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Pasadena Playhouse’s COVID-era plan: A new streaming platform for theaters

Danny Feldman, producing artistic director, stands in the Pasadena Playhouse courtyard.
Pasadena Playhouse’s producing artistic director, Danny Feldman, in the theater’s courtyard.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

When COVID-19 forced theaters to close abruptly, Pasadena Playhouse had two choices: Go into hibernation to save money, or navigate a path through the uncertainty of the pandemic to keep audiences engaged.

The theater chose to move forward, announcing on Wednesday the launch of a digital streaming platform this fall for live and live-captured performances, original series, educational programming and industry-related content.

The platform, PlayhouseLive, will showcase theatrical productions from Pasadena Playhouse and other theaters around the country and will be available through a standalone website and apps, along with distribution channels including Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Roku.

The theater will offer some free programming on PlayhouseLive and will sell monthly and annual subscription plans to access all of the content.

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The idea to create a digital theater platform began before the pandemic, producing artistic director Danny Feldman said.

Pasadena Playhouse initially wanted to create a digital home for its engagement and marketing materials and educational programming. But when the pandemic hit, it became clear that the theater could do even more with the platform, using it as a way to retain its artists, production staff and audiences.

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Although recent Zoom-based performances have been “beautiful,” Feldman said, “they’re not paying the bills, and they’re not paying artists. They’re not helping the economic side of the American theater right now, which is obviously taking such a huge hit and will for several months to come.”

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PlayhouseLive will feel similar to the interface of streaming platforms like Netflix, but it will be much more curated, Feldman said.

Although Pasadena Playhouse has a large catalog of footage of past productions, those archival records weren’t created to serve as pieces of filmed entertainment. The platform’s programming will feature new filmed productions, staged readings and original series, similar to the high-quality, immersive feeling of the popular “Hamilton” movie on Disney+.

Feldman acknowledged the financial and safety challenges of producing thoughtfully filmed performances, which require equipment, camera operators and editors, along with the usual cast of performers and production staff.

The platform has been partially funded through a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts award as part of the federal CARES Act. “We have some other funders that have stepped up,” he said, “and we are still very actively seeking other partners who share our values and goals.”

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The initial slate of programming will be announced in August. In the coming weeks, the theater will continue to roll out specifics, including which other theaters will be involved.

“Some of that is still very much getting figured out,” Feldman said. The opening slate is mindful of the social distancing rules set by local government and a sense of what’s “the moral thing to do,” he said. “The health and safety of our people is really the most prominent goal right now.”

In April, Pasadena Playhouse announced it was postponing or canceling the rest of its 2019-2020 season. Feldman emphasized that the forthcoming platform was not a replacement for the theater’s 2020-2021 season, which has not been announced.

“This is something other. This is different,” he said. Watching theater at home or on the phone will never replicate the in-person experience. “We are not trying to replace that in any way.”

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Part of the goal of the platform is to connect artists and audiences, “not just within the confines of our four walls of the historic building but anywhere in the world to engage with the art we’re making. That’s exciting and thrilling to us.”

Coronavirus may have silenced our symphony halls, taking away the essential communal experience of the concert as we know it.


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