The beginning of lockdown threw up all sorts of problems for us as it did so many actors, entertainers and theatre companies and like so many others we are not a company with a lot of financial backing as we are a not-for-profit company. All our income is generated by ticket sales and private booking fees. So when lockdown was announced our income market was stopped. The great danger was being able to keep the business going without any income. We were able to take advantage of the grant for self-employed people, but that only covered our personal living expenditure and not the on going business expenses. Although we were unable to stage shows, we were still obliged to keep up payments for ongoing business expenses such as insurance for the company vehicle, internet access, websites and other professional organisation fees. We had a stroke of luck in that we were approached by a client to make weekly video adventures for children which brought in some income. However, it wasn't an option to just sit it out as no one new how long the situation would go on for. We decided therefore to look at how we could operate online. Like so many others we made pre recorded videos and some free live content. This was great in keeping the name of AMA Theatre Co. alive, but it didn't bring in any income and we soon learnt that people are so used to turning on the TV or the internet to watch a host of programmes that are free, and so why would people pay just to see one of our shows online? when there was so much out there that didn't cost a penny? The answer was, that we had to present something different. It occurred to us that everything online or on TV even if it was a live recording of a stage show was basically still just a "film" with no interaction. And so, to make something more interactive, we produced A Comedy of Terrors, a kind of murder mystery but with classic comedy characters. A virtual event online was being hosted to which all comedians from the past were invited and an award was to be presented to the best comedy performer of all time. But prior to the announcement, the chairman of CRAP (Comedy, Retro, Award, Presentation) was found murdered. The suspects were Steptoe and Son, Laurel & Hardy, Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper. Two detectives were assigned to the case, Hercules Parrot and Ms Jane Marbles. The show was presented in two 45 minute episodes. The audience were able to download clues and a map from our website and submit their answers before the second episode was broadcast the following week. The audience were able to get more involved rather than just watching a pre-recorded video. The entire show was recorded on actual sets although some green screen was used to create some special effects. We did not want to present a show that was evidently shot in our living room. We turned our lounge into a TV studio for the filming of all our various projects.
By the middle of June things were ticking over quite well but then it was suggested there might be a second wave, pantomimes were cancelling and there was a lot of uncertainty with live shows and would audiences feel safe. We knew we had to go a step further, and thus like a lot of people, we too had taken part in several Zoom meetings, where we felt there was a platform here that could be utilised. After much research and a lot of trial and error for us to get exactly what we wanted, we've decided to use Zoom but in a very different way. We did not want a show to be filmed in front of a laptop webcam since there is not a real difference between that and a video. We wanted a real interaction show where the performers could interact with the audience. We wanted the nearest thing that we could get to a physical live show complete with atmosphere and ambience. We finally hit exactly what we wanted to achieve. The easy part was turning the lounge from a TV studio into a theatre complete with tabs, scenery and lighting, but it was the technical bit that took the most working out. What we came up with, was something that in retrospect seems so obvious but took a lot of working out. We downloaded a broadcast software called OBS, finally managed to get the right equipment to attach our HD broadcast camera, and some smaller cameras for cutting in shots and we had our picture. Sound was next. It was quite straight forward to attach the mics to the computer so the audience could hear us, but we wanted to be able to hear the audience when on stage. Again, a simple idea was to connect the incoming audio to speakers to the front of the stage. The final step was to install a 55inch TV monitor in front of the stage onto which the icons of all the audience watching through Zoom were relayed. What we wanted, especially for variety and panto shows was for the actors to be able to interact with the audience, just like on a physical stage. For example if someone was eating a packet of crisps whilst watching the show, the Dame for example could call them out..." here, you eating the crisps....Yes you in the pink jumper... I can't hear myself think..." Suddenly the audience are taken to a new level of watching entertainment on a screen. No one has ever had the TV speak back to them, until now!
Although each member of the audience or family are watching from the comfort of their living room, they can still hear the entire audience as the mics on stage pick up all the audience noise from the speakers. We have put a lot of work into this project and while social distancing and theatre closures are still something in our everyday life, we are proud to have created the nearest thing to being at a physical live performance from the safety of peoples own living room.
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