Stories from Quarantine: Verb Ballets

13 Jan

Guest Blog by Dr. Margaret Carlson, Producing Artistic Director  

Re-Imagine, Re-Conceive, Re-Deliver
Due to the arrival of the coronavirus in Feb 2020, many goals, activities, performances, and income were disrupted. The company was on tour in Cuba at the time and very relieved that we returned home before things shut down. While we all quarantined beginning in March, Verb continued to pay its dancers and staff while we worked from home. We applied for a PPP loan that we received in April and that was used to continue to pay employees and rent. The dancers returned to Cleveland on May 1 and sheltered at home for 14 days, and then we began having them report to work for 2.5 hours a day. Sanitizing protocols were in place, and when we had safely completed two weeks of working, we then returned to work starting June 1 with a 25% reduction in hours for all dancers and staff. Verb applied to enter the Shared Work program through Unemployment services, and by doing this we were able to continue to work with reduced hours and receive unemployment benefits. For the month of June, dances were created that did not require the dancers to touch or partner each other. Then, our entire season was canceled and we lost our earned income putting us into a situation of “survive or close.”

We have definitely been on a steep learning curve. During the initial lockdown the dancers came to the studio individually and recorded classes that were offered to our students. We worked with a local musician, Angie Haze, and her band, and made our first of several Covid Creations. It is called, SHOES. https://verbballets.org/shoes/ and marked our first venture into the virtual performance world.

Returning to work and having all of our shows cancelled, we began the process of re-imagining what performance is, how to then re-conceive the move away from the traditional and finally how to deliver it to audiences. At first, I was adamant that we figure out how to broadcast live performance as a one-off scheduled time. I wanted to preserve the anticipation that comes from going to the theatre. We utilized a service called Boxcast and figured out how to re-digitize and run the performances through our website. After the first attempt, we learned that we would do better to utilize a switcher that would allow us to move back and forth from live and pre-recorded content. By October, we were ready to move away from the live concept into finding ways to use the camera as a creative bridge to various realities. We produced a Halloween weekend film that was shot in a cemetery, the studio, and an outdoor Renaissance Colonnade. It was a “for fun” piece and we quickly learned that if moving into the world of film there needed to be a very clear storyline or way of connecting material https://verbballets.org/carnival-macabre/. In our latest production, we partnered with the Blue Water Symphony in a program where they filmed the orchestra in a different location from the one we were in and used the camera and effects to make it look like we were in the same location https://verbballets.org/building-bridges-together/. For our next production, we are moving into a theatre in a collaboration with rock musician Neil Zaza to produce a 20-minute film of a sneak peek of our December 2021 new production called The Revenge of the Rat of King, a play on the holiday favorite, The Nutcracker. We will have a film crew as well as a rock lighting designer and a dance designer. And finally, with Cares Act funds in hand we are about to convert our largest studio into a black box theatre so that we can permanently produce both live audience and virtual shows. The future, we believe, will continue to demand a virtual component.

Our final challenge was in finding a way to monetize our work. In our first attempt, we made it donation only, then tried a small charge with a donation option, then went to a set ticket price and finally ticketing options for children/seniors/families. The really fascinating discovery was that no matter which option we tried, the average ticket price came out the same, which was $25/person. So, the market determined what it would bear. On a good note, our virtual shows draw a viewership from an average of 26 states and 3-5 countries. It has allowed us to spread our name in much the same way as touring minus the cost.

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