When coronavirus brought a halt to his new musical, Toronto-based Nick Green didn’t get down – he got active. Now the site he launched is a portal for thousands of global projects that would have been cancelled, he tells Nick Awde
With a timely twist to an established concept, actor and writer Nick Green responded to the mass cancelling of new productions by creating a website that has rapidly spread beyond his native Canada. So rapidly, in fact, that the site went from the spark of an idea to global traction in less than 24 hours – and with zero budget. And, like any good show, there’s a catchy title: The Social Distancing Festival.
“On Friday, March 13, we got the news that our musical In Real Life was going to be cancelled, effective immediately,” says Green, who is based in Toronto. “It was a show that had spent literally years in development and it was pretty devastating news, especially as we don’t know if or when there’ll be any future life for it.”
Shortly after that, he was told that another production of his had been bumped by a season. “It was all very discouraging. But at the same time of course it’s the right thing to do.”
He continues: “But instead of looking forward to an extended rehearsal period to develop the new show, surrounded by artists and creativity, I suddenly saw myself having weeks and weeks of isolation at home, far from my family in Vancouver, and I knew I would be struggling to stay creative and engaged during that time.”
All too aware that he was just one of many facing the same experience of seeing the chance to stage their productions disappear, Green started thinking about whether there was a way to help. “As I was walking furiously from one meeting to another that day when all the bad news was being delivered, the fully formed idea just appeared of making a website where people could continue to work on whatever show or project they were doing, and we’d share it with a small group of people.”
That afternoon, he pitched the idea over social media and was surprised by the large number of encouraging responses from the national theatre community. Knowing there was a demand in Canada at least, he built and launched the site the following morning, March 14.
“The next thing I knew, there was a huge international response to it, with hundreds and hundreds of submissions. Until the following Tuesday I was running the whole thing by myself. Now, four theatre students from Sheridan College in Toronto are helping me to upload submissions to the website. They’re also taking on other projects in terms of communicating with the many arts organisations that are reaching out to see how they can collaborate.”
Green is freed up by the fact that the site’s structure isn’t back-end-heavy. Much of its function is linking to other sites, meaning the live-stream directory mostly comprises details of people live-streaming work around the world on other sites and platforms.
As such, the content is built on simple pages that display the work through a brief description of a project with accompanying images or YouTube videos. “A goal is to direct people off the site, which honestly is why this is not a business,” Green laughs. “I want people to come on, find an interesting artist and then go down a rabbit hole of that artist’s work. So it’s like: ‘Click around a bit, find that amazing Icelandic visual artist and then spend an hour and a half looking at their website.’ ”
‘It’s an interesting time to look at how technology can be used to communicate what is traditionally live performance’
So far, the submissions are coming in at a healthy but manageable rate for Green and his small team of volunteers. “But if we go into the thousands, who knows what will happen? Every time I look at the email [inbox] there are 20 more.
“The submissions trickled in pretty slowly on the first day, which was understandable because people needed time to put something together. Even though the site has only just been launched, it’s visibly picking up momentum every day. You can see that people have spent a bit of time editing a video of them singing that song from that musical that got cancelled.
“What particularly blew my mind was the [number of] unique page views. In the first 24 hours it was 25,000 and then about four days after launch it hit 250,000 – and it just keeps rising.”
Green first posted the idea on Facebook. As an actor and writer he has worked across Canada, and the social media site gives him extensive access to the country’s arts community. “On the first day, my Facebook status was shared about 1,700 times. I didn’t create the Twitter and Instagram accounts until the day after, and our volunteers are now doing an amazing job managing the social media.”
The first email submissions were mostly from artists based in Canada and the US. Theatremakers from Australia followed, then the UK and South America, Asia and Africa. “My intention was never for it to be exclusively Canadian – or exclusively anything,” says Green.
One of his favourites so far is Tadhi Alawi, a dancer from Tanzania, whose video Body Vs Mouth recreates the eponymous show that was intended for Ireland’s now-cancelled Laois Dance Platform festival due to take place in April.
As it stands, Green is prioritising the pieces that come directly from a work that was cancelled, postponed or delayed, and the remit covers a broad spectrum of the performing arts.
“You hopefully can also think of uploading one or two pieces from a work in progress as time goes along. In terms of genres, I’m especially hoping for more submissions from theatre and musical theatre artists, including designers.”
He adds: “That work translates really well to this medium. It’s a really interesting time to look at how technology can be used to communicate what is traditionally live performance.”
Opera and dance transfer reasonably to video, as do musicals to a degree. But plays have proved particularly hard to crack in making that connection with remote audiences and small screens. Green’s own cancelled show, happily listed on the site, is a good example. “Written with Kevin Wong, In Real Life is a dystopian sci-fi musical in which a lot of the action takes place with people communicating over video devices. So what we’re now doing is rebuilding these scenes and choreographing via webcam, because it accurately depicts what the scenes would look like if performed live.”
Technology can therefore help in transferring lot of the work out there, be it video or live streamed. If there’s something good to be taken out of all this, says Green, perhaps it would be that now is the time to focus on understanding and innovating how live performance and technology intersect online. Maybe it’s time we finally found a way for theatre to be easier to watch on screen.
Certainly The Social Distancing Festival contrasts with the existing high-level, mass-consumer live streams out there that feature established artists and big-budget works that have already paid their way on stages in front of live audiences.
“The site is definitely for people who very possibly will never see their projects on stage now,” says Green. “But if the company of Hamilton want to sing me a song I will absolutely post that, because it would also draw eyes towards that other production – the one from that small town in that black box. And that would be magic.”