BroadBand Welcomes Performance Arts Home

Wu Man (pipa) and Regie Gibson (literary performer) premiere their original new work:
From the Yangtzee to the Mississippi Delta | the acrosswater call of a stringborn song
Created for Latitudes, January 2021


Just as BroadBand Collaborative, a performing arts organization started by Sara Stackhouse (former executive producer of Actors' Shakespeare Project), Cristin Canterbury Bagnall (former general manager and executive producer to Yo-Yo Ma), and Lori Taylor (former director of learning at Silkroad, an initiative of Yo-Yo Ma’s that encourages cultural collaboration) were set for their big launch, COVID-19 hit. Live performance spaces closed down, audiences stayed home and artists were left wondering what to do next. 

Canterbury Bagnall reached out to her partners with an idea. What if they created an online environment that brought artists and audiences together in an online setting that was evocative of intimate settings like the warmth of a campfire gathering, the open air and green of a public park or the lived in comforts of a living room? Stackhouse and Taylor loved it.

BroadBand got to work creating a virtual performance experience—dubbed “All Together Now”—that would not be constrained by the barriers set by the pandemic. They partnered with the for-profit start-up Skreens, which specializes in serving up digital content in creative and interactive ways for gamers, e-sports, live streaming, and broadcast. With the power of the online stage behind them, audience members were invited into the homes of a wide range of creatives and treated to intimate performances they may not have otherwise gotten to enjoy. 

“We had a teenage poet from my neighborhood and Yo-Yo Ma, and we had somebody from Front Porch Collective and Livingston Taylor, and we had somebody from Seattle who does flat footing and is part of an Appalachian band, and we had Wu Man from China who plays the pipa,” says Stackhouse. “We just brought together all these artists from different spaces and different stages of life.” 

However, it wasn't simply that “All Together Now,” connected audiences to artists which made the 26-performance series so impactful. What truly set “All Together Now,” apart from the many Zoom performances being streamed across the country in the early days of the epidemic was the inclusion of actress Bobbie Steinbach as host of the show, who stood in for the audience and became the crucial bridge between screens. 

During live performances, Stackhouse explains, performers react to the energy in the room. That lack of feedback can make it extremely difficult to perform via Zoom or a livestream into a void. “What we found is that when we had somebody who gave a genuine response and asked questions, the creation of that emotional connection really changed the tenor of the performances,” says Stackhouse.   

Steinbach brought her natural curiosity to the role through conversations about the artists’ work, their performance practices, and how they were spending their days in lockdown.  She created a warm environment that invited risk-taking, reacting to performances, creating space for audience members to consider their own responses by illuminating her own.  Steinbach’s conversations with artists provided space for clarity and vulnerability, reinforcing the connections that had been formed over the course of the performances. Artists spoke candidly of the difficulties they had been facing through the pandemic and how their lives and their profession had changed.

From these conversations, similar threads emerged and set the wheels of a new and equally critical initiative in motion. After listening to 75 artists talk about the challenges of working during the pandemic, performing online, and not being able to collaborate in person, BroadBand went on to launch a new series, “Latitudes” in 2021.  The name alludes to the idea of offering artists a new platform—and the latitude—to orient themselves, experiment and learn in the online environment. “From listening carefully to what artists needed and how they were thinking about their work in completely changed circumstances, we developed a platform for new work in this moment” said Canterbury Bagnall.

Eight artists were invited to participate in “Latitudes.” They were asked to consider questions like, “How am I reorienting myself as an artist?,” and “How do I connect with audiences meaningfully in virtual space?” “What content should I be making in this moment?” and “Is it possible to monetize performances virtually?”

“Some of them were like, ‘I have a lot to say about this moment in terms of our country, in terms of racial dynamics, in terms of my response to our worldwide pandemic,’” Stackhouse says. “And others were like, ‘I don't know what I want to say right now. I have to totally reorient.”

The project resulted in new collaborations, a rarity during the pandemic. Stackhouse recalls that during one planning session (via Zoom, of course), the literary performer Regie Gibson asked everyone to take a moment to appreciate the “scale of the playdate” they were having and how he likely wouldn’t have met Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh or violinist or composer Shaw Pong Liu if not for the pandemic and the opportunity “Latitudes” offered for new collaborations.

Based on what they learned from “All Together Now”, the BroadBand chose to keep performances approximately 45 minutes long, far shorter than a traditional live performance. They also knew that the online format—which saw artists performing from their kitchen tables or living rooms—invited much more intimacy from the performers and offered a space where they could develop personal stories and artistic experiments.

So, for example, cellist Karen Ouzounian’s show “In Motion,” was a deeply personal interrogation of her family’s experience emigrating from Armenia to Lebanon to Canada. By investigating and rediscovering the past through conversations with her parents and grandmother, Ouzounian’s performance connected with the present in deeply relevant ways.  

Latitudes was offered via subscription which allowed for two things--artists who had lost work were able to monetize their performances, and BroadBand was able to create a new audience who tuned in from across the country for a shared experience.  Thus far, feedback from audiences has largely focused on the creative nature of the performances. “They’re telling us, ‘We can't see this programming anywhere else,’” Stackhouse says. 

“All Together Now” and “Latitudes” have made important cultural contributions to the oeuvre of live performance art brought about by the pandemic. “We’ve programmed through May,” Stackhouse says. “It's getting warm out and people are getting vaccinated and things are shifting. But the learning that has taken place is helping to inform these artists and the field about what happens next in virtual performance. BroadBand recently led a webinar for the Massachusetts Cultural Council and learned from participants across the State that most are planning continued performances online, so we are excited to be part of the conversation about how this space continues to evolve.”c

Tickets are still available for the final performance in the “Latitudes” series. On May 6 at 7:30pm Guy Mendilow performs “Via Airmail,” a “tapestry of real-world stories, letters, and music of resilience and the courage to be fully human when humanity is least expected.”

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published this page in Connecting During COVID-19 Stories 2021-04-30 14:01:35 -0400

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