Features Published 19 March 2020

Livestreaming Your Art

Jason Crouch walks you through some of the potential issues and shining opportunities involved in streaming performances.

Jason Crouch

A scene from ‘Fiction’, by Darkfield, which makes innovative use of pre-recorded sound. Credit: Alex Brenner

This is a “tidied up” twitter thread written just as the need to socially distance ourselves from each other was becoming clear. It comprises insights and suggestions built from experience, and will hopefully be a springboard into wider conversations about making performance work online.

First off: experiment!
Livestreaming is a great area to experiment in. There is no right way to do it, and you’re not going to be NTlive straight out of the gate. In fact you might want to avoid the grand cinema style NTLive operates in altogether.

Don’t be afraid to start with the tools you know and work up. You can #livestreamtheatre using common platforms and the devices you already own. You’ll need to watch back and play with the technology so you can judge if the audience experience is one that suits the work you make. Don’t feel forced to go with a particular technology, or aesthetic. Remember that it’s still your work, and you still need to be happy (curious/excited!) that the method you’re choosing to livestream is doing the same thing as the performed show, albeit in a different medium. Or even that bringing it online illuminates a whole new aspect of the work!

It might seem daunting, but mainly it’s about putting bits of equipment together and finding our how best to capture the moment of performance. Most of the different technical approaches are just shifts in workflow e.g. adding in cameras means you’ll need a bit of technology or software to switch between them. You’re still going from “digital capture device” to “streaming platform” to “the eyes and ears” of the audience. Most platforms will also record the stream, which means you will automatically have a good to go (hopefully) high quality digital record of the show which can be used to send to programmers and/ producers.

But can I charge?

In terms of payment, if you’re experimenting then you’ll need to price that into what the audience pay or don’t. I’m always an advocate of Pay What You Decide (PWYD) – so you might set up a paypal link from your hosting platform or website. This way you’re letting audiences make the decision to support you, so that they’re happy to send you money because you’re sharing great performance work!

In a recent chat, a theatremaker, friend and colleague talked about using a webinar platform to stream his work, toying with Zoom and Crowdcast. These both make it easy to charge a set amount for the stream. They also offer a way for audience to gather before the event begins, much like a studio theatre. There is a charge for activating payment and Crowdcast is a subscription-only service, but either or both may fit your needs depending on viewer numbers.

YouTube can also be configured for pay-on-demand live streaming, but content creators need a minimum of 1,000 followers to be able to monetise their streams on the platform.

What about rights: does PRS cover me?

Your biggest headache is likely to be commercial music. Unlike the PRS model we use in theatres, there is no easy / inexpensive way to license music for streaming. Broadcast without the copyright owners permission isn’t allowed and there is no unified body to apply to for licensing. This doesn’t only apply to music assets, also stuff like copyrighted video and imagery – assets that are routinely used in video and scenic design that in general won’t be seen outside a studio theatre.

There are a bunch of copyright free sources of music around. Alternatively, you can employ a composer or a band in the show and their music will generally be covered by their fees (unless they’re playing covers!). It’s always possible to make your own soundtrack using audio software,  generative loops and found sounds – or perhaps even hold up a sign that says “under normal circumstances Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ plays at this point

Performance with benefits: what about audience experience?

What’s especially exciting is that theatre revels in its liveness, and this means finding new ways to stream digitally can activate this – it doesn’t have to be polished, it doesn’t even have to be video. Think of Ring and Fiction, two show held in complete darkness, experienced almost entirely through a binaural soundtrack. Can you make something live that’s broadcast to an online audience, each in their own darkness?

There is also the incredible social aspect of online performance. No-one can tell you to shut up or pipe down. One of the best theatre live streaming experiences I’ve ever had was Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola, and this was not only for the show (although I do love that show). It was the social engagement around a durational piece of performance, a world wide audience created in the moment chatting about the work & getting involved (by asking their own questions and posing their own answers). Lyn Gardner described it as a separate performance happening alongside the show itself.

You might want to suggest ways to spectate. “This show is best watched on your phone with headphones in, on a big TV, at a watch party with 10 of your friends”. There is now no doubt that many of our tours have been cancelled or postponed, but there’s no reason not to livestream a version of your show to particular theatre audiences on the dates you’ve already booked. Is there a way to engage the individual theatre’s audience and perform the show to them?

There’s an inevitable tension between serving the audience in the space and the online audience. At the moment you might be thinking of streaming to an empty house, or not being able to use a venue at all. So take advantage of that. Shift and change the performance to work best with cameras and mics. You can incorporate pre-recorded segments, too. Split the screen or go audio only.

Or consider doing an episodic version of the show, thinking about attention span on mobile devices. If there’s participation, engage with social networks and find ways to curate your audiences response – reboot the stream five minutes or a day later to get to the next bit after working with their input. Or open a chat channel and work in real time.

Accessibility

Because you’re livestreaming performance you’re creating a digital version of your show. This means adding things like subtitling and audio description to the project are in many ways easier than in the theatre. For example, Stage Text are able to beam you real-time titles of your work which can be integrated into the livestream. If you use YouTube live, it will automatically record the stream (unless you ask it not to). Once on the YouTube platform, you can add a subtitles file at any time, so viewers of the Video on Demand version get titling.

Another option might be to use the Talking Birds titling system Difference Engine. I suspect it is very possible to add their subtitles to a livestream, as well as display them in theatre. Although this will depend on the equipment and software you have available. 

Troubleshooting

Make absolutely sure someone from your team is watching! 

This might be someone from the company, one of your friends or someone from the venue (if you’re in a venue). They can report back if the signal breaks or the audio is bad and (hopefully) you’ll be able to do something about it. I’ve found myself painstakingly adjusting the positioning of a camera to capture just so, only to realise that the image I’m broadcasting is from another camera which is idly watching an empty part of the stage.  

There is always a delay in a livestream, and this might be up to a minute or so, and let me tell you it is truly tricky for one person to monitor the sound going into the stream and the sound the audience is experiencing (with delay). Like an odd, out of sync echo. 

Once you fix a problem with the stream, there’s obviously a delay before the audience notices the fix. So let the audience know in advance how technical details will be shared with them. This might be through twitter, the streaming platform’s chat option, or other social means.  Try and find a way using the platform or your own hardware setup to use title cards. “Stream starts at 7pm” “Technical difficulties” “About to Start” that kind of thing. This is also a great way to share pre and post show information. Folks are forgiving of service interruptions if they know you’re working to fix them.

Technical issues

Internet

One of the main bits of the puzzle is Internet Bandwidth. For a 1080 (HD) stream, the bandwidth you’ll need is between about 4mbps and 6mbps upstream. You’ll need this kind of speed going from your setup to the streaming platform you’re using. Download speeds are’t really relevant here.

You can test the bandwidth where you are using something like  http://speedtest.net In general the advice is to test when there’s a full house, ’cause only then do you get a practical idea of the available capacity. It’s quite different to stream from an empty theatre than from one with a hundred or so audience members all with at least one internet device searching out the wifi. Of course, right now this is unlikely to be a concern. 

The most reliable streaming experience tends to be using an ethernet connection to the venues router, after that wifi and finally 4G cellular (perhaps a dongle, or by tethering to your phone).

Note that theatres tend to be filled with metal and other obstructions which can dampen your signal. Try streaming 4G out of the Barbican’s Pit Theatre and you’re on a hiding to nothing.

Important note: If you can use 4G (perhaps you’re doing an outdoor promenade), make super sure you have enough data allowance! That 4-6mbps can soon eat up all your available data then it tends to get expensive.

Cameras and switchers

My own experience has largely been with a streaming setup where I’m able to switch and blend up to three camera inputs; using high quality shotgun or ambient mics for sound, or occasionally performers with wireless headsets.

Audio sources (microphones and playback from qlab or whatever) are mixed on a small mixing desk and fed into the video switcher. From there into either a dedicated streaming box such as the Teradek Vidiu or a computer running OBS or wirecast.

To video stream from a computer you’ll need to have some way of getting the video into the computer! It often comes as a surprise that most laptops simply don’t have that ability off the shelf. You may need to buy or borrow a small amount of gear to get the video and audio inputs into the computer and out to the streaming platform. This doesn’t have to be as onerous or confusing as it sounds. They’re just jigsaw pieces that need to be plugged together.

Black Magic Design make a bunch of high quality, low cost video switchers. Best bang for buck for a setup such as this would be the new ATEM mini ($300) or the ATEM Television Studio HD ($999).

The ATEM mini can be attached to your laptop via USB-C or using a USB-C -> USB-A (i.e. old school USB). In this mode it appears like a webcam, so it can be used with pretty much any streaming system or video conferencing/webinar product.

These video switchers allow you to plug in a number of cameras or other inputs (such as a computer) by way of HDMI. So as long as you have the right cable you can probably use any kind of handycam you have around the place as a video input.

Troubleshooting and techniques

One major gotcha is video formats. In my experience if you stream at the same resolution as the camera captures, the laptop/computer that’s doing the streaming doesn’t have to work that hard. As soon as you change the resolution (say the camera is capturing at 1080i and you’re streaming at 720p) you’ll hit problems. This is because the computer is having to do a bunch of work transcoding (changing the format) in real time. This will really stress it out, and potentially drop the stream quality through the floor.

Something often left until way too late is sound quality. Built in camera audio is often a bit shaky, and will more than likely pick up camera operator noises (changing zoom, moving the tripod), or if its too close to the tech box the sounds of the technicians swearing.

How to make the best of audio in the venue you’re in is another experimentation area. At the very least (and assuming you’re end-on in a theatre space) a shotgun mic on a stand pointing at the stage, well away from other people, is a go-to solution.

If you’re performing with a hand held mic in the show, grab a feed from that. Although as handhelds are best at capturing the sound from up close, it can also be useful to blend in a small amount of ambient noise from the space to fill out that live theatre sound. YMMV.

More questions?

I’ve just setup a Facebook group called Live Streaming Arts in order to share experiences and expertise. Hopefully this will also allow makers to ask questions of each other and work out new ways to make their work available to audiences in these tricky times. 

See you there.

For info on some of the performances which are being livestreamed over the coming weeks, check Exeunt’s Covid-19 resources page

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Jason Crouch

Jason is an artist, events producer and digital consultant with a particular interest in live performance. In theatre he has worked as a producer and production manager for large scale, site-specific performance, and as both a technical specialist and playwright for more intimate work. Jason recently completed his PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University, where his research investigated digitally mediated intimacy and how communications technologies can be thought of as one-to-one performance. He has spoken at Ars Electronica and contributed to a number of technology panels on the theme of arts and technology. He has collaborated with theatres and digital agencies (such as Contact in Manchester, and Culturehub in NYC) to create complex, multi-sited live events mediated through the Internet. He has designed and delivered participatory workshops, and has worked in live events - from corporate conferences to immersive theatre - for more than two decades.

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