A couple of weeks back, the social media director at Cirque du Soleil reached out to me. He offered the opportunity to watch One Night for One Drop, their online video of a one-performance event the company had mounted in Las Vegas for One Drop, the water and famine charity founded by Cirque’s mastermind Guy Laliberté. The video was being streamed for only seven days and one needed to make a minimum $5 contribution to the charity to view it; I had already been importuned to do so, separately, via e-mails from one of the event sponsors, Zuckerberg Media, but I hadn’t made the leap. With the free pass from Cirque, I surveyed through the show, which was quite impressive, all the more for not being a rehash of existing company material (I thought it superior to their 3D film Worlds Away). I did share the link on Twitter a couple of times (sans the free access), but I really should send the charity $5.
What struck me most about the initiative was that it did something I bet every performing arts organization aspires to: it extended the reach of what was a high ticket price one-night event in one city to a world-wide audience. Let’s face it, we all go through the not-infrequent agony of putting together a benefit every year, some more elaborate than others, and the entertainment – which can be blah or brilliant, depending upon the company – is seen by maybe 500 or 1,000 people (if you’re really successful). What if that could be multiplied, offering a low-price donation point without cannibalizing the live audience?
To be sure, Cirque has many assets that make this possible: significant financial resources, radically different work rules, multi-platform expertise and major sponsors for the regular shows. I don’t quite understand how they mounted such a large company for a single performance – did they hire performers specifically for that show, how long was the rehearsal period, and so on. But presumably, and hopefully, what they made for the charity was markedly greater than the production cost (even with largesse from Laliberté). Whether the cost of filming it (expertly) and streaming it was balanced with online donations hasn’t been released.
But stepping away from the Cirque template, I do wonder whether some of the most creative arts benefits might find more audience, and support, if played after the fact online. Frankly, I can’t afford to go to most of these events, but I’d be very interested in donating a bit in order to see the complete annual MCC Theater’s “Miscast,” the LAByrinth charades, the numerous events from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (I’m not sure that Second Stage’s celebrity bowling would make the cut without some funny commentary added in post). I’m not necessarily interested enough in these events to buy a DVD, even if they exist, as I don’t need more disks cluttering up my home, but streamed for minimal cost to my computer? Absolutely. And if I feel that way as someone who works in the field and lives in New York, what about theatre fans from across the country, or even around the world?
There’s no question that not every benefit would be right for this; many are “variety shows” of performers who come and do a song already in their repertoire without benefit of much rehearsal or optimal sound; some might not consent to have their performance recorded and shared. There are union issues that would have to be worked out if the performance is to be available beyond the designated venue. Some of the events offer performances that are simply too brief to merit the cost of recording.
But as video, both official and bootleg, emerges from these benefits in the days and weeks that follow, organizations are failing to capture potential revenue and interest. Just as companies are and should be exploring opportunities for wider reach for their productions, a la NT Live, they should be looking at the inherent value in their own one-night productions, skipping movie theatres (The 24 Hour Plays has done a cinecast) or home video distribution and making the material directly available on their own websites – for a price.
What if a company could up their take by 20%, while only adding 10% to their expenses? What if that money was coming from out of state or even out of the country? What if more companies started thinking of their galas as true entertainments, not just formulaic cocktail/dinner/show/out-by-10 events? No question, there are no guarantees under this model, but if someone makes an early effort and succeeds, the possibilities are great, and indeed these events might become even more creative as they consider not just the wealthy patrons at the tables but the fans at home. The benefits, and I explicitly do mean the dual meanings of that word, could be huge.