Big things are brewing at 900 Broadway. Just six months after COVID-19 shut down theaters across the nation, the team at RiverCenter for the Performing Arts has secured a way to present theatre to its audience once more.
Thanks to a new product created by the Shubert Organization, a series of a state-of-the-art performances will be available via livestream to RiverCenter patrons this Fall.
The Shubert Organization is America's oldest theatre company and one of the largest theater owners on Broadway. They designed this new groundbreaking livestream product to offer non-profit theaters around the nation the opportunity to boost ticket sales and revenue amidst the COVID-19 crisis.
We sat down with Norman Easterbrook, RiverCenter's Executive Director, for an exclusive interview to learn all about the new product, how RiverCenter secured one of only 25 spots open to participating theaters, and why being one of the few to offer this service could have a major impact on our city this Fall.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
How did you find out about this new product?
When COVID-19 hit and everything started to happen, our team at RiverCenter started researching what other theaters around the nation were doing to stay relevant with their audiences.
Carrie Corbett, our Director of Marketing, discovered that a theatre in California was featuring a livestream concert by Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington in Hamilton. We started tracking the event, and found that it went very, very well.
We began doing some more research on the event as a team, and as we investigated this new product, we discovered it was a trial run for a group of theaters. Each of them were testing out a type of new livestream product, and it was very popular with all of the audiences that were participating.
What made it so special?
We were very attracted to it because of the quality and the uniqueness of what they’re offering.The quality comes in because the Shubert Organization in New York converted one of their theaters into a live-streaming studio.
Wow. This is being done through the Shubert Organization? Yes, and as you know, the Shubert Organization owns the majority of the theaters on Broadway. They’ve been in existence from decades, and when they ask for help from the Broadway community, people tend to listen to them and consider their requests.
This project involves only non-profit theaters like RiverCenter. It’s being done to help theaters stay present with their audiences. The Shubert Organization recognized how much regional theater audiences mean to each theater, and to the overall success of the industry. So this really is a very supportive thing for the Shubert Organization to do for non-profit theaters like RiverCenter around the nation.
This is amazing. How does it work?
The model is that no more than 25 theaters in the nation will be able to distribute this product. There are regional restrictions to protect each theater’s potential audience.
RiverCenter will be able to aggressively promote this to all of the state of Alabama, to our designated region of Georgia which extends from Columbus to Macon all the way south to just below Jacksonville, FL and also reaching into Tallahassee and most of the Florida Panhandle. That’s the geographic region that has been carved out for RiverCenter.
It really is an incredible opportunity for us to serve our local audience and have the potential to reach a much wider audience at the same time. The Shubert Organization wants to make it so that it’s not so broadly available that those theaters who buy into the project don’t have an opportunity to recoup their investment. They have been really judicious about protecting the best interest of each non-profit theater involved. We’re thrilled at the way it’s been designed.
Will the 25 non-profit theaters around the nation be able to collaborate and discuss their experiences at all?
Absolutely. As a part of that group, we’ll all be able to share how it’s going and what we’re learning as we go.
You know, none of us have ever done this before. It’s comforting to have 24 other theaters, run by very smart people, that we can speak with throughout the process. These theaters are all different sizes, their audiences are going to be different, and they’ll all have different takeaways from which we can all learn.
It’s already happening, too. Carrie (Corbett) has been speaking with the theatre in California we originally found that was doing this. We’re lucky to be able to sort of compare notes and figure out what’s working with this particular model. It’s all new, but we’ve got a lot of brilliant people we’ll be working alongside as it happens.
Norm, what do you like most about the product?
What I like most about it is the fact that our audience will have access to some very very high end talent and quality names that we would not typically be able to afford to have perform at RiverCenter live.
Granted, these performances are not live, because that is just not possible in our current worldwide situation - but this product will bring some of the top Broadway stars into your living room for an incredibly reasonable ticket price that can be shared between family members in your household.
The first performance that I saw was incredibly intimate. The quality was unbelievable to me. They had audience members emailing questions to the star and there was a bit of dialogue back and forth. So, it’s a very different experience, but it’s one that you would typically never get unless you left Columbus and flew someplace else.
Norm, who are we talking about seeing here?
Unfortunately, at this time, I can’t share names. But I can tell you that these are very high profile stars that have maybe only been in our region once or twice before. Most of them would have only been to our state to perform at a private event or for very limited audiences. These are stars that most likely would not be here for a public event because most theaters simply could not afford to pay the booking fee to get them here. That’s the type of names we’re talking. But until they’re released nationally, we cannot share the actual artists just yet.
Wonderful. We can’t wait to hear more about who will be included. In the meantime, can you share a bit more about how the product works for audience members? I’m assuming most of us won’t have tuned in to something like this before through a theatre.
Absolutely. Here’s how the model is a bit different. When you buy access to the stream, you can sit in your living room with your spouse or your children and all watch the same show. So it’s not like we’re asking you to spend $35-$40 per person - it can be an experience you can purchase to share as a family. Then, the link stays active for 72 hours, so you can view it as many times as you like during that period of time. We also love this because it gives parents the opportunity to view a show first and then make an informed decision about watching it with their kids.
So, it’s offering our audiences a different, relational experience than what you’d get coming to the theater for the evening. Plus, you can take food into the event if you want to. (laughing) Shoot, bring you a pizza and some hot dogs! Or, get local takeout and make it a date night.
Can you pause the stream while you’re watching?
No. Once you start the show, you can’t pause it because it’s a livestream. So you do need to be aware of that. We like this though because it does mean one experience about coming to the theater will remain the same… (laughing) … you will have to wait until intermission to use the restroom.
(laughing) Hilarious, and really good to know, honestly. It’s nice to have some semblance of normal here and there, isn’t it?
What else should we know about the product, Norm?
This, in a way, is being put together by the Shubert Organization kind of as a support for non-profit theaters. These stars are putting on these performances via this new product to help non-profit theaters that have been hit so hard during this pandemic. It’s a little bit of a fundraiser, too. I can tell you one thing that won’t happen. You will not see ticket prices reduced - you will not see a buy one, get one, free. The price of the ticket is the price of the ticket. So if you want to see the series, the way it stands right now, you need to buy all three shows before the first show. Because from that point forward, it’ll be single ticket shows.
They’re doing this to keep the ticket prices reasonable, and to ensure that no theater is able to undercut another by running deals or discounts. Because it’s meant to help all of these non-profit theaters during this time, it’s being handled very fairly by the Shubert Organization to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to have the same benefit from participating. They want to make sure it’s equally attractive across the board for all viewers around the nation.
That makes perfect sense. So, it’s a package of three shows? When will the series begin and what are the prices?
It is a series of three shows. They have not released the prices because they have recently had a price adjustment. The reason for that Carrie Beth, is that they were able to adjust the price down because they were able to get a few more theaters enrolled than they originally thought. The price per ticket is based on how many theaters are participating, so when they had a few more come onboard, it reduced the cost for everyone. It may happen again, I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.
In terms of show dates, we know the general timeline, but all I can share is that they’re scheduled to begin this Fall.
What will RiverCenter’s participation in this project mean for our community?
We’re all struggling to find a way through this global crisis. Everything about it has been heartbreaking. However, we never dreamed that we would be able to enter into a relationship with the Shubert organization. We have a great relationship with our friends at the Fox Theater, but now that they’re participating with us in this, it offers us an opportunity to continue strengthening our ties with them.
What COVID-19 has done, is that it’s opened relationships for us that we never thought we would be able to employ or leverage to serve our audience and our community. That, to me, is one of the biggest positive outcomes out of all of this.
The idea that our audience will have the opportunity to see stars of this caliber through their relationship with RiverCenter? It’s wonderful, and it would have never happened if not for the current circumstances. I’m not trying to say that the global crisis has been a good thing. It’s been awful! But this is something good in our industry that is coming out of such a challenging time.
Every show we’ve done so far has been offered to the 1,990 seats in our building. Now with this product, we have a market where we could technically sell 5 or 6 million tickets if that many people wanted to see a show. Obviously, that will not happen, but we technically could share this show with as many people as are in our appointed region.
Is there anything else I don't know to ask you about this, Norm? What else would you like for our audience to be aware of about this new product?
RiverCenter being able to offer this product also supports and lifts up our community. This is another way to promote the wonderful benefits of living in Columbus, Georgia. You know, when someone sees the RiverCenter, there is material attached to it - material we can attach to it, that tells people what a wonderful environment Columbus possesses.
This technology is also something we hope to carry with us into the future. Having livestream capabilities allows us to showcase our city in ways we haven’t been able to before. Now, people will be able to see how wonderful Columbus, Georgia is by simply tuning in and catching a glimpse of where we are located.
We’re excited for people to see that our city is a place that’s got a lot of really great cultural things going on. We are eager to show people that Columbus, Georgia is a community that is thriving culturally and artistically - and that Columbus, Georgia is the special place RiverCenter calls home. ◼︎