Digital strategy plays key role in Town Hall Theatre response to Covid-19 crisis

Galway’s leading cultural venue installs new equipment to stream live and pre-record events, with a new digital cinema also to be added

Town Hall Theatre manager, Fergal McGrath. Photo:- Boyd Challenger

Town Hall Theatre manager, Fergal McGrath. Photo:- Boyd Challenger

When the Town Hall Theatre – the epicentre of Galway's cultural activity - later this month installs its own in-house live streaming equipment, it will mark yet another important milestone on the long and winding road travelled since the Covid-19 shutdown of March 2020.

The new equipment will further enhance the Town Hall’s capacity to stream live and pre-recorded events as part of its increasingly sophisticated response to the pandemic. It will enable the venue to engage with audiences, create work opportunities for artists and arts workers, and reduce recurring streaming costs to sustainable levels.

'Game changer'

“This is a game-changer moment for us’’ says Fergal McGrath, director of the Town Hall Theatre. "The equipment, purchased with the assistance of an Arts Council grant, will include four high-powered cameras, which can be operated by a single user, and which will stream in HD.

"Two live switchers - one which allows the programme to be archived as well as capture each individual camera angle, the second which allows for additional cameras to be added for large scale shoots – will offer maximum flexibility for us and for others. We will have permanent cabling in both venues for camera and audio, with the laptop/switcher/cameras all removable and mobile, so they can be moved to the Black Box as and when required.”

‘Particularly vulnerable’

McGrath says the in-house equipment will be operated by specialists - much like the venue currently hires experienced sound engineers to operate the in-house PA - and will create opportunities for the development of new revenue streams to help the venue cope with the massive loss of income since the shutdown began.

“The Covid-19 crisis has been devastating for many in the tourism and hospitality sectors, but especially for those working in the arts,” he said. “Public performances ceased, our income collapsed, and emergency funding was required from the Arts Council and others to stabilise our operation and keep the lights on.”

‘We are still learning, but we will keep going’

McGrath notes that the Town Hall was “particularly vulnerable”, given the venue’s “high dependency” on box office and bar sales, which provides for more than 80 per cent of its income; its inability to avail of Government wage subsidy schemes; and the fact that it is responsible for the operation of two buildings incorporating three theatre spaces as well as office and studio spaces for several key local arts organisations.

“The shutdown was a sudden and massive blow for artists, performers and workers – their opportunities and livelihoods evaporated overnight - so it’s been a tough 15 months for them – and, let’s not forget, it isn’t over yet.”

A diverse, digital, strategy

Digital Film Camera

The Town Hall Theatre’s public engagement strategy is now more diverse than ever - and very much digitally-driven. It includes live performances (when allowed ) to socially distanced, reduced audience numbers; blended performances (live streams of publicly attended events, when allowed ); streaming of live or recorded events without an audience (for example, the Cúirt Festival in April ); recording of performances by local artists for their independent subsequent streaming, and recording of theatre shows and band videos for independent use.

“We were delighted when Sina Theil recorded her new live album here back in December and we look forward to recording more in the coming months,” says McGrath. “Our work in recent times with Druid, The Gate, Landmark, Little John Nee, Laura Sheeran, Kristyn Fontanella, and others – where we successfully streamed their productions live to audiences as part of a national platform – has shone a light on where digital might take us in the future.”

‘So a lot of digital done, but more digital to do’

The Town Hall is also advancing plans for a digital arts training, mentorship, and dissemination programme in collaboration with the NASC group of regional venues and The Space (UK ) - designed to have significant and lasting impact on the Irish performing arts sector as well as engage and develop a new ecology among wider online Irish and global audiences.

“We were a little reluctant initially to embrace digital, given we all know that being present at a live performance is best,” says Mc Grath, “but we had to have a go if we were to create work opportunities for artists and workers, and keep engaged with our audience. We are still learning, but we will keep going.”

New digital cinema system

Town Hall Theatre recently moved to a new, cloud-based ticketing system, designed to be fully responsive and making it easy for customers to book tickets from whatever device they choose - PC, tablet, or mobile phone. With its fully integrated streaming features, watching Town Hall Theatre performances and events online has become even easier, according to McGrath, and there’s more digital news to come.

Galway City Council last month announced it was seeking tenders for the supply, delivery, installation, commissioning, and ongoing maintenance of a new digital cinema system to replace the existing and outdated system at Town Hall Theatre. “So a lot of Digital done, but more Digital to do,” quips McGrath.

The reach of the digital opportunity is wide. Throughout the crisis, the Town Hall Theatre endeavoured to support Galway artists and arts workers and to support creative development for artists, producers, and companies through initiating a series of bursaries, commissions, and outreach projects including pioneering digital projects such as the critically acclaimed Bringing It All Back Home series (short films by local artists who engaged with residents in Galway Nursing Homes and Galway Care Homes ).

McGrath describes that latter project as “uplifting, invigorating, and an eye-opener” to the potential of digital in his future planning. “Local artists embraced the format with gusto and the results, which may be viewed on www.tht.ie, were just stunning, absolutely stunning.”

No going back

So what comes next? Is digital a passing phase or is it a long-term reality for Irish theatre? “We have had to pivot our business and re-calibrate our model to survive,” says McGrath. “Given the risk of recurring closures and the impacts of social distancing, we may have to do so for some time.”

While McGrath admits that “digital may not be our first-love”, its importance at this time means “we have to keep going, we have to keep trying”.

“We are making progress,” he says. “I remember reading Edmund Burke for my Leaving cert and I will never forget his words ‘to stand still in a world that’s moving, is to take a step backwards’. Well, we are never going to do that!”

 

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