Charleston arts and modern technology: Are they friends or foes? | Columnists

Charleston arts and modern technology: Are they friends or foes? | Columnists

It used to be that the concept “from stage to screen” touted a performer or production that had grandly leapt from one dramatic art form to the other.

These days, it takes on vastly different connotations. Staged productions now often fold in cinematic bells and whistles, large screens chief among them. On a dispiriting note, today’s patrons routinely pivot their gaze from stage to screen, rummaging mid-performance to silence or survey cellphones.

The boon and the bane of the digital age is certainly well-trod terrain. But, like the latest version of an iPhone, the constant upgrades and behavioral shifts in our high-tech world call for regularly revisiting our digital state of the arts to assess the tech-powered pros and cons of the Charleston arts scene.

Pro: More Wows on Stage

Certainly the latest digitized feats can further an artist’s vision in mind-blowing, eye-catching ways. Consider recent star turns of Spoleto Festival USA.

“Some of our operas have taken great strides in technology being used,” said Jessie Bagley, festival spokesperson.

The Spoleto Festival’s production of “Tree of Codes,” a contemporary opera directed by Ong Keng Sen, ran at the Dock Street Theatre in 2018. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The 2018 opera, “Tree of Codes,” projected a huge central monument. In 2017, the festival’s production of “Eugene Onegin” mounted massive video closeups of the lead singers, offering Gaillard Center crowds a means by which to witness every nuance of their expressions.

Technology also enabled Spoleto to simulcast the opening performance of the 2016 production of “Porgy and Bess,” inviting the public to partake of it in real time in Marion Square Park and as an encore screening at West Ashley High School.

Lighting has gotten a technological leg up, too. Brian Porter, artistic director of Footlight Players, reports that the company has replaced its gelled incandescent lights with LED’s. These make lighting with color extremely easy, thus adding to the overall aesthetic and effect of the production.

“They really were seen and enhanced the most recent show, ‘Head Over Heels,’” Porter said, adding that they allow for an endless amount of color options and are extremely reliable and energy-efficient.

LED lights in a production of "Hair"

LED lights have replaced incandescent gels at The Queen Street Playhouse, offering more color options that enhance production values, such as in the recent production of “Hair.” Provided 

Con: More Wows From the Couch

With gargantuan televisions and seemingly limitless Netflix viewing options, Charleston’s performing arts presenters must also contend with an increasingly fierce competitor: the couch.

“When people ask me what the competition for the orchestra is here in Charleston, the first answer is always Netflix,” said Kate Gray, director of marketing for Charleston Symphony. “It’s not any other performing arts organization.”  

Pro: Deeper Audience Engagement

With all the downsides, arts marketers are also reaping benefits from increased technology, such as precision database software that can identify behaviors of past and prospective audience members.

Spoleto uses database software called Tessitura, which enables it to be hyper-targeted in its outreach. Since adopting the system in 2012, the festival’s email subscriber list has doubled, going from 25,000 to 50,000, due in part to this ability to target.

“Tessitura has completely changed the way we can sustain our existing audience and grow a new audience,” Bagley said. 

Charleston Symphony has also reaped rewards from being able to identify multiple audience segments, ranging from young music students all the way up to retirees.

“We love classical music and we want to share it with everyone,” Gray said. “So how do you market a product when the demographics are so wide?”

The organization relies on digital marketing to target distinct groups. It markets on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, both organically through the content they post and through paid advertising, which allows them to collect data.

“We have an increased focus on looking at every person as an individual,” Gray said. “Going to a first concert is like going on a first date. The technology we have allows us to identify who those are and invite them on a second date.”

Though a self-avowed “diehard Luddite,” Terry Fox weighs well the power of digital tools in his roles as co-founder and associate director of Charleston Arts Festival and a founder of Parliament, which runs the PechaKucha events centered on Charleston’s creative sector.

Both enterprises regularly promote through social media, with partners spreading the word through their own channels. “The demographics we strive to attract for both initiatives are certainly keyed in to the use of technologies,” he said.

Arts patrons themselves have become integral to that marketing. Their ability to share news, reviews and special promotions involving arts organizations has become a powerful driver of ticket sales and brand awareness.

video snow.jpg (copy)

Natalia Pavlova, shown here in a video that was part of the Spoleto Festival’s “Eugene Onegin” production, is a Russian soprano from St. Petersburg. The opera used technology to captivate audiences. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Con: Greater Audience Disruption

Anyone who has been to a live performance knows the disruptive side of technology, with mobile devices going off during shows as often as not.

Last Spoleto, there were numerous interruptions. There was the insistent ring during a seminal leap in a dance. There was the dog bark ringtone ruining a reflective experimental jazz piece. A rock ‘n’ roll blare sounded during a solo at a chamber music concert.

“It is disappointing when a phone goes off during a performance, for sure,” said Bagley. The festival adheres to a policy of no cellphones, electronic devices, recordings or flash photography, and the staff is in constant conversation about exploring ways to encourage audiences to comply.

“We stick to that, where some festivals have stopped having that fight because it seems like such a losing battle.” 

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Pro: Dramatic Fodder

The yin and yang of technology also plays out on stage, as evidenced by the curatorial picks of local theater companies in the past few years.

The Village Repertory Theatre has grappled with the nefarious fallout of the internet in “The Nether,” Jennifer Haley’s sci-fi drama that mined the dark web. Pure Theatre has mounted Madeleine George’s “The (curious case) of the Watson Intelligence,” which examined artificial intelligence.

Then there was Spoleto’s presentation of “Golem” by the London-based theater company 1927, which creates most of its sets as animated screens that may read as folksy, but are in actuality a product of technological sophistication. “Golem” casts a cold eye on handheld devices, likening them to the legendary creature in Jewish folklore that, once unleashed, grows in its destructive capabilities. 

1927’s ‘Golem’ is a feat of technology satirizing technology (copy)

A scene from 1927’s ‘Golem.’ File

Con: Attention Deficit

With all those thoughts to mull, the human attention span at the same time appears to be rapidly dwindling. Ask Michael Okas, who has the unique vantage of being a local actor as well as a research specialist in a neuroscience lab at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“There’s a huge difference between now and 10 years ago,” he said. Through all the advancement in their technology, cellphones have become the be-all and end-all stimulus for instant gratification, thus competing with stimuli like live performances.

According to Okas, looking at a phone or feeling it vibrate in your pocket triggers an anticipation of the reward of reading that text or checking Facebook. Scientifically, this “reward system” is initiated and controlled by a huge increase in production of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

“Phones have become a crutch for the instant gratification of our reward system, disconnecting people from everything else,” said Okas.

“Honestly, nowadays, people are to their phones the same way as a smoker of 30 years is to their next cigarette,” he said.

But Okas has good news, too. Artists are finding ways to provide the rewards our brains crave. And they are doing so by leveraging technology, among them lighting and special effects that in recent Broadway productions have approached CGI-quality.  

Over at Footlight Players, Porter is on board to deliver such spectacle to help live performing arts compete for an audience that has become used to cinema magic.

“Obviously, what you get from a live performance is more than just spectacle,” he said.

That’s the case at Charleston Symphony, as well. According to Gray, the main competitive advantage in live performance is that patrons are able to physically feel the music, an irreplaceable experience.

“The one thing we always say is that there will never be anything that can take the place of an orchestra live.”

Once audience members turn off their own devices and tune in to both the state-of-the-art spectacle and the transcendent potential of live performance, rewards abound.

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