Tall Stories perform virtual tour of The Snail and the Whale in support of regional theatres via pay-per-view live streaming
By Shaun Reynolds
Audience engagement and bringing stories to life has been at the heart of Tall Stories’ work since the charity was formed in the late 1990s.
For co-founders Toby Mitchell and Olivia Jacobs, 2020 has been a year like no other. In one historic broadcast by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in mid-March, Tall Stories – like all other theatre production companies – lost its ability to perform to live audiences.
Or so they thought.
Once lockdown restrictions started to ease, Toby’s brain started to bubble with inspiration as theatres started to explore what would quickly become the sector’s best alternative for reaching out to their audiences – pay-per-view live streaming.
Streaming an event can bring fantastic opportunities to production companies in these unprecedented times. Employment opportunities are created, a vital source of revenue is generated, and audiences are brought together.
While all the above act as a natural by-product of live streaming a production, Tall Stories required personalisation – something to make the viewer feel as though they are part of the show.
With TicketCo TV’s HD quality pay-per-view live streaming service and support, this was made possible. We caught up with Tall Stories’ co-founder Toby to find out more.
Tall Stories has built its strong reputation in the theatre sector after it gained the rights to showcase on stage Julia Donaldson’s hit children’s book The Gruffalo in 2001.
The Gruffalo went on to sell a staggering 17 million copies in 59 editions worldwide.
“It was a tremendously exciting time for Tall Stories,” recalls Toby. “No one had any idea The Gruffalowould become such a hit.
“Our success has been based on our early work which also includes Rumpelstiltskin and Snow White. Since the early days, we have expanded our team to seven and have toured all over the world delivering our work at small, medium, and large scale venues in countries including France, Germany, Poland, Canada and the United States.”
The beginning of this year started well as Tall Stories started creating a rehearsal studio and office space in Islington Central Library in London with the support of the borough’s council. However, no one could have imagined what the following months would offer.
Coping with lockdown
For a growing charity that was planning to work closely with the Islington community by providing free performances for local school groups and residents within its 80-seater studio hub, lockdown understandably came as a shock.
Toby said: “Part of our work since moving into Central Library was to involve providing local young people with an insight into how a stage production is created. We’re also planning to provide workshops for actors and a programme of support for emerging theatre companies.
“But all of that became impossible when lockdown was announced. It has been a huge struggle as we were not even allowed to rehearse at first.
“We came close to securing an outdoor show in the summer, but all of those proposals kept falling at the final hurdle. We knew live streaming was the answer to keep the Tall Stories name going, but adapting a show to suit our audiences online was the true challenge. We chose The Snail and the Whale as our first online show.”
Toby and Tall Stories first encountered TicketCo TV’s smooth streaming service when watching Wise Children’s successful broadcast of Romantics Anonymous at Bristol’s Old Vic.
Romantics Anonymous was a huge success as Wise Children quadrupled their ticket capacity by streaming six shows live online to a global audience.
“I was impressed with what TicketCo could offer us – a ticketing platform and a live streaming service under the same umbrella wasn’t something I had encountered before,” said Toby.
“The stream of Romantics Anonymous was smooth, professional, and made me feel part of an audience because of TicketCo TV’s live chat service which audience members could use. I spoke to Just the Tonic comedy club – another of TicketCo’s clients – for references and we went for it.”
Once Tall Stories’ partnership with TicketCo was confirmed, the final preparations to the production of The Snail and the Whale could be made.
Split screen technology
TicketCo TV’s adaptable and simple technology makes it easy for companies streaming a show or performance to expand their broadcast’s capabilities as they wish.
For Tall Stories, they wanted to apply split screen technology to their broadcast of The Snail and the Whale to enhance customers’ streaming experience.
Toby explained: “The beauty of theatre is you can look wherever you want while watching a performance – you don’t get that when watching a movie where you are forced to watch one screen.
“It’s impossible to equal the experience of live theatre, but by using split screen technology our actors who weren’t bubbled could socially distance while looking as though they were within close proximity of each other on the stage, and viewers’ eyes could fix on whichever ‘screen’ they wished.
“Every person that watched the show effectively had a front seat as three cameras were moulded into one experience. Split screen technology worked brilliantly well, and I must thank the improvised musical company Showstoppers for providing us with the camera equipment and expertise to make it possible.”
Making an audience sitting in the comfort of their own homes understand that what they are watching is being performed live unsurprisingly comes with its challenges.
It was a challenge Tall Stories was able to overcome, though, thanks to TicketCo TV’s live chat function.
“TicketCo TV’s live chat facility has huge advantages,” said Toby. “It means we can make the audience feel like they are part of the show by getting them involved with the performance.
“We would ask members of the audience for input throughout the broadcast. That live interactive element was so important for us and the audience, I honestly believe it is one of the reasons why people were willing to pay for it. We were even able to produce an activity pack programme for the performance too.
“Though there was a 40 second delay in receiving messages, we were able to adapt our script to suit and plug the gaps while we waited for messages to come through.”
Live streaming has enabled Tall Stories to continue a key part of its production values: performing live.
“Streaming is still theatre providing that your stream is live. Once you lose the live element, you lose theatre – that’s my opinion,” said Toby.
“Because each of our streams were live, we were able to interact with our audience as though we were playing at that very theatre. ‘Good afternoon Salford!’ would be one of the first lines for our Lowry performance, for example.
“TicketCo TV’s technology allowed us to personalise each performance and we would sprinkle references to the venue we were ‘performing’ in partnership with throughout each show.”
Each individual performance performed from Tall Stories’ London based Studio was linked to and marketed by a regional UK theatre as part of a ‘virtual tour’. It was designed to support regional theatres, with audiences encouraged to purchase tickets to the performance linked to their local theatre.
“We wanted to take The Snail and the Whale on a virtual tour. And by delivering 15 separate performances, we were able to support 15 theatres across the UK through these challenging times.
“That means 15 theatres received a proportion of the money generated from their live show – essential revenue that has helped to support each theatre’s outgoings. Producing 15 shows comes with its risks, had one member of the cast developed COVID-19 symptoms then we would have had to pull the plug on our live shows.
“But TicketCo provided us with an alternative in that scenario by allowing us to access a recording of a previous show to use if required. Fortunately, we never had to resort to that.”
By combining streaming with ticketing, Tall Stories were able to maximise revenue the show could generate and broadcast to a global audience.
“We offered customers price bands of £10, £15, and £20,” explained Toby. “If you pay £10, we thank you for your support and hope you enjoy the performance.
“But if you can afford it, we would love you to pay £15. And if you really want to support our work, pay £20. TicketCo’s ticketing system meant we could apply this pricing structure with ease.
“Incredibly, a third of our viewers chose to pay either £15 or £20. We were overwhelmed by the support of our global audience that tuned in from across the globe in countries including America, Australia, Qatar and Singapore. Everyone that tuned in supported the work of our charity and the theatres we ‘performed’ in.”
Following Tall Stories’ pay-per-view live streaming experience Toby had a few words of advice to theatre production companies that are considering exploring TicketCo TV’s smooth technology.
“Keep it live, and keep it simple,” he said. “People are willing to pay for a live experience. Tailor your show to your live audience and make sure you consider how you can express and provide that live experience before you deliver it.
“We found that our audience were excited because they knew the performance was live as we interacted with them through TicketCo’s live chat function. We made a small profit from our 15 shows which is outstanding considering the expenses of producing a live show in front of no live audience.
“But it proves the demand for streaming is there. It was very humbling to receive photographs from people of their kids watching the stream. We are thrilled that TicketCo was part of our journey.”