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League of Live Stream Theater launched by two theater and tech entrepreneurs

Co-founders Jim Augustine and Oren Michels have announced the establishment of the all-new League of Live Stream Theater (LOLST), a nonprofit service intended to bring Broadway and regional theater productions to homes around the world.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar, and Common in "Between Riverside and Crazy" on Broadway (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Co-founders Jim Augustine and Oren Michels have announced the establishment of the all-new League of Live Stream Theater (LOLST), a nonprofit service intended to bring Broadway and regional theater productions to homes around the world. The organization will debut with the two-week simulcast of Second Stage’s “Between Riverside and Crazy,” from Jan. 31 through Feb. 12.

Augustine and Michels first collaborated on Second Stage’s livestream of Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s” in January 2022 through Assemble Stream, where Augustine worked at the time. The success of that experience sparked more discussion, and when Augustine left Assemble Stream he and Michels started to envision a livestreaming service specifically for nonprofit theater.

Second Stage’s former board chair and current board member Stephen C. Sherrill provided initial funding to establish the League, which officially incorporated in October 2022 and just earned its nonprofit status. Bloomberg Philanthropies provided additional funding, then the League approached Second Stage — of which Michels is also a board member — about featuring “Between Riverside and Crazy” as the company’s debut stream.

The League is covering the full cost of the stream, which includes camera equipment and installation, an additional sound mix for viewers at home, the video expense, a broadcast director, distribution and digital rights management and marketing. And the League aims to do the same with all future streams. “We want to be able to shoulder all or most of the cost of these because it is a new thing,” said Michels. “With our experience doing it [previously], we’re able to do it with less risk and more understanding of what the outcome’s going to be better than the companies themselves.”

In fact, assuming the cost is foundational to the League. “The reason we’re a nonprofit is we don’t want to make money,” said Michels. “We want to sustain what we’re doing so we can bring this to as many theaters and as many shows as possible.” And, though the cost falls to the League, the theater will share in the revenue.

Traditionally, for theater companies and individual productions, the cost of livestreaming is one main obstacle, but the issue of rights and union permissions is the other.

In this case, with regards to rights, for example, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis licensed the rights to “Between Riverside and Crazy” to Second Stage, so Second Stage had the ability to have some of its audience in person and some at home. (“Musicals [with more rights holders], of course, would be more complicated,” Michels admits.)

With regards to unions, this is why the League focuses on serving nonprofit theaters. (“We do believe there’s a place for streaming in the for-profit world. However, first things first,” Michels added.)

During the pandemic, the contract for League of Resident Theatres (LORT) venues expanded to allow for nonprofits to stream, so union permission and compensation has already been negotiated. “As of right now, because of the agreement that was made during the pandemic for the LORT members, the unions are allowing — up to a limited audience size — the livestreaming of shows,” Michels explained. “That number [of livestream tickets] is the number of [in-person] tickets that were otherwise unsold during the run.” This is why the simulcast will air during the last two weeks of the run: It’s the chance for the greatest number of livestream tickets to be sold because the calculation of unsold tickets is cumulative for the duration of the production.

Just as ticket buyers can visit the Second Stage website to buy a ticket to see “Between Riverside and Crazy” at the Hayes Theater on a specific date, they can also visit the website (or the League’s site) and choose a date to livestream. Ticket holders will receive a one-time viewing link via email and can watch on any device with an internet connection.

Of course, some theater professionals worry these efforts will cannibalize the in-person audience. But the at-home experience will be a different view than that of the in-person attendees; a separate camera director will choose angles, cuts and more. What’s more, the League will collect data which, Michels said, should “show people that this is a way of building an audience that is not something to be afraid of.”

He continued, “We livestreamed ‘Clyde’s’ and ‘Clyde’s’ is now the number-one show being done in the U.S. this year.” While correlation does not equal causation, it’s a compelling observation.

But Michels also plans to focus the League’s efforts on Broadway and regional productions with short runs — shows that people might not get to see otherwise. “A lot of [our audience] will be people who regularly come to New York to see Broadway shows, but their trip doesn’t coincide with the 10- or 12-week run of a show like ‘Between Riverside and Crazy,’” Michels said.

“There’s just a great opportunity for theater lovers who do come to Broadway to be reminded about all the amazing things that happen here even when they’re not able to attend [in-person].”

Moreover, Michels urges that livestreaming can be an additional revenue stream for these theaters. “I remember back in the day when home video became a thing and, very famously, Jack Valenti — who was the head of the Motion Picture Association, was so afraid of home video he was quoted as saying that home video is to the motion picture industry what the Boston Strangler is to a woman alone at night,” Michels recalled. Valenti’s indelicate prediction did not bear out, Michels noted. “We saw [that] all of those people in the motion picture industry turned it into a revenue stream.”

“Our goal overall is to create a new revenue stream for everyone involved in all of these, whether they’re actors, designers, all the unions, as well as the rights holders,” Michels explained. “What we’re hoping to do with the shows that we work on this year under the current LORT agreement is create a precedent and show what the numbers can look like so that there is a reason for all the stakeholders to engage and support something like this.”

More than revenue, the League plans to be an audience-builder for Broadway and theaters around the country. The League has already begun conversations with several regional venues. And while a process toward membership in the League has not yet been established, Augustine and Michels will move ahead live-broadcasting individual productions to gain experience, gather data and build relationships all while building audiences and introducing theater to people in their living rooms.

Michels sees infinite possibility: “I believe there are going to be things we can do with livestream on Broadway to make the numbers for a show economically feasible that otherwise would not be without the livestream.”