Velvet Labs: Online Arts Festivals – Encore Or Ordinary?

Now Covid looks like it’s going to be with us for a while, almost every industry with roots in performance and spectacle – from fashion to music – has attempted to recreate the magic of human experience, digitally.

While musicians play virtual concerts and designers host socially distanced runway shows, performing arts is a discipline that’s close to my heart – I studied Performance and Theatre Arts at Richmond International University, and the attraction has always been deep in the frisson of the live performance.

So what place for the performing arts industry in this brave new digital world? To explore the 2021 definition of an arts festival, I attended Under The Radar and The Living Record Festival.

Under the Radar

Founded in New York City in 2005, Under The Radar festival has a legacy of diverse artists and cutting-edge performances. With contributions from loyal supporters being the festival’s only revenue stream, the financial challenges have undoubtedly been immense and it’s little surprise that this online incarnation is a lifeline for it.

Any festival experience begins the second you arrive at the venue. From sound to lighting and your fellow attendees, the atmosphere and anticipation is key to the theatrical experience. First impressions of Under The Radar were great – vibrant colours, text and imagery serve as a fitting introduction to the festival.

That being said, the customer journey left a lot to be desired. Performances labelled as free were actually $95 by the time you found the correct page on the company’s website. And navigating the website became a difficult task as soon as you started to choose which performance you wanted to see, with redirections to other websites (and sometimes the wrong page entirely) leaving you lost in a virtual auditorium. After 20 minutes of trying to navigate multiple websites, I found a live music performance titled Loser’s Lounge – Battle of the One Hit Wonders #3 – Joe’s Pub Live!

While the performance wasn’t to my musical taste, there’s no doubt there was a much-missed thrill as I listened to live music, sharing an experience with hundreds of people. Once that initial thrill wore off though, the livestream sadly lacked the energy and vibrancy that festivals should have – which is perhaps just the nature of the beast. I was slightly disappointed in the experience, but not totally disheartened – so I attended the Living Record Festival (LRF) the next day.

Living Record Festival

The LRF digital experience was less flashy, yet far more efficient and user friendly. The simplicity of the experience when browsing and selecting tickets to certain performances was great at first, however it soon transpired that this no-frills approach had been carried through to the content itself.

I chose to watch a rendition of Circles, the epic poem inspired by Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, and The Duchess of Malfi by John Webser.

LRF is described as ‘ground breaking grassroots of digital art’ yet upon buying tickets and attending the events on offer, it felt more back-dated than ground-breaking. The performance of Circles was a voiceover playing against a static image; considering Circles requires only one actor, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed at the lack of visual performance and emotional element that could have been brought to the piece.

Similarly, the performance of The Duchess of Malfi left me deflated as the quality of the recording left a lot to be desired. The recording was of a 2010 production and it’s often the case that performances are recorded for continuity/archive purposes, so sound quality isn’t the most important element. However, now that the pandemic has forced companies to sell these recordings it’s hard not to feel short changed. As the camera was unable to pick up the majority of facial expressions and action on the dimly-lit stage, both the company and actors were done a great dis-service as the new virtual audience are unable to fully immerse themselves within the world of the play.

Is data the answer to disappointment?

Online arts festivals are in their infancy so while there’s long way to go, there are certainly lessons that the theatre industry can learn from others who have held virtual concerts or events since the pandemic began. The challenge for transitioning theatrical events to the online space remains how to establish a connection and create a unique personal experience with the audience.

Perhaps data and personalisation are the answers?

Our theatrical performance preferences are not currently tracked by a single system or social media network like Facebook, so advertisers and companies don’t have a lot of historical data or information on their audience. Given that theatre companies don’t know much about us or our preferences, how can they gather more information to build an extraordinary experience? Imagine an arts festival that serves personalised content suggestions like Netflix – how cool would that be?!

Overall, this experience has brought to light the discrepancy between small/local theatre companies and national theatres that have benefitted from years of professional recordings, state of the art facilities and funding.

Disappointments aside, UK theatre is facing its biggest challenge since performance censorship law in 1737 and it’s unclear what its future will look like. Virtual arts festivals are a great way to generate awareness and raise funds for companies, who would otherwise crack under the financial pressure of the pandemic. The experience of live theatre can never be replaced, so in the meantime it’s vital we donate and play our part to keep the country’s performance industry alive.