Like so many arts organizations, On the Boards (OtB) ended its season early this year, forced by the novel coronavirus pandemic to cancel four shows, cut employee hours and close the doors of its performance hall in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne.
And yet, the group’s executive director tells a tale of astonishing growth. Even as the venue remains shuttered, the organization is imagining ways it might fold social distancing into future events.
Normally, the nonprofit performing arts venue is filled from September through May with the talent of local dancers, actors, musicians and speakers. Since its founding in 1978, OtB has provided a place for people to showcase their work and meet and collaborate with other performers and art-lovers in the Seattle area. The theater puts on nine to 13 shows per season, in addition to an annual Northwest New Works Festival in June. OtB also does programs in partnership with Seattle Theater Group.
This year, as everyone is aware, was different.
“It was probably around the second week of March that my colleagues and I started to have conversations about canceling some of our events,” Betsy Brock, OtB’s executive director of nearly four years, said. “At OtB, we start most of our evening performances with a ‘studio supper,’ where we partner with a local chef and provide a large meal for our audience members. But it became evident that having people eating so close together maybe wasn’t such a good idea.”
At the time, the gravity of the looming health crisis had not quite sunk in. Brock felt fairly confident that shows would still be able to go on, with a few modifications to prioritize audience safety, such as stepping up sanitation.
Then colleges and universities decided to go online, ending all in-person gatherings. Following their lead, Brock officially postponed all upcoming spring OtB events. “It was just so hard to make decisions, with the coronavirus updates changing every single day,” she remembered. “I found myself absolutely glued to the news to figure out all of our next steps.”
Despite the theater being empty and the ongoing uncertainty of when it will be safe to have on-site performances again, OtB has managed to grow in an unexpected way.
“We’ve had an existing online platform called On the Boards TV for about 10 years, but the pandemic has encouraged us to expand it significantly,” Brock said, describing it as “a sort of Netflix for dance and contemporary performance.” Normally, access to the platform requires a yearly subscription that costs $50 for individuals, $500 for academic institutions and $5 for a single film rental. Today, it is free.
“With everything limited to online formatting, and with the postponement of so many of our shows, we decided to make it accessible for all viewers free of cost,” Brock said.
During the pandemic shutdown, OtBTV has exploded in viewership. Visitors to the site have increased 618 percent compared with this time last year. Brock said more than 3,500 viewers have streamed content for free; another 3,100 new viewers have purchased a subscription or otherwise have paid for content. The international audience, in particular, has skyrocketed. Users span 125 countries. Outside of the United States, the greatest growing numbers are in Turkey, Iran and Germany.
What kinds of performances can a viewer see at OtB? Brock describes them as “different from anything else in Seattle,” involving a range of art forms, from avant-garde dance to experimental theater to other “completely uncategorizable performances” — material that the organization had never, until now, presented solely through a computer screen. The content is based on archived recordings of live performances.
“I just think that right now, people are looking for experiences that feel ‘real.’ We’ve tried to make our videos with care and time and deep conversations with the artists,” Brock said. “They can truly feel like a real performance.”
Of course, providing free access to OtBTV has done anything but alleviate the financial stress the organization is facing as a consequence of the pandemic shutdown. The closure of the theater will result in a loss of $250,000 to $300,000 in revenue — from ticket sales, concessions, tenants being unable to pay rent and the new online format of their annual fundraiser — by the end of this fiscal year, in June.
Additionally, OtB has had to cut the hours of its associate technical director, production coordinator and audience services manager. Its house manager was laid off. All the positions are heavily dependent on the venue being open and active.
Despite the severe financial loss, Brock remains confident in the organization’s decision to keep OtBTV free at least through May. “It’s been more work on our end, and the server fees are very expensive. But it is so worth it,” she said, “knowing that more people are using the resources, spreading the word and engaging with performance, despite the limitations of stay-at-home orders and social distancing. It was always meant to be a tool for greater access to art.”
Beyond free OtBTV, other plans are afoot. During her interview with Real Change via Zoom, Brock revealed some of the new thoughts about the relationships among audiences, artists and institutions she has had while working from home: “Honestly, I think that theaters, dance venues and music venues have gotten into a really transactional relationship with their audience members. I pay you some money, you tell me when to show up for maybe an hour and a half, and then I go home. Maybe I think about that performance for a little while, maybe I don’t. But, there’s very little investment that actually goes into the institution that created the whole opportunity.”
While many Washingtonians await the day they can safely gather for dinner at their favorite restaurant, a play at the local theater or just when everything will go back to “normal,” Brock said that at OtB, “normal” is no longer what they’re aiming for.
Following their apparent success with OtBTV, Brock and her coworkers are continuing to look for more ways to make performance art increasingly accessible to a wider range of audiences, and perhaps ways that continue to prioritize social distancing measures.
“We’ve definitely been thinking about [social distancing] a lot and not just for performances in the near future, but even those long past June,” she said. “I was just having a conversation with our artistic director about maybe issuing a call for proposals for works that happen outdoors. Regardless, we will definitely be coming up with these kinds of solutions alongside the artists.”
To prioritize audience and artist safety and comply with state mandates, OtB has postponed all on-site performances indefinitely. But Brock is determined that art will continue to be shared and experienced in the organization’s signature untraditional and experimental ways.
“Everyone is being affected, and there is something strong and empowering about that,” she said. “Nobody is untouched by this, and it is this solidarity that is incredibly important now and should continue to be in the future.”
Read more in the May 27 - June 2, 2020 issue.