Innovative ideas fuel a resurgence of the arts

The entertainment company Victory Productions brings in about 30 to 40 tribute acts like Absolute Queen, Almost ABBA and “The Rocketman Show” to Savannah Center each year. Here Rus Anderson performs as a young Elton John during the Open Air Concert Series at the Villages Polo Club in 2021.

The entertainment industry bases success on crowds. Movie studios pay attention to box office triumphs. Performing arts venues note the shows that sell tickets. Playwrights seek out the elements that capture audiences’ attention. Take away the crowds, and you have an industry in crisis. That is what happened in March 2020, when more than 83 million people changed their plans after hundreds of events worldwide were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The entertainment industry may have born the brunt of the impact of stay-at-home orders and their aftermath, when many people still were afraid to go into public areas or be part of large audiences in closed-in venues. The restaurant industry survived by offering takeout options. But how does a venue offer takeout entertainment?

The pandemic forced the entertainment industry to take a hard look at how to provide audiences with what they wanted and provide employees with jobs during a time when the only place people were going was outside. And they succeeded, in many cases, by offering alternatives in the digital realm and in outdoor settings.

One thing the pandemic didn’t change was the desire for human connection that entertainment satisfies, according to Nathan Line, associate professor at Florida State University’s Dedman College of Hospitality.

“It is the business of bringing people together,” Line said. “That desire for social interaction at a large scale is the thing that (differentiates) us as a species.”

Access for Everyone

The pandemic threw a curveball at the industry, changing people’s tastes and changing avenues for consumption.

Digital entertainment reigned supreme during COVID-19 because of an aversion to crowds, Line said, which led to consumers making bigger investments in home technology and having an incentive to learn that technology. Eighty-one percent of Americans said they communicated via video call at some point during the pandemic, according to a Pew Research Center survey in April. Digital tools took on a new relevance for 40%, who reported they used the internet or technology in new or different ways.

If consumers had been thinking about upgrading their home entertainment infrastructure like phones, TVs and computers, the time to do so was at the beginning of the pandemic, when they knew they were going to get more use out of it, Line said. And with more time at home, they could learn the associated software.

While in-person interactions came with a certain risk, programs like Zoom helped connect friends, family and colleagues. And features like Facebook Live helped people connect with entertainment events.

“The pandemic gave us not only the need, but also for many people the time to invest in learning that new technology in order to facilitate the kind of electronic or digital interaction that took the temporary place of social interactions,” Line said.

While live performances were paused, The Studio Theatre Tierra Del Sol published recordings of staged play readings including “Round Table: A Sort of LARP,” “Candida” and more for patrons to watch online. The Studio also created a series of virtual, 10-minute plays. And it offered a digital option for some Season 5 shows even after they went live.

Whitney Morse, artistic director for The Studio and The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center, said last year she saw many theaters creating art and presenting it virtually. And most continue to offer that option to a lesser extent now that many venues are open again.

“I know I love being able to see theater from my home when I am not feeling well or just not up to putting on fancy clothes,” Morse said. “But also, there are many people who would love to come to the theater but can’t. Perhaps they have limited resources and or access to travel, or are homebound in some way. Or, they just don’t live close enough to see that production. Virtual productions solve all of those problems.”

The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival offered professional recordings in June of the festival’s live performances in May.

And they provide exposure to people around the world who might not be able to travel to the festival in Orlando, said Brian Sikorski, marketing director for Orlando Fringe, as well as another revenue stream for artists. “It’s now part of our world — we opened the gate to do digital and now I see no reason to close it,” Sikorski said.

Creating an Experience

The environments in which people consume entertainment, called servicescapes by industry insiders, impact one’s overall experience. Think about the lighting, the smells and the music in a restaurant, for instance. Social servicescapes — the people in those environments — can play a part in the experience, too.

In certain spaces, crowds are a detractor. But at an event like a Broadway show, they might be a benefit, Line said. For that reason, Line doesn’t expect the digital realm to replace live entertainment.

“No one wants to sit at home and watch ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ live in their living room,” Line said. “When I go to Broadway, I want to be in a big room with people enjoying that piece, and the same with orchestra — it’s not the same if you’re not there.”

Patrons who go out to the theater may experience a different form of entertainment than they expected.

The Players Theatre of Southern Oaks created a series of “in the round” plays when COVID-19 hit, with a smaller audience for a safer environment.

Fellow resident theater group the Vespians presents most of its plays, like November’s “Box and Cox” and “Morton’s Folly,” in a similar format.

It also offered a meet-and-greet and Q&A with the actors, giving audiences a glimpse into the show, and tea and scones, fitting to the British farces.

“As to the C formation for the audience, it gives them, we believe, the ability to envelop the actors in the action and to truly experience the plays in a more intimate way by almost becoming part of the scenery,” said Marilyn Mosel, Vespians president.

At a show like “Broadbend, Arkansas,” patrons find themselves surrounded on three sides by video projections of a serene cemetery with tree branches blowing in the breeze. Though not strictly “immersive theater,” The Studio includes elements in each production that help draw patrons into the action. And being an intimate space like a blackbox theater helps.

“At The Studio we do try to immerse the audience in an experience,” said Nathaniel Niemi, director of education and resident director at The Studio. “We describe it as intimate, up-close-and-personal storytelling.”

Brian Sikorski sees examples of “immersive” theater — theater in which audiences move through spaces, interacting with shows — popping up in the national theater scene, including Central Florida.

Orlando Fringe in 2020 performed its take on “A Christmas Carol,” in which patrons literally followed Ebenezer Scrooge around outdoors as he met the three ghosts of Christmas.

The play was born out of the pandemic, as the festival could perform it for small groups in the safety of the outdoors.

“But looking at it from an experiential (standpoint), because I’ve seen many different (forms of) immersive theater and taken part in it, it really brings you into the experience,” Sikorski said. “You really feel like you’ve broken the fourth wall and are part of the narrative and that can be really interesting.”

In a show like the self-explanatory “A Young Man Dressed As A Gorilla Dressed As An Old Man Sits Rocking In A Rocking Chair For Fifty-Six Minutes And Then Leaves,” the audience just may become the show.

“The question becomes: Is this the show? Or is the audience reaction to what they’re seeing the show?” Sikorski said. “Fifty-six minutes is a long space of time (with) no one saying anything, so what’s happening is, each time you see it people react differently: people get up, people get on the stage and perform in front of it and perform a monologue, dress up the gorilla, all kinds of things.”

Martin Dockery plays Jimmy Walker, the former mayor of New York City, in “Tammany Hall,” an immersive play in which audiences witness the events of the mayoral election night of Nov. 5, 1929.

Politicians, showgirls, gangsters and molls lead audiences through 15 rooms, four floors and 7,500 square feet at the Soho Playhouse in New York, a building which those characters would have frequented at the time. “First of all it’s fun, and as far as a unique theatrical experience you are not just watching a show through the invisible fourth wall, you are fully stepped into the play, so it becomes not just three-dimensional but four-dimensional, in their world,” Dockery said.

And audiences don’t just play bystander: they can speak out for or against ideas like corruption as the election plays out.

Immersive shows like that one, “Sleep No More,” “Speakeasy Times Square,” “Bottom of the Ocean,” “Odd Man Out” and more are playing again in the city.

Curating the Offerings

Venues tended to book mainstream acts rather than unknown performers during COVID-19, said Michael Blachly, director of Opening Nights, an annual performance series spanning from fall to spring at Florida State University. “I’m contracting artists I think are easily understood by audiences and are easily marketed,” Blachly said of the recent season. “I’m not going to go on a limb with more esoteric or new works. It’s hard to get people convinced to get in the space.”

Tribute shows are a reliably popular genre here in The Villages.

The entertainment company Victory Productions brings in about 30 to 40 tribute acts like Absolute Queen, Almost ABBA and “The Rocketman Show” to Savannah Center each year.

Many of those acts pay tribute to artists who are dead or no longer touring, providing the unique experience of being able to hear the music live again, Victory Productions executive director Fernando Varela said.

“Nostalgia is everything,” Varela said. “For all of us. It’s very powerful to be transported back to a different time and that’s what nostalgia does.”

And it is as much about the experience as it is about the music. That may be why Varela sees those acts gaining in popularity even outside of The Villages.

“They’re creating something in the moment — whether it’s sports or music, it is exciting and adds an X-factor to the experience and makes the nostalgia that much more powerful,” he said. “It’s more powerful to be there hearing them in person than hearing it in your car. It’s just different.”

Nostalgia is proving powerful in other parts of the industry, too. Ask an individual, and they may not be thrilled about another “Ghostbusters” sequel. But the numbers don’t lie, said Brendon Rogers, executive director of the Central Florida Film Festival.

Films centered on pre-existing elements — remakes, adaptations, sequels and reboots — in the past 10 years have had more box office success than original stories, according to American Express Essentials.

Those movies have a built-in fanbase already familiar with the premise, Rogers said, making them less risky to movie studios. Considering the cost of movie production and the myriad entertainment options consumers have on hand, studios will choose the less-risky option.

“If it’s familiar, especially if it’s (something) they like … I think that plays into people going to see it,” Rogers said. “In a way, it’s sort of like comfort food, on some emotional level.”

The same can be said for Villages residents, according to Craig Wolf, film booker for The Villages.

“They like any film that reminds them of the life they lived — historical pieces, war films, anything based on a true story, anything based on a popular book they have read,” Wolf said.

When considering a movie to book at Old Mill Playhouse, the easiest way to locate a picture is to look at who is starring in it, he added.

“Yesteryear stars like Michael Douglas, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep … these are certainly movies to book regardless of what studio distributes them, be it mainstream or independent,” he said.

Residents here gravitate toward films about the places they are from, the sports teams they support and the politics they associate with, among other categories, he said, noting returning customers who were drawn to screenings here last winter and spring.

“They are returning because we are currently offering several of the topics I have mentioned, things they look for when deciding to see a movie,” Wolf said.

On a national scale, “comic book movies” and “spectacle” movies — ones that suspend disbelief — tend to do well, Rogers said, which he doesn’t expect to change any time soon.

But neither genre, celebrity or any other single factor can determine box office success.

“Hollywood has a business model that contains an art form, so there is no way to gauge the way you could if you had a restaurant chain or made golf clubs or had a widget-type business where you know exactly what it’s going to be every time,” he said. “You don’t really know.”

Senior Writer Liz Coughlin can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5304, or liz.coughlin@thevillagesmedia.com.