It’s been quite the year
Guest blog by Simon Baker, Technical Director of Wise Children
This time last year, I was flying back from New York after 6 weeks of working on The Girl From The North Country on Broadway. I’d been hanging out with mates in cool cocktail bars, living in my favourite apartment block on 44th Street and working on a brilliant show.
Last March, I had a successful show in the West End (Matilda), a show opening on Broadway and a full diary of work ahead. Wise Children – the U.K. theatre company led by Emma Rice (and my other full-time job) was doing well; we had a show in the works for the National, we had our musical Romantics Anonymous about to open in L.A. and Malory Towers about to start its U.K. – and we weren’t even two years old.
Then, like everything and everyone else, it all came to a crashing halt. Chaos. Lack of clarity, information; at the time, we had no idea how long this thing would last. At Wise Children, we planned and replanned and then finally unplanned.
During this chaos and uncertainty, I only had one thought – how do we keep going? How do we not get lost? How do we ensure we’re still around when this thing is over? Wise Children was just 2, our trajectory was looking good, but in all this noise, I was nervous we’d struggle to survive. I decided to think long.
I’d misspent my youth running pirate radio stations. I love technology, sound, soul and funk music, so it was a natural fit. There’s a passion that gets ingrained in your DNA with pirate radio – that need to keep on air; to keep finding a way to get the studio back up and running, the transmitter back online, the antenna positions rebuilt. Lockdown reawakened that dormant desire to get the show back on air – somehow.
I felt that we needed to move quickly. I felt all the larger, more well-funded organisations would be hot on our heels, and we’d get lost in the noise again. I wanted to be first to market, I just wasn’t sure with what. First, I went old-school and built Wise Radio. Stick to what you know, I guess. We reran our old podcast shows and made new ones. This kept the company busy and visible in those early days and weeks. We had material for newsletters and social media – we were back, in some shape or form.
My youngest son stayed with me through lockdown till university started. There’s not much for an aspiring rock star to do in the sleepy rural village where we live, so between melancholic guitar chords, he would watch hours and hours of Nerd3 and the like – mainly on YouTube and sometimes Twitch. I often used to sit and watch these largely improvised shows with him – several things were impressive. Firstly, these streams were pretty high quality, they were live, and they seemed affordable. I suppose I mean these were not big-budget show being produced by major studios, nor were they poor quality. They were the new millennial version of Pirate Radio, I guess. They’d borrowed tech from many areas, glued it together and got a live stream going. Could we do that?
I hastily converted Emma’s office into a makeshift T.V. studio – we used my DSLR and a secondhand lens brought from ebay, some microphones I had from my studio, we bought capture cards from Amazon. I sat and watched endless YouTube tutorials on OBS, Live Streaming, DSLR cameras as live stream cameras… We made motion graphics and screen overlays and even a title sequence. We ran cable through the house and rigged lights and GoPros.
We made two short in-camera shows – based on our audio podcast series. We streamed them live over Twitch (using 4G on our phones as our internet had died a while back).
We were back on air live – we could talk to our audience. We still existed.
Lockdown dragged on, and again I felt the need for Wise Children to stay visible. Other theatres were now putting out old archive footage online – but this felt like poor T.V., the quality was poor as much of this work was archive footage and never intended for broadcast. I felt without context or frame, theatre was looking a bit rubbish – why watch a dodgy old recording of some Shakespeare when you could be watching The Queens Gambit. A lot of this early work was free. Giving away your only assets whilst perhaps being honourable felt a little short-sighted. We’ve never liked the notion of free at Wise Children – free means no value and art has value – I don’t care if its 50p or a £1 to watch. What’s important is the contract – the deal with the audience.
Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic London texted me – his text read something like – I want to LiveStream “Lungs” (a play we had previously done with Clare Foy and Matt Smith) on Zoom – do you know how to do it?
I didn’t but said yes anyway – I always do, it makes life easier although often gets my team into tight spots…. I came up with a crazy ramshackle way of doing it using old video cameras, capture cards and NDI plugins. It was blurry and low res, but we did it and found there was an audience. We got better. We did a few more.
By this time, sport seemed to be coming back online, and I had another crazy idea. What if we adapted the sport COVID planning model of isolation, bubbling and testing and staged a full-on musical?
I pitched it to Emma and Poppy (Wise Children’s Exec Producer). We all had a million questions and a million reasons why it was a terrible and risky idea. Again, I thought any moment the more prominent companies would be doing this; our moment will be gone. So I pushed it through. Six months ago, putting on a musical was second nature to us – now it felt like our first ever show all over again. There were so many hurdles, some I knew how to clear and just needed time, but there was one I couldn’t get my head around.
I went to PPV TV companies, ticketing agencies, live streaming companies. Everyone could do one part of it, but no one had glued it together.
I needed a streaming platform robust enough to handle maybe 3000 people in one go – easy, I thought. Then I needed some kind of box office to sell tickets through – again, easy.
At every step, something would be wrong; something wouldn’t answer a question – I thought naively I could just create a Vimeo or YouTube channel and embed that back into our website – could I create tickets on Eventbrite… genius. Until I thought through protecting the link or geofencing or how much bandwidth our website might have… every version I worked on quickly fell apart. I went to PPV TV companies, ticketing agencies, live streaming companies. Everyone could do one part of it, but no one had glued it together. You get the live stream right, but there’s no ticketing, you get the ticketing right, but all they are doing is embedding a link from somewhere else. I was amazed that the thing I wanted and needed didn’t exist– I couldn’t believe no one else needed this service. Surely EVERYONE needs it right now.
Then by chance, I found TicketCo – a very late Google search. They had exactly what was needed. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been on this problem for a month, and suddenly I cracked it. Actually they had cracked but like all good pirate radio and theatre sound designers I was going to nick it.
From then, we hit our stride. We learnt much more about Livestreaming; we learnt about keyframe intervals and bit rates. We learnt about creating copy that helped a nervous audience through a new purchase experience. We learnt about new box office patterns. We also knew that theatre still had an audience.
We were still viable and visible. We were back on air.
As this year unfolds, we emerge braver and stronger – looking forward to live audiences but also understanding the value of our digital audience. Live Streaming will always be part of our work from now on.
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