference that features innovators envisioning the future of Broadway.

“Beyond the Back Row” is most effective addressing those stuck in their perception of digital theater as Zoom shows, and those who produced online events during the lockdown (such as the leaders of non-profit theaters throughout the United States who responded to a survey by American Theatre Magazine ) and found that, while they increased viewership, they “failed to deliver at the box office.”

These skeptics were too quick to judge, McCarthy says; they didn’t give it the investment of time, attention and money that any new enterprise needs.

They didn’t, in short, respect the medium: “Why would someone lack respect for the medium? It could be they fear online events could somehow replace in-person events. (They won’t.) It could come from a sense that they or their org are too established to adapt. (They’re not.) It could be the belief that delivering good online events needs major technical skills or big money. (It doesn’t.) Or it could just come from a sense of overwhelm from trying to survive the pandemic and putting your organization back on track. I understand, believe me.”

It could also be, he adds, that even as they felt forced to produce online events, they simply didn’t like them. They saw these forays as no more than a poor and temporary substitute for the real thing.

I know this attitude well, as an early champion of the possibilities of digital theater.  (See my American Connected Theater Awards for Pandemic Year 1 and Pandemic Year 2)  I was in effect driven out of a theater organization with which I had been involved for a decade after I began advocating that we recognize digital theater.  “Beyond the Back Row” is not designed to address the supposedly artistic objections of such theater purists. It is a business book, specifically geared to those “producing or marketing live entertainment.” And notice that, although McCarthy is a certifiable theater lover, “theater” is not even in the book’s subtitle. HIs focus is far more general; nearly generic.

Indeed, there are shockingly few examples in the book of any specific “digital live entertainment and arts” – in contrast to the book Theater of Lockdown by Barbara Fuchs, who in her attempt to chronicle what she calls “the fundamental transformation of theater during the pandemic,” described some 70 shows produced just between March 2020 and January 2021.  McCarthy’s few examples are mostly from Stellar, such as “Jagged Live in NYC: A Broadway Reunion Concert,” streamed on Stellar in December, 2020,  which 20,000 people paid an average of $30 to watch. In his chapter on hybrid events, he even omits mention of “Clyde’s,” the first ever (and so far only) Broadway play to be “simulcast” on stage and online. (Is it because the company who handled it was Assemble, not Stellar?   I hope for an alternative explanation — that McCarthy had to complete “Beyond the Back Row” before the simulcasts of Lynn Nottage’s play occurred in January, 2022.)

Rather than offering a steady stream of stories about and examples of the actual subject of his book,  McCarthy loads “Beyond the Back Row” with analogies — to the recording industry, the iPhone, Uber, the NBA, the NFL, the invention of ice cream cones; he asks us to visualize thought experiments involving cave men and paper clips.

The point of most of the analogies is to establish how much the reaction to and evolution of the online medium for entertainment fits the pattern of any historic innovation. It probably also is a business book formula, as is the self-help tone, the repetitiveness, and the many passages organized as lists, such as “my Big 5 for online event success”:

1.Base your event on an artist or show with a built-in following

2.Build high production value per dollar into the show

3.Create a solid marketing plan

4.Make sure you’ve got the proper tech set-up and do a full pre-check

5.Provide a great show-going experience

He’s not talking in that fifth point about the content of the show but rather good customer service, such as making ticketing efficient and enabling pre-show chat

McCarthy comes up with his own terminology, most of it unmemorable, and his own definitions, some of it inadequate. He lists the advantages of online over in-person events as “access, participation and community,” but by “access” he basically means camera angles; he does not mean making it easier for audience members with disabilities. There is no mention, for example, of one of the great advantages of online shows — the ease of providing captions.  And “community” is similarly myopic.

This talk of the advantages of the online medium begs the question in reverse: What is lost when in-person theater is livestreamed? Or, put more positively, what are the continuing benefits exclusive to in-person theater? That is a question neither posed nor addressed in “Beyond the Back Wall.” It’s an important question in any discussion of digital theater if for no other reasons than to reassure theater purists that digital innovators respect the art form, and that the essential qualities of theater are no more threatened with extinction now than they were by any of the other technological developments over the past century and a half.

“Beyond the Back Wall” is not, in sum, comprehensive. But it is a good start in advocating for a field that is still so new that we haven’t even come up with consensus definitions and distinctions. Does it have to be live to be considered theater? And what should it be called? Streaming, online, virtual or digital theater?

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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