Industry Update, Part One: Technology in Performing Arts

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Tech in TheatreHow high-tech is changing audience expectations

To grasp how far technology in the performing arts has come, answer this question. What was one of the earliest forms of “technology” used to enhance theater performances?

Mirrors. The ancient Greeks positioned large mirrors to alter or reflect the sun’s rays to light performances in outdoor theaters. We’ve come a long way since then!

Welcome to our first in a three-part blog series on technology in performing arts today. We’ll focus specifically on how tech/automation is affecting what happens behind the scenes, and ask a team of experts-in-the-field to predict where tech is headed.

Mapping the Discussion

There’s no denying that modern technology touches every aspect of the venue experience for technicians, performers and audiences – from active acoustics to scenery, seating and staging. But there’s more to the story. In this week’s blog, we address how technology is altering audience expectations and if venue owners and managers are pursuing more technology.

Meet Our Panel

We’ve asked members of the Wenger and J.R. Clancy performing arts team to answer these questions. And, we’re pleased to include comments from guest contributor Joshua Grossman, principal at Schuler Shook, an internationally renowned theater planning and architectural lighting design firm. Together, the group brings nearly 150 years of performing arts experience to this discussion.

Here’s this week’s panel:

  • Mike Murphy, General Manager of Performing Arts
  • Patrick Finn, Performing Arts Product Manager
  • Jeff Jones, Performing Arts Specialist
  • Edward Kaye, Performing Arts Specialist
  • Joshua Grossman, Principal, Schuler Shook

Q: Before we get to technology-specific questions, what are some of the changes and challenges currently facing the performing arts industry, overall?

JOSH – Creating art has become more democratized. People no longer need to rely as much on special equipment to express themselves artistically or to disseminate their art. That’s increasing competition in the performance space. But it’s also injecting a lot of new energy, and the performing arts benefits from that.

ED – School districts, facility owners and producers increasingly want cost containment when developing new facilities. To best manage costs, general contractors and construction managers are switching to the design-build project delivery method. Specialty vendors, like Wenger, integrate into the broader team to lend project management skills and deep performing arts expertise.

MIKE – One challenge I see is creating a truly multi-purpose venue that is sustainable/profitable and can be used by many different stakeholders (music, dance, ballet, opera, performance, etc.) Equipment choices are essential to making that happen.

PATRICK – Declining ticket sales and arts funding, and the new tax law, are putting intense pressure on operational budgets. Technology can encourage better production quality and reduce the operational costs.

Q: Are you fielding more requests for new-tech performing arts solutions?

MIKE – I’m seeing more automation and requests for customization. Getting people into seats is top of mind.

ED – Today’s venue managers/owners continue to want technology solutions that maximize the impact of their productions on audience members and minimize material and labor costs.

JOSH – It used to be that we couldn’t get owners to consider automation [he’s referring primarily to rigging]. Now they expect it.

JEFF – Yes. We are receiving more requests for automated rigging systems to make operation as easy as possible. But if a project is budget challenged, some or all of the automated systems get cut back to manually operating systems. We can provide both types, and a combination.

Q: How has technology increased audience expectations around live entertainment, specifically, the “behind-the-scenes” element?

ED – Today, everyone has a smart phone. It’s like having a miniature computer with extremely sophisticated entertainment apps in your pocket. Users can have tremendous control of their entertainment environment. Virtual reality has also practically removed the need for the “willing suspension of disbelief.” As a result, getting audiences to the theater requires more realistic technical support and effects.

MIKE – Technology, in general, has increased the number of entertainment options available that are vying for people’s time. It’s a competitive space.

PATRICK – Technology has brought Netflix, CGI, 72-inch HD TV and more into the comfort of our homes. Live theater doesn’t have a “pause” button when you feel like standing or grabbing a beverage. Theater MUST keep people engaged more thoroughly than ever before, because being entertained at home is often cheaper, easier, more comfortable and more convenient.

JOSH – Having a theater experience can be very expensive. That cost has an associated level of expectation. People want an experience commensurate with their investment.

Editor’s Addition – In 2015, Facility Manager made some predictions about technology that appear to have taken hold. Here’s an excerpt from “Five Trends in Performing Arts Center Architectural Design”:

To engage contemporary audiences on an even higher level, shows are rapidly becoming multi-sensory, multi-directional, surround experiences. Through video, sound, special effects, scenery, and positioning of actors, patrons are being placed IN the show and becoming immersed through touch, sight, sound, smell, and even taste. (Think Once on Broadway.) A major U.S. entertainment company has been exciting their audiences’ five senses for years at their theme parks in California and Florida.

Q: What type of theater venues are seeing the most benefit from technology and automation?

JOSH – Commercial theaters and larger institutions have the budgets to invest in technology and automation, and their audiences expect it. Smaller theaters don’t often have the financial resources to invest in technology, but they usually have boundless energy and great intimacy. They also typically don’t have audiences that expect slick production. It’s the mid-sized professional theaters and larger community or civic theaters that are getting squeezed. They have overhead, which drives a higher ticket price and results in increased audience expectations. But those theaters have limited production budgets to compete.

Join Us for Part 2 

Check back in a few weeks for the second part in this series when our experts answer, “In the past decade, what technology has had the greatest impact on the performing arts?” and “How can venue owners and managers evaluate the bounty of choices?”

Until then, visit Wenger Performing Arts to see products and services that can keep venues of any size and budget stay in-step with transformative technology solutions.

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