Arts & Culture

UK Students Helping Theatre Organizations Go Virtual Worldwide

3 headshot photos of Abby Davis, Ali Ray and Chelsea Russell
UK theatre students Abby Davis (left), Ali Ray and Chelsea Russell are leading the way in taking theatre festivals online.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 24, 2020) — Like most businesses, arts organizations have been scrambling most of 2020 to find new footing during the COVID-19 global pandemic. For many, dropping the curtain on the year, just is not an option. That said, there is a lot to problem solve for those in the performing arts.

While coronavirus has taken away of lot of opportunities, it has also provided creative types new chances to grow their skillset. This summer, three University of Kentucky students — theatre, English and musical theatre certificate senior Abby Davis, of California, Kentucky; theatre senior Allison “Ali” Ray, of Lexington; and theatre, arts administration, musical theatre certificate and Lewis Honors College senior Chelsea Russell, of Independence, Kentucky, are among those rising to the occasion to find new ways to make the arts possible virtually. The trio are part of a team helping livestream more than 130 pieces of programming for the Women’s Theatre Festival (WTF) based in Raleigh, North Carolina, which runs through Aug. 1.

And the Wildcats’ work is not going unnoticed. “I had the great pleasure of working with Ali Ray and Chelsea Russell during the Women’s Theatre Festival as I wore the multiple hats of producer, playwright, director and panelist,” said playwright and actor Christine Toy Johnson. “Ali handled the tech of my short play’s livestream and Chelsea handled the many administrative aspects of my involvement in the festival. I am so impressed with both of them and the grace, professionalism, compassion, kindness, proficiency and attention to detail they bring to every task. I can’t wait to get to work with them both again in the future!”

In addition to catching their work with the national festival, Bluegrass audiences can take in the students’ virtual work locally as Davis and Ray lend their talents to Distilled Theatre Company and Studio Players respectively. This weekend, Ray will use skills honed at the Women's Theatre Festival as the technical production designer streaming Studio Players 10-Minute (virtual) Play Festival, running through July 26. 

To find out more on how these UK students got involved in livestreaming a national theatre festival, UK College of Fine Arts recently caught up with Davis, Ray and Russell.

 

UK Fine Arts: Tell us about the Women’s Theatre Festival and your involvement.

Chelsea Russell: My official title is executive assistant/WTF conference manager — those are the two hats that kind of stay on my head, but there are some other hats that I’m wearing as well — some of them I’m sharing, but those are the two that I’ve kept.

I started at the end of April, as an arts admin apprentice directly under Artistic Director Ashley Popio, which I used for school credit with UK Arts Admin. The company works with a very small staff, so I was quickly turned into an executive assistant and a conference assistant. While I completed my internship, I’m still on a contract for the rest of summer.

Abby Davis: My main contact with the Women’s Theatre Festival has been Chelsea, who turned me onto the internship. In February I joined an Early Career Professionals’ Facebook group organized by some UK Arts Admin alumni — notably recent grad Logan McDonald.

The group was started at the beginning of quarantine as an informal group where recent grads and upper classmen connect. It’s not exclusively a UK thing though, and people post resources and opportunities for arts admin positions. Chelsea posted about the Women’s Theatre Festival needing arts admin help. I’m a double theatre/English major and have done some freelance writing, so I was very interested. I submitted myself and was brought on as arts admin apprentice where I primarily worked on marketing, copyrighting and proofing. I’m also one of the streaming technicians. 

Ali Ray: I met Jeni Benavides and worked with her at the Woodford Theatre throughout high school. There, I connected with Rowen Haigh, who reached out to me about WTF. She essentially told me to create my position for the festival. I was supposed to move to Raleigh, North Carolina, for the summer, but once COVID-19 hit, I've done everything remotely. I kind of transitioned from a traditional stage manager and production assistant role, to doing all of that online. As a stage manager with technical theatre experience, it’s been a strong learning curve, but it’s running well now.   

I am the technical production manager for WTF. I coordinate all the technical needs for the four tracks. Any streaming content that happens, I’ve created and built an OBS file (Open Broadcaster Software). For all 23 of the Fringe productions, I’ve curated the design layout and hired a team of 12 individuals to be streaming technicians for the festival, who actually stream the content after I built it. We have over 250 hours of content to stream,  

One of the higher profile productions I designed and streamed was film/television actor Christine Toy Johnson’s new piece — “Empress Mei Li Lotus Blossom,” which tells the story of a Teaneck-born Asian American actress who poses as an exotic Hong Kong movie star in order to get her shot on Broadway. 

UK Fine Arts: What is it like working with a virtual theatre festival? 

Russell: The company already decided to go virtual in the middle of their spring production, “Freakshow” by Carson Kreitzer directed by former UK guest instructor Rowen Haigh. The production started as a traditional, in-person show and had to switch gears to go virtual due to the pandemic. 

Ali was already creating the livestream technical system in order to do the show live every night. She needed assistance, so I jumped in and started helping with some administrative work. As soon as the show closed in mid-May, the company went straight into prepping for WTF, which happens July 1–Aug. 1. My email box is very full right now.  

Everyone is trying to figure out how to do virtual theatre as we go. The festival is very ambitious — it’s huge. We work every day except for Sundays. There are four tracks — Conference sessions (WTF Con), the Fringe Festival, WTF Family (kids classes, Seed Art share on Fridays, accompanying Parent Coffee Hours) and Festival Fridays, which includes special events, keynote sessions and workshops such as the Anti-Racist Theatre Workshop with Nicole Brewer, Equity In Producing Workshop and The Momversations Project. 

UK Fine Arts: Streaming tech — that’s a very 2020 job. Tell us about that. 

Davis: It’s something I’m still learning about! We have different “tracks” with WTF —  much of the work I do is encompassed by WTF Con, which consists of a lot of workshops and panels (I participated in a young professionals panel). They have over 250 hours of content between all of the tracks including the Fringe Festival, which happens every Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 a.m. for the month of July. The streaming tech is a paid position — there are 15 of us total and my internship is in addition to that work.  

The process has been to ensure that participants have all the proper equipment needed for their session. There’s a general digital literacy required, so it’s been an interesting learning curve, for sure. As a streaming tech, you’re assigned a number of sessions and are responsible for coordinating with the industry professionals who are presenting or teaching the session. For WTF Con, I also coordinate with presenters, assess any technical needs based on the nature of their session, manage the attendees and coordinate session etiquette. For example, I recently did a two-hour writing workshop — I logged onto Zoom with the presenter and we tested audio, etc., before participants entered the room. I also stream sessions to Vimeo, in order to archive each session for people who have bought a full festival pass but are unable to attend.  

UK Fine Arts: OK, let’s back up. Ali, what is OBS? 

Ray: OBS or Open Broadcaster Software is a free program available online. I use the program to create the virtual streaming productions. I’ll pull the file from a Zoom call and essentially cookie-cutter out each window to load into OBS, where I've created a visual layout and lighting for each show. Then I build the production file in OBS — I made a dummy Zoom in the background so that I can modify the shape and size of the source, virtually every feature about it, so that I can modify the looks for the finished product. Each actor has to have their own feed pool in order to modify. 

UK Fine Arts: Where did you find the experience with the tech?

Ray: I use OBS at Singletary (Singletary Center for the Arts), where I work under Tanya Harper. Back in March, I had already contracted with WTF for the summer festival and Artistic Director Ashley Popio asked me if I could stream some readings, so I learned how to do it overnight.

Along the way, I’ve picked up certain tips and tricks. It’s a simplistic process once you’re comfortable with it. I also worked with Anthony Buckner, the lighting/technology designer for the May production of “Freakshow,” which was a fully livestreamed production. We built the design for “Freakshow” the same way that the WTF has been created — it’s been a six-month process. 

UK Fine Arts: How does this experience inform the way you work with theatre?

Ray: It’s helped me hone my problem-solving skills, working in the moment. For instance, we have to figure out how to give cues while the actors are on stage, on screen, but not have the audience know. I've learned how to coordinate lighting design for a virtual performance and do everything in a much shorter timeframe. Some of the shows have five cues, some of them have 112 cues — so there are different levels of participation in terms of my work. 

UK Fine Arts: How do you feel livestreaming theatre is working? 

Russell: I can’t say what they’re usually like in a typical season, but it’s been wildly successful in terms of audience participation. I wondered “Is anyone going to pay money to watch a livestream?” We could only sell so many seats and sometimes there are as many as 100 people buying tickets to an event — so it’s much higher attendance than I thought.

The great thing about virtual theatre is you can really rely on different people’s networks, and you can rely on people being everywhere. We do post most of our content on our Twitch channel — on a Saturday night, we had 60-70 people watching on Twitch for a pay what you can. The reach is people all over the world — we have people tuning in. We're reaching people that we wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to connect with. 

It’s interesting because a lot of the people from North Carolina assume everyone is participating locally from Raleigh, and there are actually people from all over the country. We have tons of playwrights and actors who are calling in from NYC and one in Hawaii. It’s great that so many artists and performers can reach out to their entire network across the world.  

Davis: Given the circumstances, it’s really done in an artful way and it’s impressive. I’m mostly dealing with the WTF Con sessions but the performances I’ve attended have been very intimate. They have a theatre workshop feel that’s very unique to theatre education. 

UK Fine Arts: Abby, we noticed your blog post earlier this month. Do you think you’ll be writing more articles?  

Davis: Yes! I’m working on one about the WTFamily track which provides theatre education for children while their parents attend the festival. It’s catering to parents who still want to participate in the festival and in the theatre industry in general, but have trouble balancing a family with the demands of the industry. It’s really heartwarming to see. 

Another piece that I’m still working on talks a lot about accessibility based on one of the panel discussions I was on the other night. I want to get excited about virtual theatre and the positives that are coming of this. I want to maintain a light and positive outlook when it comes to the blog that WTF has. We don’t know how long we’ll be doing this.

Theatre is going to look very different after all of this is over. And we think it should. We are not shy about criticizing academia and how it differs from the industry itself. I maintain a hope with virtual theatre — especially since joining WTF — I feel very motivated to create now.  

UK Fine Arts: What do you think the future of virtual theatre is? 

Ray: I like it, but I miss being in a theatre venue. I talk to Tanya Harper every day and being able to go back to Singletary Center is always on my mind. It’s a challenge, but I love technology! Virtual theatre combines my favorite things — technology and theatre — so I think I’ve found my perfect niche, which has been wonderful being stuck at home. It's really gotten me through quarantine. 

Another positive is that virtual theatre is more accessible for audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate in live theatre. For instance, chronically ill people, hard of hearing and deaf individuals, or people who can’t leave their homes. I tore my meniscus recently, and I would not be able to do my job if all of this were in person. So being able to create theatre from home with an injury is unique and not something I'd normally be able to do.  

Russell: It’s a good substitute and can still be meaningful and artistically fulfilling. Ultimately — it’s only a stopgap — it can only sustain you for so long before you have to be with humans again.

I’ve seen some wonderful virtual theatre and some touching moments — there’s a lot of human connection virtually. I think everybody knows that it’s not quite as rich as it would be as if we were in person. I can’t see many people preferring virtual over in-person theatre, but it’s an important step and process to have in the coming years because things are not getting better in terms of the global pandemic. 

Maybe the next step is hybrid theatre. Maybe it’s rehearsed online and then performed in person. I certainly don’t think all of this effort is wasted. We need to figure out how to make art virtually until artists can reconvene in person.

UK Fine Arts: What other takeaways has this experience given you?  

Davis: The biggest takeaway is that I need to trust myself with trying new things. I have the skills to succeed, and just learning about the industry has aided me in my arts admin work. It’s a smaller commitment, but I’m also doing some marketing and development work with Distilled Theatre Company here in Lexington which has been a nice thing to add.

Knowing the feasibility of creating virtual theatre, I’m looking at remote opportunities across the country in order to see what kind of work I can do during my senior year. We are typically limited as students to only doing professional work during the summer. Schedule permitting, I’m very much looking forward to continuing this work, wherever it may, be during the school year.  

Russell: I think I’m going to have such a wealth of knowledge and understanding of how to run a virtual theatre festival. I’m making connections, gaining experience — this is a unique opportunity to help build what might be the first virtual festival of its kind. And I’m doing it with an organization I’ve never worked with before, it’s been wonderful working to build this thing together. 

The best part of the whole experience has been the diversity and inclusion throughout the festival. WTF is focused on gender equality and making sure that women are 50% of everything that’s created. The company is almost entirely made up of women and there’s also such a wealth of representation of all types of artists. They really go out of their way to find people who feel underrepresented in the theatre industry and bring them along. We had a weekend that was essentially a mini festival where we produced work written by Asian American women and it’s so rich, it’s not something I’ve experienced before.  

I’m really excited to bring all of this virtual perspective/knowledge back! I’m a little “Zoomed out” but, I will know a lot about administrating virtual programming. If we have a musical theatre cabaret, for instance, it will be online so I will be able to help produce. I’ve been watching theatre online for months now, and I’ll have a base knowledge. I’m excited to talk it through with my Arts Admin professors in my exit interview. Remote art is going to be huge for the next couple of years — I’m excited to see how it will affect the way we go forward in terms of remote internships.  

 

The Department of Theatre and Dance, part of UK College of Fine Arts, provides students hands-on training and one-on-one mentorship from professional theatre and dance faculty and renowned guest artists in acting, directing, playwriting, theatrical design and technology, and dance. From mainstage productions to student-produced shows, students have plenty of opportunities to participate on stage or backstage. Special programs include a musical theatre certificate, education abroad, as well as a thriving dance program that emphasizes technique, composition, performance and production.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" two years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.