Far from being curtains, pandemic ushered in new audiences for artists

Going digital was the obvious pivot for most performing arts events, and despite the challenges of putting on a show for a virtual audience, producers say they’re not looking back

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Israelis listen from their balconies as saxophonist Yarden Klayman performs a concert from a rooftop on Basel Square, in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis listen from their balconies as saxophonist Yarden Klayman performs a concert from a rooftop on Basel Square, in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

If you think event-planning for a massive crowd is hard, try planning for an event without one.

In the nine months since the pandemic first forced Israel to lock down, Shabi Mizrahi, deputy director of the Culture and Arts Department for the Tel Aviv municipality, has moved the city’s annual piano festival online, reconfigured the Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball team arena parking lot for socially-distanced drive-in movies and screened films on the Park Hayarkon lake, with viewers watching from socially-distanced paddle boats. He’s also put together small performances in apartment courtyards or parks for small groups of 10 or 20 people.

“I had no idea how to relate to these kinds of events at first,” said Mizrahi. “I’ve been running events for 22 years, but doing it online? That was new for us.”

Given Tel Aviv’s reputation as the beating heart of Israel’s arts and culture scene, Mizrahi knew he had to pivot. And now that he’s gotten used to doing things virtually, Mizrahi is all about the benefits of online festivals.

“We learned it’s the right thing to do, in order to show it everywhere,” said Mizrahi. “From Kiryat Shmona and Metulla to Eilat, to all the kibbutz communities, these events get to all the audiences who otherwise wouldn’t get to the festival.”

As events have moved online to comply with pandemic regulations forbidding large crowds, organizers around the country, like counterparts around the world, have attempted to seamlessly bring the live show experience to an audience stuck at home. In some cases, the move online has meant reaching people they might have never been able to before. But it has also come with its own set of challenges, both technical and artistic. And despite their best efforts, they still have to deal with the ever-present feeling that when it comes to cultural events, there’s no place like “not” home.

“Sure, everyone’s at home, it’s another world. It’s not a world that people want, but that’s what we had,” said Efi Benaya of Jerusalem’s Confederation House, which once regularly hosted artistic performances.

Musician Shalom Hanoch singing in front of an empty auditorium at the Tel Aviv Piano Festival in November 2020, one of the many events the municipality has put online and for free, drawing audiences from around the country (Courtesy Daniel Aharoni)

Going digital with performances was new and, at first, not all that enticing for many producers. Performers weren’t all that excited about playing to empty audiences, and who was going to watch musicians, actors or dancers from the vantage point of Facebook Live or YouTube?

Lots of people, it turned out. It was certainly easier for musicians to go online than actors or dancers, but they all began figuring it out. Music club Zappa put Israeli singers on stage for 30-minute Facebook Live performances in March, while some fringe theaters put their shows on Zoom.

Benaya said the Confederation House’s annual Oud festival normally sells out with 10,000 tickets, drawing audiences from outside Jerusalem to auditoriums throughout the city.

This year, it had half a million people attending virtually, he said, with audiences from all over the world, including the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

“These are still events, original events with good, artistic intentions, and they’re produced from a stage but reaching tens of thousands more. That’s what’s impressive.”

Tel Aviv’s Piano Festival, usually held in November and featuring dozens of Israel’s best musicians in intimate, quiet performances and duets onstage in galleries and auditoriums at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, also usually sells out quickly.

This year, it was held during the eight nights of Hanukkah, and for free, available to anyone and everyone on public TV channel Kan 11.

For Mizrahi, the Piano Festival was an opportunity to support the musicians as well as the technical staff who surround these kinds of events, the makeup artists, set designers and sound technicians who have been out of work for months.

“I would say 40% of my work has become phone calls with the artists, who just wanted to continue creating and working,” said Mizrahi. “[Musician] Arkadi Duchin said to me, ‘You know what the problem is? It’s not what’s in two months, but what’s happening tomorrow? I don’t know what’s happening tomorrow morning.'”

שיר לשירה: מירי מסיקה בדואט אקוסטי בפסטיבל הפסנתר 2020

מירי מסיקה מגיעה הערב לפסטיבל הפסנתר למופע אקוסטי מרגש ????הדרך הטובה ביותר לסיים את סוף השבוע הזה >> השידור המלא בערב ב-23:15 בערוץ כאן 11, בפייסבוק שלנו, של כאן 88 ו כאן גימל .–The Tel Aviv-Yafo Piano Festival פסטיבל הפסנתר של תל אביב – יפו עיריית תל-אביב-יפו מוזיאון תל אביב לאמנות – Tel Aviv Museum of Art מירי מסיקה – Miri Mesika Hamon Volume – המון ווליום Zappa זאפה

Posted by ‎The Tel Aviv-Yafo Piano Festival פסטיבל הפסנתר של תל אביב – יפו‎ on Thursday, December 10, 2020

While some event producers and artists have been able to transition to the world of Zoom performances, the industry as a whole has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with most cultural venues among the last places to open following Israel’s various lockdown regimes. Many venue owners, artists, producers, stagehands, technical staff and all the other people who go toward putting together a live performance say they have been driven into poverty by the lack of work, and protests seeking government aid or the re-opening of venues by the artistic community have been a near-constant feature throughout the pandemic.

Many of those who work in the industry are self-employed and have less access to social benefits than salaried employees.

Israelis artists protest against the COVID-19 lockdown, on November 8, 2020 in Tel Aviv. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Culture is seriously hurting here,” concert promoter Shuki Weiss said in June. “Imagine a life without music, it’s not a life we want to live. We’re going to see more and more people going belly up and these are people working for 20 or 30 years in this industry.”

The Zappa chain of 12 music clubs was one of the first entertainment companies to go online, partnering with television studio Keshet to create Zappa Live, short shows featuring leading musicians filmed on a Zappa stage and streamed live on Keshet and the Zappa Facebook page. The company streamed more than 95 shows in the first lockdown.

They also created performance buses that traveled throughout the country, partnered with hotel chain Isrotel for balcony performances, and built a theater for a 1,000 member capsule audience in Tel Aviv’s Park Hayarkon which was closed after just two shows.

They began streamed performances with Keshet from their park amphitheater and later streamed Zappa Live from the roof of Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Building.

זאפה וקשת מציגות: ספיישל עצמאות – הפרויקט של עידן רייכל עכשיו בשידור חי ממושב משמרת!

זאפה וקשת מציגות: ספיישל עצמאות – הפרויקט של עידן רייכל עכשיו בשידור חי ממושב משמרת!

Posted by ‎Zappa זאפה‎ on Wednesday, April 29, 2020

More than 3.15 million people were exposed to the Zappa music projects, according to the Israeli Marketing Union, and the Zappa-Keshet shows received a 7.6% market share on average, which Keshet said was higher than expected.

The very first Zappa Live show in March, with Idan Raichel, received a whopping 14.5% market share, no live audience needed.

‘Here to stay’

Music, which is something people are used to consuming in non-live formats, is far easier to produce online than dance, said Anat Leventon, CEO of Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, who began her job just a month and a half after the coronavirus began.

She wanted to keep up connections between Israel and the dance world abroad, knowing there wouldn’t be any visiting troupes or choreographers coming to Israel for months to come. Her first online event was Tel Aviv Dance, an online dance festival in August, followed by Exposure 2020, a Suzanne Dellal platform and event with various dance works and interviews with 18 choreographers.

Each dance piece can be viewed once, although the interviews with the creators can be watched an unlimited number of times.

Every choreographer also has a profile posted on the festival website, allowing choreographers and viewers to connect offline, part of the professional networking that often takes place at this annual event.

“I figured that we’re all stuck where we are, but this allowed each of us to leave our areas a little,” said Leventon. “This has already proved itself.”

There are also larger audiences buying tickets for the festival, several times larger than the usual crowd of several hundred at a Suzanne Dellal auditorium.

Producing events online is expensive, and needs to be done correctly, but it’s here to stay, said Leventon, because it just makes sense.

Jerusalem’s Mishekenot Sha’ananim was one of the first cultural institutions to move an event online when it planned the May Writers Festival, keeping the dates and the program nearly untouched, including the mix of writers from Israel and abroad, said director Moti Schwartz.

“We were in shock about all of it, but when I understood that this virus is here to stay, we went ahead with the scheduled dates,” said Schwartz. “We said the coronavirus is here but we’re going on with the show.”

There have been a total of 150,000 people tuning into Mishkenot’s online events over the last seven months, said Schwartz, compared to a few hundred who would normally gather in one of the cultural organization’s auditoriums. He’s learned how to film speakers at Mishkenot, rather than in their dimly-lit homes and libraries, or when to go live with an online event.

“It’s been pretty amazing for us,” said Schwartz, who plans on keeping some aspect of digital programming in the future, even when in-person events are returned to their roster. His next event is December 29-30, with conversations between writers and other creative types, whether chefs, fashion designers or musicians.

Part of the challenge faced by those trying to put festivals online has been technological in nature, as their websites need to be updated and shifted in order to accommodate the demands of a large, online audience, watching hours of performances and tuning into live conversations.

DocAviv, the annual Tel Aviv documentary film festival that’s normally held at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque and other theaters around the city, pushed off their festival from May to September, but was still one of the first film festivals to move online, said Galia Bador, CEO and festival director of DocAviv.

With 120 Israeli and international films, 90 webinars, live conversations and discussions as part of the festival, it was “just huge in its reach,” said Bador, who wasn’t sure the event would be live or online until a few days prior.

There were certain details that were similar to hosting the event in theaters, including the content and curation of the films, which is the bulk of the festival work, picking the best and most interesting films, said Bador.

What changed this year was the creation of a viewing platform, made solely for the festival.

“It’s like VOD and Netflix and you have to build it correctly so that any viewer can easily enter, buy a ticket and watch a film,” said Bador. “It’s just a huge process.”

It paid off, though. DocAviv sold more tickets at the September event, 61,000 compared with 55,000 sold in the previous year. There were more audience members to deal with, but it proved to Bador that the DocAviv brand is strong and the audience is loyal.

With Israelis at home once again from mid-September through November for another COVID-19 closure, the festival launched Docustream, a month of documentaries throughout October, created only for viewers in Israel.

“I loved that it opened the doors to others who don’t live in Tel Aviv,” she said. “It’s always better to see a film in the theater, but this offers another option.”

The online versions of these events offer an opportunity to support the more veteran performers as well as the younger musicians, said Tel Aviv municipality’s Mizrahi, who hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to scrounge around for openings in performers’ busy calendars.

“My motto for any event now is to create original productions,” he said, “It’s not the artist doing what they always do, and that we know, but to create new things that haven’t been done.”

GYPSY – מאיה בלזיצמן ומתן אפרת מתוך #תרבותאונמות

החלטנו לספיילר את המופע הפותח של הערב השני (06/01 בשעה 20:30), הלוא הם מאיה בלזיצמן ומתן אפרת!השילוב המופלא בין הצ'לו והשירה של בלזיצמן לתופים והפרקשן של אפרת מוכרים כבר בפסטיבלים בעולם בזכות איחוד הצלילים והתדרים שמרעידים את הגוף והנפש, ואלינו הם מגיעים עם הופעת הבכורה למופע החדש INDOORS, יחד עם הרקדניות אופיר ינאי ועלמה קרבט שמש מהלהקה הצעירה של אנסמבל בת שבע.אנחנו שמחים לשתף את הקטע GYPSY מתוך החזרות למופע החדש שצילמנו ביום חמישי האחרון.כבר רכשתםן כרטיסים? >>

Posted by Blue Zone Music on Monday, December 28, 2020

The pivots and out-of-box thinking have changed his department, said Mizrahi, teaching them that online performances can be a good alternative, with the additional incentive of accessing those who can’t get to Tel Aviv.

“I hope that everything returns to normal, including the beer and wine festivals and the culture that takes place around the performances, the meals and drinks you have before and after,” said Mizrahi. “Culture includes all of that. People are just thirsty for that. But this has been a very good alternative.”

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