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The WiredArts Fest: High Culture Meets Live Online Video

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For 12 nights earlier this year, audiences in New York City and all around the world took part in an unusual arts festival. Called the WiredArts Fest, it ran from Feb. 19 to March 2 and live streamed a variety of acts. An international audience that ranged from a few hundred to as many as 15,000 saw ballet from Exit 12 Dance Company, a troop founded by an ex-Marine; dance from the New York-based Dance New Amsterdam; and an improvised comedy called Die: Roll to Proceed by Mind the Art Entertainment. A French company performed Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (or Huis Clos) in French with English subtitles, while a Turkish performer did a play in English with Turkish subtitles so that her audience in Istanbul could enjoy it. One interactive play, called Abstract Nude, followed the progress of a painting through five different groups of people. The interactive element was that the audience got to decide who kept the painting. In all, the festival offered 20 different acts.

While it took many people to make this first live streamed arts festival a success, the driving force behind it was New York City-based actress Kathryn Velvel Jones, who is no stranger to technology. Besides the standard challenges of producing an arts festival, Jones faced many technical difficulties. For example, the Queens theater she chose couldn’t be wired with a high-speed internet connection. Instead, Jones relied on LiveU cellular multiplexing, streaming with two LiveU backpacks. Video production was handled by a NewTek TriCaster 855, which NewTek donated for the production. The live video was uploaded to a Ustream account.

“From day one to day twelve, it was a never-ending challenge,” Jones said. Occasionally the stream would go down, and when that happened Jones and company needed to check everything at LiveU and then check everything at Ustream. “When you’re streaming live, anything can happen.”

Even ticket sales are an extra challenge with a live streamed event. Jones wanted to mimic the experience of reserving seats, but she couldn’t find a pay-per-view ticket sales system that handled reservations. Creating a system took most of Jones’ Christmas break, as she tweaked WordPress plug-ins until she got what she needed. Building her own system also let her company keep all the proceeds. Jones was determined to keep ticket prices low ($2.50), and she didn’t want to use a ticket system from Ustream or Livestream that would take half the profits.

Jones also discovered that many of the companies in the festival had no experience performing in front of cameras, so extra tech rehearsals were required.

The VirtualArts.TV team (from left): David Cohen, Erin Bigelow, Lauren Rayner, Kathryn Velvel Jones, and Joey Brenneman surround the NewTek TriCaster 855 on the set of the organization’s WiredArts Fest.

“For a usual festival, if you are a company that’s performing in a festival, whether you’re a dance company or a theater company, you usually have one day of what we call tech, which is the day that you’re in the theater with your lights, with your set, with your costume, and you have some hours doing work in the space,” Jones said. “We actually doubled that for all of our companies. We had both a regular tech and we also had a camera tech for all of our companies, because that was just a way to help them understand where the cameras were going to be and especially in the terms of scripted pieces how to play to the camera. That is something that a lot of theater-centric performers are not used to doing, which is always making sure you’re clear for your camera.”

Despite the hurdles and obstacles, Jones and her team successfully hosted the first live streamed arts festival. It helped that Jones was already well-versed in online video technology.

Creating a Path in Online Video

“I’ve been a professional actor in New York for more than 20 years, but that’s a really, really hard life where you’re basically waiting for other people to make things happen for you,” Jones said. “More than ten years ago, I started creating my own work, which eventually led to working in online video.” Through her online video work, Jones has been involved in social media, including podcasting, since it began.

Watching some of the first live online video productions in April 2007 showed Jones the path to which she would dedicate her career.

“It’s so funny how the world’s changed so much,” Jones said. “I knew immediately watching those live shows that all my work in theater, in online video, and social media were kind of culminating in the platform I was watching in front of me. And seven months later, I produced the first ever live streamed web series.”

To make that production happen, Jones knew she needed to produce a multicamera event. While she wasn’t sure how to do that, the answer came from -- naturally -- a Streaming Media conference.

“I happened to go to Streaming Media East that year, as I do almost every year, and a friend said to me, ‘Have you heard of the TriCaster?’ and I said no, and he took me into a room, he showed me the TriCaster, and that’s what I’ve used since then,” Jones said.

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