The value of visuals

Five simple things you can do to turn your online show into an experience.

Video: Heather Mae & Crys Matthews for their Singing OUT Virtual Pride Tour

As life has shifted and changed in a post-COVID world, so too have the unspoken rules around live performance. In the past four months, artists have had to learn how to do their own tech and sound, and most have figured out how to plant themselves in front of a screen and broadcast their art. But as the initial cacophony of free online shows has settled into a more planned-and-paid model, audiences have become hungry for the light shows, visual effects, and stage dynamics offered by the live venue experience.

Ken MacKenzie knows all about putting on a show—the multi-hyphenate theatre technician, who was a double winner at the Dora Mavor Moore Awards this week, is a set, costume, and lighting designer in Toronto with the likes of Soulpepper Theatre and The Howland Company. Like every cultural industry, theatre is in a precarious, uncertain period with no work and no timeline on the return to that work.

“People are now starting to think about what kinds of digital content theatre companies are going to be putting out,” he says, “and we as designers are trying to figure out how do we get paid—nothing in our contracts is quite right for streaming.”

He’s also the president of the Associated Designers of Canada, a non-profit that represents the interests of set, costume, lighting, projection, and sound designers working in the live performing arts. As theatre companies have done their digital part, hosting script readings and the like, MacKenzie says “it’s become clear people need design. It’s hard to watch several people talk for an hour-and-a-half in a square. So it’s definitely a moment of innovation in the arts world.”

As MacKenzie figures out what his job will look like for the next while—“the paradigm shift might be that sound and lighting and video design become these primary design focuses for most performances”—he does have some tips would boost musical experiences too. And you don’t need professional stage rigging to do it.

“I think when you do nothing, if it’s just gonna be a static shot and you’re gonna play, there’s an intimacy to that,” he says. “But it doesn’t transform the way live concerts always do. You’ve got to be careful with that intimate feel—it’s got a shelf life. Not all songs work as well that way. Being intimate should be a specific choice, not the default.”

1. Lights!

“Lighting is a big, big deal. Certainly in any kind of musical live performance, unless it’s a small intimate show in some bar somewhere, the lighting is a huge thing,” says MacKenzie. He recommends gathering every lamp you can find and positioning them around you. “Practical lights, little lamps, always look great,” he says. “Soft lights that will cast different shadows. Snd make sure it doesn’t look bad—that you don’t get blown out, or there aren’t too many shadows, unless that’s what you’re going for.” If you’ve got a budget he recommends noise-activated LED light systems, but notes “you can’t buy those at the dollar store.”

Tim Baker capturing natural light

Tim Baker capturing natural light

Photo from Danny Michel who brought his online show outside!

Photo from Danny Michel who brought his online show outside!

2. Think about your frame

“That little box you’re performing in requires some thought for composition,” he says. “You shouldn’t be sitting in front of a window, that’s something I’d expect most people have figured out now. You could make that trip to the dollar store, buy a few props.” Think plants, weird statues, knick knacks. “Think about the frame as the thing everyone is looking at, make the decision about what that frame is.”

Heather Mae & Crys Matthews did a fabulous job decorating their frame.

Heather Mae & Crys Matthews did a fabulous job decorating their frame.

Veda Hille brining in props while live streaming from the Cultch.

Veda Hille brining in props while live streaming from the Cultch.

3. Show your space (if you’re comfortable)

“One of the things I suppose a lot of people find really interesting is having access to someone’s house,” says MacKenzie. “You need to embrace that and make sure you’re not standing in front of the most basic wall in your house. You want something to look at, something personal.”

Torquil Cambell during his Side Door online show.

Torquil Cambell during his Side Door online show.

Gentleman Reg during his Side Door online show.

Gentleman Reg during his Side Door online show.

4. Move

“There’s nothing that says you have to be locked off in one place, in front your computer or phone or whatever,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be static.” If you can run two cameras or have a person that can move around and with you, that will make for a more dynamic show.

5. Consider the arc

In his theatre work, MacKenzie is thinking about the whole picture, not just individual scenes. He recommends online performers take the same approach, “what it looks like at the beginning and what it looks like at the end, and if it shifts,” he says. “How does it change? What is the emotional content, and how does what you’re showing reflect that? It’s best to show that through lighting.”


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Written by Tara Thorne

Tara Thorne is a writer, editor, and pop culture critic in Halifax.