Act II Playhouse came to a standstill when COVID-19 changed how theaters could present live performances. A small regional theater just outside Philadelphia in Ambler, PA, they canceled two shows, issued refunds and tried to plan for the future. Fast forward a few months. Pennsylvania is slowly reopening but guidelines include reducing capacity and with a 134-seat house, the company could not produce in their space. Like many of its theatrical counterparts, Act II decided to try offering digital content.
“Patrons were asking us to stream our shows without realizing the range of artistic, legal and financial challenges streaming presents,” says Carol Flannery, the Playhouse’s director of marketing and communications. “We are a small organization. We produce trailer videos for each production, but nothing on this scale.”
Electile Dysfunction, Hindsight is 2020, is a sketch comedy revue written by Act II’s artistic director Tony Braithwaite, along with Will Dennis, Tracie Higgins and Dan Matarazzo. “We thought if we could find a virtual audience, a convention and election season political comedy like our revue would be a good bet,” says Braithwaite.
With Braithwaite as the primary writer, the royalty rights were secure—a typical obstacle for regional theaters. The script was still being written, so the writers could pivot—take out the planned improv scenes, make design changes, adjust some of the technical aspects, and adapt for social distancing. “The challenge,” said Braithwaite, “is we are not doing a play, but neither is it a movie. Plus, we wanted to create a safe working environment for everyone.”
The next hurdle was how to deliver the show to audiences. “We researched all the options,” Flannery says. “Existing video streaming platforms have been overwhelmed with requests from much larger organizations and none were built for the needs of regional theaters. We needed a platform that didn’t demand an app download, offered sharing protections and could help us sell tickets. We could not absorb exorbitant fees or the revenue splits the ‘big players’ charged. We felt like David in a world of Goliaths.”
Flannery is part of a national chat group of theater marketing professionals who are sharing resources. “We were asking for streaming solutions and Ashley Dinges, the marketing and sales director at GFour Productions—a producer in NYC—responded,” Flannery remembers. “She had just been on the same path and found a white-label option developed by a San Diego, CA start-up, called SURFCODE“. The venture had been successful for GFour and they had advanced the platform even further while working on streaming their hit show, Menopause The Musical.
Hilton Sher founded Surfcode as his third successful software venture, with a focus on web development. Several arts organizations became clients, including TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Boston Ballet. When clients began to cancel performances and lose revenue, Sher convened a focus group and asked what Surfcode could do to help. The answer was, “help us stream our content securely and meet any legal requirements.”
“We’re coders,” says Sher, “and we already knew the cutting edge streaming technology needed to do this in a way that could really help performing arts organizations.” He continues, “It sounds like a movie script, but we worked 20-hour days and in 7 days had a working platform that would meet our clients’ unique needs. We launched our first streamed performance 3 days later, and they sold over 1000 tickets.”
The new venture, PlayPlay.tv, became official in March 2020, and since then has helped performing arts organizations sell over 20,000 tickets, plus retain revenue for canceled shows.
“We knew by early June that we could not perform live,” Flannery continued, “and on July 1, we broke the news to our subscribers.” Act II Playhouse will become Act II Virtual Theatre, and within 90 days of that first decision, Electile will be streaming via the PlayPlay platform. The stream launched August 25—the first day patrons would have been coming to see the show in-person. “We thought we were too small to be able to offer a virtual experience or that patrons would back-out,” said Flannery. “So far, we have been met with overwhelming support.”
What’s next for this partnership? Sher responds, “We’re working with Act II to understand their ticketing software to see if we can create a direct interface and we’re working on a direct purchase platform for partners who don’t have ticketing software.”
Flannery adds, “We are also working with Surfcode and our production partner, Pro Cine on an ASL interpreted version of ‘Electile’ and are really excited by the potential to reach a new audience. We added Donna Ellis and Brian Morrison of Hands Up Productions in Philadelphia to the team for guidance with that venture. They have very specific expertise in theater interpreting. Pro Cine will film and embed the ASL interpretation and we hope to learn more about the needs of the d/Deaf community.”
Sher adds, “Our culture and commitment is accessibility for everyone.”
When Flannery had her first Zoom call with Sher, she noticed the surfer-themed art on the walls behind him. “The company is called Surfcode. I had to ask,” she says. Sher confirmed that yes, he was a surfer. “This seemed perfect,” comments Flannery. “An entrepreneurial young company with a founder who takes risks. Risk is something we understand in theater. Hilton said he wanted live theater to be around for his kids when they can return to a physical space. We were in.”
Electile Dysfunction, Hindsight is 2020, began streaming August 25, 2020. Starring Tony Braithwaite, Will Dennis and Tracie Higgins, with Dan Matarazzo on piano. Sound design by Larry Fowler; costume design by Constance Case. Filming and post-production by Patrick Dolan of Pro Cine. act2.org,