Long before YouTube did anything live, Kathryn Jones was orchestrating and acting in multi-camera, episodic productions, mixed in real time and streamed online.
In August 2007, Jones debuted 35, the first live, scripted series to hit the web. Over the course of several weeks, viewers tuned into see the dramatic story of an “unwelcome house guest who unearths deeply-buried skeletons of a young couple on the verge of success, paving the way for a razor’s-edge triangle of possession, deceit, and retribution” unfold as it happened on screen.
Nearly three years later, Jones is back on the web, doing it live again.
Better Left Unsaid is an “interactive, live streamed play,” produced by Jones, Joey Brenneman, and Erin Bigelow. It’s a theatrical event preformed in front of an audience, but – like 35 – it’s also shot with multiple cameras, mixed in real time, and streamed live to the internet. The play is a complex roadmap that begins in Central Park and follows eight characters as their paths twist in unexpected ways, revealing that “sometimes the same secret that protects one person damages another.”
Performances of Better Left Unsaid began January 21 and run through February 6th, Friday and Saturday at 8:00PM EST with a Sunday performance on February 6 at 7:00PM EST, all at Center Stage NY.
I caught up with Jones between rehearsals to ask her about the appeal of theater, how long-form live performances play better than short-form, and why she feels so compelled to act live and online:
Tubefilter: How did Better Left Unsaid come to be?
Kathryn Jones: A live streamed play is a natural extension of my last live scripted project, which was a web series. However, I didn’t think of the idea until I participated in reading of Better Left Unsaid, which Joey held so that she could hear the play. The evening was totally electric. At the end of the night Joey came to me and asked if I had any ideas about how to adapt the play for the web. That’s when I came up with the idea of doing a multi-camera live stream of an entire play. Better Left Unsaid’s structure – mostly two person scenes – and theme – how everyone is connected in ways that they may not even be aware of – made the play an easy fit for online viewing.
Tubefilter: How’d you land the theater space?
KJ: We were space shopping for a while and finally landed at Center Stage, NY. I had produced there 10 years ago, and the way the space is set up we had plenty of room for our very large, very busy broadcast studio. But, this is theater, and the space did not come without some drama. Less than a month before opening night we received word that Center Stage had been evicted. We spent the next ten days doing nothing but hunting for a new venue as we were already in rehearsal and tickets were already on sale. Happily, Center Stage managed to save itself and we got back on track with nothing lost but 10 days prep.
Tubefilter: So what’s different about Better Left Unsaid and 35?
KJ: The main difference between this and 35 is that 35 was structured like a web series, so it was ten, ten-minute episodes. One of the things I discovered with 35 was that when people arrived at a live streamed show at an appointed time they actually want to spend more than ten minutes in the experience. Better Left Unsaid is a full length play (it runs about 90 minutes, plus an intermission). So, for the viewer it is a much richer, more immersive experience.
Form a technical point of view we are using more cameras (4 Sony 5D’s) and the newest Tricaster 850, donated to us by NewTek. We’re also adding social media interactivity into the show itself with live talkback sessions after each performance. And rather than create a whole new set-up each night, once the play is set and teched, everything but the cameras and mixing repeats itself every performance.
Tubefilter: Why live stream a play?
KJ: Well, there are a few reasons. First, to combine the excitement of live theater with the community of live streamed video events. Second, to develop a new dramatic paradigm that could launch an entirely new dramatic form born of today’s technology. And third, to more deeply engage a 21st century audience in the arts.
Tubefilter: How will you judge if Better Left Unsaid is a success? By number of viewers? Acclaim? Profitability?
KJ: That’s a tough one. I don’t know, Josh. I guess I would say that if we manage to engage viewers on a world wide level with New York Theater that would be a success, and if we are able to establish a new way to think about theater and technology that would feel like a great success. And what would make me happier than anything is if Joey and I can use this as a jumping off point for a a live streamed theater company.
Tubefilter: Are you charging admission for the online live stream?
KJ: Although this is online video, it is also theater, with a full cast and crew that has worked, and continues to work for weeks to make Better Left Unsaid a live streaming reality. Almost no American Theater can afford to produce for free, and neither can we. Right now everyone is working for free and we feel strongly that we need to pay our cast and crew, so we are selling tickets via suggested donations. We are asking our audiences to donate anywhere from $2.00 to $18 for online tickets. We think the broad price point spectrum will appeal to theater lovers and online video aficionados equally, and are counting on our viewers generosity to continue to produce live American Theater online.
Better Left Unsaid is performing under an AFTRA Experimental New Media Contract. Buy tickets to this weekend’s show or watch the live stream at BetterLeftUnsaid.tv.