I recently met with Brenna Sotiropoulos, Daniel Coghlan, Jessica Philips and Dale Menz from the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), to ask them about their experience of in-person events during the pandemic.
Australian arts organisations were able to open up in early 2021 for several months, before having to then close down again amid a new wave in Covid-19 cases. I spoke to the team in July 2021, before MTC had to cancel their production of Cyrano after just three preview performances, and hours before their opening night performance.
Hi, everyone. Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me. So, firstly, what were the main challenges you faced when reopening?
Brenna: I think the biggest challenge was the constantly changing government guidelines, knowing how much lead time most people in events need to put something on. Trying to prepare for something that might not potentially happen for four or five months, knowing that the guidelines were going to change weekly… Trying to anticipate where we’d be, and pre-selling, was really hard.
We started having discussions early, and in those early meetings about returning to the theatre, I don't think a single one of those plans actually happened. Because by the time we were actually in a theatre, we just couldn’t. Everything was completely different and the landscape was completely different.
Jessica: And everything happens so quickly!
Brenna: Quickly and slowly, at the same time. Since we got back on stage, it’s continued to be that way. So although we plan and put things on sale… we’ve had two snap lockdowns since we’ve been performing, which have resulted in completely different scenarios each time. We literally can’t plan. We just need to deal with it when it happens and adapt as best we can.
Are there any innovation processes you’ve tried and learnt from?
Brenna: At this point we’ve had to do a lot of things. We’ve had full cancellations of performances, we’ve had part cancellations of performances. We’ve had to reseat houses into different houses so we could cancel a performance, then create a shadow performance that would go ahead with only 75 people instead of 300 people…
Having the online exchange path set up, that we’ve been operating with for years, that our customers were used to, was a godsend. So if you could go back in time, and build an exchange path, and teach your customers how to use it five years ago, that would help! Because the volume was so huge, anything that we could put back onto the customer, to self-serve [as much as possible], took some of the pressure off us.
By using the Tessitura utilities brought out at the start of the pandemic to credit people’s accounts and to donate tickets, we [could] try and “bulk do” whatever we could, as we had a very limited amount of staff and tens of thousands of tickets cancelled across the different performances.
Jessica: One of the other biggest challenges, I would say, was managing the staff uncertainty at the same time as the customers’ uncertainty. Obviously, it was a really difficult time, personally, for everyone involved, as well as for the company. So, being generous, and remembering to recognise that, throughout this whole process, was the other huge thing. And from a customer service point of view – the staff having that same conversation, again and again, with lovely people who were all stressed … The impact that has on a workforce is significant.
Are there any methods you found helpful for getting crowds into, or seated, in the venue safely?
Dan: From a marketing point of view that was a really huge focus for us. The first thing we thought about was a ‘return to the theatre’ campaign, before even looking at campaigns for the shows we were putting on. And, as Brenna mentioned, it was complicated because we were preparing for so many different realities.
And it continues to be complicated, because this week masks are mandatory, next week they might not be. How do you tell people who bought tickets at the same time that their experience at the theatre might be different?
So having a really strong campaign, of not only ‘confidence’ but also ‘security’ for our customers, was really important.
And just keeping them in the loop. Endless email communications. To the point of ‘yes, your show is proceeding’ – things you wouldn’t have to do in a typical year because, you know, they would just know their show’s going ahead! So we’re holding their hands along the whole journey and keeping them updated the whole time.
Also, just staying positive. I think the whole campaign from the get-go had to be ‘we are excited to be back, and it’s safe to be back and we are here to help’, rather than cautious. For example, ‘Covid’ was not used in the title of the campaign – it was called ‘we’re ready for you’. We didn't want to make it sad and depressing and scary.
Brenna: I’d also say that – especially in Victoria, where we were having daily press conferences, communications from chief health advisors, and so on – people were so saturated with government communications that we really had to adapt and fall in line with that. We’d say, ‘OK, they’ve said you don’t have to wear a mask in a supermarket, but you do have to wear one in our theatre’, and it became really hard. So we had to be nimble with how we spoke to people, and our rules about coming back to the theatre had to be really strongly aligned to what was happening in the community as a whole.
We surveyed our audience last year and it’s been pretty much spot on with what’s happened. Last year 30% of people said that they will not be coming back into a theatre until the vaccine has been rolled out, and we’ve literally seen a 30% drop in our subscription size. Things like that. Those people who are not coming back won’t come back until the vaccine is fully through the community. And then the rest of them who wanted to come back – just came back!
Is there anything you would have started earlier, before re-opening?
Jessica: I think there are some things we’d start later! As Brenna said, we realised we need to be really nimble. It’s better to wait, and work around the parameters.
Brenna: I think it was good in some ways that we started so early. We were planning for the return to the theatre for months and months. I think that was beneficial, because it was so unknown, and we had no region to look at to see what other people were doing. We calmed ourselves down and felt really prepared.
But now – I mean, we’ve just come out of a fourth lockdown that was two weeks long … we have rolling, weekly increases and changes to restrictions – there’s nothing we can do. We’ll be sitting at our desks on Monday, sending emails calmly, being fine, and then on Tuesday it starts to get a bit stressful … and then Wednesday and Thursday are a complete write off, and it's really terrifying and there's nothing we can do about it.
We just have to deal with it, because until the government releases those guidelines, there is no way for us to move. There’s no urgency in this state to get anything earlier for us. Even the government bodies who represent the live performance sector are not getting anything before the Premier stands up at the press conferences and says what’s happening.
Is there anything about ‘Covid world’ practices that you think you’ll keep, going forward? Would you continue with socially distanced seating?
Brenna: We never socially distanced our seating to start with, to be honest...
Jessie: We did.
Brenna: Well, technically – social distancing meant four square metres and we never did that. We left gaps between seats for some early performances.
Jessie: We will probably keep something to do with the generosity in our ticketing policy. We’ve made our exchange policy more flexible, and things like that are difficult to take away from a customer base once you’ve given it to them. So some of that, and I guess more flexibility to do with eticketing. We had a lot of anxieties about some of the risks of relaxing some of those rules, and then Covid happened and we were like, ‘well that doesn’t matter any more!’ And actually everything’s OK.
Brenna: That’s very true. [They all laugh.] Dan: I think a good example of that is lots of things being digitised. Like, we’ve gone digital with the programmes now, because we didn’t think people would want to pick up hard copy programmes.
There were some necessary cuts because of budgets, so we pulled back on the subscriber magazine this year. We only sent out a digital brochure, when usually some people would get a hard copy. It helped us take a leap for some things we’d been planning to do. We’d been looking at digital options for sustainability reasons, and cost, but we’ve proved that it works – we have a more digitally savvy audience now, so we can find a hybrid future.
And then of course there’s MTC Digital Theatre, which was also fast tracked by the Covid pandemic and lockdowns. It was something we always wanted to do but it became a priority; we’ve now filmed two shows. We’re going to film a third this year and then at least two every year going forward so that’s going to become part of our programming from now on and hopefully it will grow in years to come.
And it’s brilliant! Have you seen a shift in audience patterns or audience loyalty during this time?
Brenna: Not a shift, but we’ve definitely seen some overwhelming support. Our tax campaign for the end of the financial year this year was the largest it's ever been. And then there were all the people who couldn’t donate, but just didn’t ask for a refund and kept the money in credit with us. That was millions of dollars that people were happy to just let sit with the company to try and help us. So that was amazing.
And overwhelmingly, people have been patient. Because it’s so much out of everyone’s control, they do understand that we’re doing our best. I think our email response time went to almost 12 weeks last year, because we had so many thousands of emails – that’s just the reality when you cancel as much as we had – but people waited and that was incredible.
But like I said, the people who said in the surveys that they weren’t coming back … they haven’t. We have seen a drop.
With the MTC digital theatre have you seen new audiences for MTC?
Dale: Not a huge amount, no. There’s obviously people who’ve never been able to access us before, but it’s not like the shows we normally put on that get major new audiences.
Dan: But interestingly we didn’t see an overlap of people attending the show live and watching the show digitally. It shows that people were watching it online who didn’t make it to the show. And the shows were released, and in some cases announced, afterwards, so it’s not like people were waiting for them either. So that's a really interesting thing that we will look into for the future.
And the second one, unfortunately – and coincidentally – was released the day we went back into lockdown, so it was really nice to have something to share. That's not something we had in 2020, when we went into that huge six-month lockdown and had no artist projects in the can.
Brenna: It’s also such a new thing for us as well, I don't know if we have enough data points to talk confidently about new audiences yet, as much as everyone wants to. It's just going to grow. Hopefully by the end of three productions and by the end of next year, we should have some real proper data to look at and tell that story. It's just, right now… it’s so early
What would you say are the main lessons learned from reopening?
Brenna: [Laughing] Don’t make a plan! Because it's not going to happen. And don’t get disappointed when it doesn't happen, even though it's crushing. Er… it’s easier to cancel than to reduce capacity… [They all laugh] But you don’t always get to make that choice, as the ticketing people.
Are there any words of wisdom you’d say to audiences returning to performances now in other countries, or organisations in the same boat?
Jessica: You can’t please everybody.
Brenna: Yeah, basically you can’t please everybody. From a ticketing perspective, Jessie and I got to a point where our thinking became, ‘how do we do this so that the majority of people will be simple, and processed’. And then we’d deal with the edge cases as they came in, because it’s just not possible. There are too many people and not enough of us to do a one-to-one customer service.
But yeah, I just hope that other places – especially where your clients are, with the amount of vaccine that’s in the community – won’t have to go through the ping pong that we’ve been through here. You know, everyone was very confident, or as confident as we could be, and so we opened. We had to get back on stage because Australia was opening up.
I don’t think that we would do anything differently. I think we would still go through all this to get what we had. We got two productions through six week runs without a single cancellation, and that was just exceptional, and we were so happy … and then we opened the third and we were back in lockdown. I just don't think we would have had those shows, to save ourselves the heartache of where we are now.
Dan: I think from a communications point of view: be clear, concise and consistent. There was so much information from the press conferences, but we were different to some theatres they were mentioning, and we had different rules. Like, Sydney’s in a different state to Melbourne! It was a bit of a mess. So, consistently messaging to our audience, with a clear directive: ‘This is what is going to happen at your performance.’
And in our case we were emailing once a week – ‘at your performance you’ll be wearing a mask’; ‘at this performance you won’t be wearing a mask, but you’ll be socially distancing’ or whatever.
But keep it simple.
Is there anything else you’d want to mention?
Dan: Don’t underestimate people’s willingness to innovate and experiment. Lots of our backburner projects have happened, where the money has allowed. People who were naysayers haven’t had the chance to be, so things have got across the line and we’ve been able to prove a point.
Brenna: Yep, touching on what Jessie said earlier – being able to do things that we wouldn’t normally have done, or that we’d held ourselves back from doing in previous years. Lots of things, like letting donors book their subscriptions online two weeks before we launched our season officially, when things were still embargoed and the page was hidden [on the website]. We’d always said, ‘the donors aren’t the kind of people that book online, they want a personal service’… Well, that’s not true! Hundreds of them booked online! And that's great, and we could take pressure off by driving people through the website.
And relaxing rules when you can, when it makes sense, to give your box office a break. They’re the ones who are bearing the brunt of a lot of anxieties, so give them as much as you can, allowing them to say yes or no to something on the spot without having to push back on customers – it’s really important, so you don't kill your staff.
Also we’ve had some fun this year in terms of discounting, trying new things that we wouldn't normally do, because we were like, ‘it’s Covid! There’s no rules anymore’.
Jessie: Another thing is that we’ve been particularly lucky to be able to have staff, and because we’ve been so busy we’ve been able to get through the work and utilise our staff, which a lot of other companies haven’t been able to do. It’s been a huge asset to have staff who can talk for an hour on the phone to Marjorie, who’s never used the internet before. We’ve helped people, but we’ve also trained and empowered our customers to be self-sufficient in the future. It’s been a huge advantage because they’re a lot more digitally engaged now.
Dan: As another positive note to end on: remember that arts workers are creative problem solvers. And that means the arts industry is a good space to respond creatively to all the problems that are thrown our way. And we’ve all really shone! I remember that day in March last year, when we all came in on a Sunday and sat around saying, ‘what the hell are we going to do?’ And we bounced back, because everyone came to the party and had great ideas to share.
This article is taken from Made Next, a new newsletter from Made Media looking at emerging and future trends at the intersection of digital technology and the world of arts and culture.
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