LOOKING BACK OVER THE PANDEMIC
It has been an "interesting" eighteen months here at BAT. There is an understatement.
During the pandemic, the Burien City Council voted to spend $620,000.00 to tear down BAT's home in a four to three vote, even though they had no plans about what to do with the property once BAT's home was gone. The Council members opposed to destroying BAT's home were Pedro Olguin, Nancy Tosta, and Kevin Schilling.
Even as BAT fought on to keep its home, the pandemic hit BAT's on-stage shows. During BAT's The Rocky Horror Show production, the Governor limited seating in live theaters to 50%. Out of our safety concerns for the cast, crew, and audience, we decided to close Rocky early. We closed mid-run after the Sunday matinee. That Monday, the Governor closed down all live theaters. So Rocky was BAT's last show in its old home.
Seeing that we could not be on stage and expecting the pandemic to go on for a while, in May of 2020, BAT turned to the internet. We had heard about a thing called Zoom. We were told it was better than most anything else out there for online meetings. So we decided to perform shows on Zoom.
At that time, royalty companies had not yet figured out how to structure royalties for online performances. As a result, they were slow to respond to our requests for rights, so we looked for plays where we had a relationship with the author or the author's agent.
We quickly picked four shows that met those requirements, plus one in the public domain. We guessed these five plays would work on this new medium. We announced our first Shelter-in-place Season. We then purchased a Zoom subscription and headed into Zoom rehearsal. As the director and cast learned how to rehearse on Zoom, we worked to figure out how to use Zoom for a performance.
BAT was a very early adaptor using Zoom for live theater. Unfortunately, despite searching for help, there was little information to be found. (This was indeed a case of jumping out of a plane and building the parachute on the way down.) This abrupt pivot stretched BAT's Covid-19 staffing to its breaking point. But despite a pandemic, theater needs to go on. More than ever, people needed stories, especially the kinds of stories BAT is famous for telling.
BAT decided to stay live on Zoom to keep as much of that theater energy as possible. We also thought if we recorded shows for later streaming, we should do a lot of post-production, which would make it more like TV and less like live theater.
BAT also decided to forgo its Friday evening performances. We thought after a week of online meetings, no one would want to watch a play online. Like us, we thought the audience would like some time to transition from work to entertainment.
We also saw that some people were being hit hard by Covid. People were losing hours and, in too many cases, their jobs. So we decided to go with a pay-what-you-will model. We also decided that we would not turn away anyone who could not find one dollar to get a link. (Thankfully, many people were able and did pay more than one dollar.)
Setting up pay-what-you-will for BAT required the help of BAT's online ticket vendor, Click4Tix. Once again, Troy stepped up and set this up for us. As an aside, when the pandemic hit, Click4Tix, unlike some ticket vendors, timely paid BAT. Click4Tix even handled all of the refunds when we had to cancel part of The Rocky Horror Show. Click4Tix is a gem.
For our first Zoom performances, we decided to produce just one weekend of performances. Back then, we did not know if anyone would show up. We were delighted to find we had a good-sized and receptive audience.
BAT's first Shelter Season of five plays was so successful that we started to plan Season II. But first, we had to move out of our home.
The City of Burien required BAT to be out by the end of July. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, BAT could not bring in volunteers to help get us ready to move, and we had no place to store all of the physical pieces that make a theater. We were frantically looking for storage. With just days before the City's deadline, and BAT being forced to shut down due to a lack of storage, the Highline School District lent a hand. (BAT looks forward to restarting its scholarship program as a way to say thanks. The Highline School District's kindness saved BAT.)
Because we did not have storage until the Wednesday before the Friday we were told to move, we asked Burien Parks if we could have until Tuesday to move. That would let us use a local mover and get a nonprofit discount. Burien Parks denied our request and said it would throw away anything not moved out by Friday. BAT rushed to find a mover and paid a $3,000.00 premium, used a mover not located in Burien, and got out just in time.
Once the hectic move was over, it was on to Shelter Season II, another five plays. By now, the royalty companies were starting to figure out online shows. However, the royalty companies saw a new income stream. This led to a bit of a brouhaha. BAT sought the rights from Dramatists Play Service to produce Bauer by Lauren Gunderson. Dramatists said they required us to use their streaming service, which included ticket selling.
Well, part of BAT doing its Shelter Season was to help Click4Tix survive. With so many venues closed, Click4Tix was struggling too.
We exchanged many emails with Dramatists Play Service. We reached out to other theaters to see what they were doing, and they recommended we go ahead and do what Dramatists Play Service wanted. So, BAT decided not to do Bauer. Part of Bauer's storyline was that when an artist loses control, the art dies. We contacted Lauren Gunderson's agent and laid out our plight. We explained that we wanted to produce Bauer, but we could not in good conscience.
We do not know what went on behind the scenes, but Dramatists Play Service relented, and now their national contracts "strongly urge" theater to use their captive streaming service, but they do not require it. We also developed a great relationship with Lauren Gunderson's agent. (That connection led us to take a deep dive into Lauren Gunderson's work in BAT's Shelter Season III.)
In Shelter Season II, we went to four performances per play. Two Saturdays and Sundays. At the end of Shelter Season II, our audience grew, and we were much more proficient at Zoom. Zoom was not made for theater, but we were figuring it out.
Then came Shelter Season III, five more online plays. We opened with a Christopher Durang play and then did three Lauren Gunderson plays. (We also did a special performance of a local playwright's work.) It was an interesting dive into Lauren Gunderson's cannon. We also added OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) to our tool kit. With that addition, we could do even more tech in our Zoom shows.
BAT's Shelter Seasons were never just play readings. From the beginning, BAT rehearsed the plays, including tech rehearsals. The shows had props, costumes, and sound effects. BAT looks at Zoom as a stage substitute and gave each play the same attention that a MainStage show would receive.
A show on Zoom is not live theater in a playhouse. It is not a radio play. It is not a reading. It is a unique animal. As Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." In simple terms, the content and medium are intertwined. The central message or effect of something is not just in the content but in the way it is presented.
When presenting a play on Zoom, it is significantly different than sitting together in an auditorium watching people on a stage. We told stories of our humanity in a new way—a uniquely entertaining manner. Judging from audience numbers and comments, we did a good job.
All the while, BAT was part of Seattle Theater Leaders. Through that organization, and on its own, BAT is addressing the sexual and racial inequity in American Theater. Pre-pandemic, BAT was not blind to the issues of representation of non-male and non-whites in the theater. We had been working on all levels to expand our universe. Seattle Theatre Leaders sharpened and gave a voice to changes needed in theater to make it accessible and worthwhile for everyone. There is much work to do, but BAT is actively having the needed conversations and making needed changes.
Like every live theater in the Country, BAT's budget was crushed by Covid-19. Due to BAT's size, no employees, and the City of Burien tearing down BAT's home, BAT did not qualify for any City, State, or Federal financial aid or loans. BAT was left on its own. BAT's three Shelter-in-place Seasons provided much-needed income to stay afloat. Thanks to all who attended and who gave.
It looks like BAT may survive Covid-19, but that is only because of YOUR help. All of us at BAT cannot thank you enough for your support and for staying with us. Thank you!
As we look at coming out of Covid, first, this Summer, we head to South King County Parks with an adaptation of Hay Fever, then inside. Going inside means first finding at least a temporary home and then an amazing permanent home. We turn to you to keep us alive. PLEASE keep BAT going if you can, PLEASE DONATE HERE!