Guest Blog by Michael Sgouros
Last week at the Players Theatre we recorded Sleepy Hollow The Musical for streaming. It was quite a journey which is still not quite done but at least the show is officially in the can! The plan was we’d rehearse and go into production with the hope Off Broadway would be open by October but if not we’d record the show for streaming. Unfortunately, theatres are still closed in NYC so we prepared for recording. I’d like to share our experience recording for streaming during these strange times while pointing out some things we learned along the way.
ONLINE OPEN CALL AUDITIONS ARE A KEEPER
Back in July we put out an open call online through Backstage. This is the first time we’ve not had a live audition. We got over 300 audition submissions.
For a normal live open call we’d usually get about 50 to 75 actors and only have time for the standard 16 bars audition. The online format not only gave us additional material on each actor but also extra time to evaluate. Online auditions are something we probably would have never tried if not forced but something we’ll now keep even after the pandemic ends.
The call backs were live. Actors kept their masks on unless they were the only actor in the room. We wound up with one of the best casts we’ve ever had.
MASKS SURPRISINGLY DID NOT EFFECT PROJECTION
Once the rehearsals began actors kept their masks on.
We quickly noticed the actors adjusting to having masks on and projection not suffering. Everyone could be heard very clearly while speaking and singing. The director even commented that the masks improved enunciation and might be used as a rehearsal technique going forward. All of our shows are acoustic and actors need to be able to project over a battery of percussion instruments. I’m the composer and music director for the show and I could hear everyone fine from behind my vibraphone. The cast could be heard through the masks with no microphones. This was a revelation!
AUDIENCES DON’T MIND MASKS
Since sound was not an issue everyone kept their masks on as we moved through the rehearsal period. For safety we followed the NY Forward safety guidelines for indoor media. Everyone’s temperature was checked before every rehearsal. The theatre installed new MERV 13 filters in the A/C units and had two portable room filters, which scrubbed the entire theatre air space every hour. A fogger was used to clean the space before and after every rehearsal. Since we were not able to have a regular audience
to prepare for the recording we had 4 open dress rehearsals limited to just 20 invited guests. Some of the feedback was surprising. Masks remained on and we were happy to hear our invited audience didn’t mind the actors wearing masks! You heard me right! Sound was fine and they really didn’t mind how it looked visually. Something to keep in mind as we lobby for reopening. Audiences can deal with it if needed.
One unfortunate thing we did learn is you can’t remind people enough to keep their masks on. Once seated the urge to remove masks was strong for some of our guests. Our house manager had to remind some more than once to keep their masks on.
THERE’S A NEED FOR ONSITE TESTING
Even though keeping masks on was fine for rehearsals we knew masks needed to be off for the recording. We arranged for the cast to be tested. This was not as easy as we thought it would be. A test at CityMD or at a free testing site was not an option because the turn around
time was not quick enough. As we called we got prices as high as $1000 a test for next day results. This was way out of our price range. We finally found WellTree which arranged for the cast to test at a lab in Brooklyn before the shoot. Our talented producer, Brenda Bell, negotiated something in our budget. There’s talk a new test which will bring the cost under $50 a test will be available within the month. I think as theaters reopen there will be a need for onsite testing of actors. We’re researching how to get someone in-house certified to administer the test at the theater and bring them to the lab. Just how every theater has a fire guard every theatre might need a Covid Test Administer. Labs can send someone onsite for a test but right now it’s still expensive. The cast tested Monday and we got the
results Tuesday. The cast quarantined from the time they took the test until the recording on Wednesday. Thank goodness everyone tested negative!
START WITH A FULL RUN WITHOUT STOPS
On the day of the recording we blocked out 10am to 10pm. The media company came with 4 people, three on cameras and one on sound. Masks came off and again the cast adjusted without a hitch. First we worked through the show with stops so the lights could be adjusted for the cameras scene to scene. This was also the takes we used for audio. Our second run was without stops and was used for up close camera work. This is something we’d change for next time and start with a full run without stops for audio. The starting and stopping was a little disorienting at first and we felt better in the second run. Regardless, I think we came away with a great recording. Everyone felt we accomplished something incredible.
THIS IS DOABLE
Once the recording is edited we’ll be streaming the show on Stellar, a new service offered by Goldstar. We chose not to live stream to have more control over the final product and also to avoid live stream technical problems which are frequent. It was a level of stress we just chose to avoid. In the end while this was a long process I think we learned this is doable. We followed the NY Forward health guidelines and stayed safe. We were forced out of our comfort zone and as a result stumbled upon new things which we’ll incorporate long after the pandemic. The revenue stream from streaming is still uncertain for us but even if it replaces 25% of our normal live performance income maybe that’s 25% additional income going forward each year once we reopen. Stay tuned for the final result.
P.S. Want to learn more about streaming your show? Click here to join The TheaterMakers Studio!