Stanford Live: Collaborating and building community in the performing arts

Stanford Live: Collaborating and building community in the performing arts

Oct 2021 | Arts and Culture

Supporting arts organizations and cultural institutions has always been part of the Koret Foundation’s commitment to strengthening the Bay Area community. The pandemic put a hard stop to live performances for over a year, but also inspired innovation and collaboration. We recently caught up with Chris Lorway, executive director of Stanford Live, a longtime Koret grantee and one of the Bay Area’s premiere destinations for live performances. We found his reflections insightful and optimistic—on weathering the pandemic storm, deepening partnerships, and cultivating new audiences to rebuild community.

Q: Could you sum up what Stanford Live, and probably other performing arts organizations, were thinking—and feeling—back in March of 2020?

A: Well, March through May is normally our busiest period. I refer to March 2020 as the beginning of our unproducing period. “Unproducing” not in the sense of being unproductive, but of undoing what we had been producing. It seems like everybody in the performing arts had to learn this new skill: How do you deconstruct all that you’ve spent years to construct? My colleagues—both at Stanford and at other performance venues—were concerned that a lot of organizations or artists’ groups were out on the road already, in mid-tour. How would they get home, logistically as well as financially? One of the first fundamental issues we grappled with was, How do we take care of one another as a sector through this period? And we were also asking ourselves, How can we look after artists in our community, the ones that are closest to us geographically? We were fortunate to have relationships with a lot of artists in the Bay Area, and we focused on strengthening those.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Given that we have an amazing new outdoor facility, how can we leverage that to be an asset not only for us, but also for our broader community?’”

Chris Lorway

executive director of Stanford Live

Q: And how did you go about that, given that all performances were on hold indefinitely?

A: Quickly, we got some initial digital content out that was fairly easy—primarily performance videos from artists that were scheduled to be with us, that we could pull together from what existed out there. And then we took a step back to think about partnerships we could craft that would allow us to create a digital platform that’s different than streaming a concert and trying to recreate that sense of being in the concert hall. It was an opportunity to create new work on film, to help local artists create content, which they were all trying to do at this point. Our big question was, How do we become a hub for our community? Can we bring in other types of artists that we don’t traditionally work with, like filmmakers, editors, and cinematographers to help us tell the stories of artists during the pandemic in a way that was  meaningful. We have a renowned documentary film program here at Stanford. I called the director, Jamie Meltzer, and asked if he would work with us to document this period for local artists. Not only did he connect us into his local film network, but he also actually ended up personally directing our first digital film, with the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

Q: How great that you could draw on that expertise. It is who you know as well as what you know that can lead to interesting collaborations…

A: Yes, exactly. I reached far afield to put together our team over the next six or so weeks. Elena Park, an old friend of mine, works at the Metropolitan Opera on their HD broadcasts. We knew that New York was going to be quiet for a while because of what was happening there, so we were able to entice her to come west for a few months. She flew out here and became our executive producer for the first chunk of films that we did, bringing that high degree of expertise into the space with us. And then we started to reach out to the artists we had relationships with, great ensembles here who were all faced with the same challenge that we had, which was about creating content. For Stanford Live, the big overarching questions were, How do we collectively put together an infrastructure, so that not everybody is having to reinvent the wheel?  Can we put together a crack team that can do this for everybody?

Q: And what about your core Stanford Live team?

A: Certainly, in tandem with leveraging these relationships to create content we were thinking, How do we retain our staff internally? Given the cost of living here, it’s so hard to attract good workers in the Bay Area. We wanted to make sure that we not only kept them employed, but also gave them a sense of pride in the quality of work that they were creating during the pandemic. The filmmaking project kicked off in August of 2020, and kept us busy through May of 2021. And that’s when, as venues began to reopen and audiences to re-emerge, we started to think again about what it would look like to begin to return to live performances. Given that we have an amazing new outdoor facility, how can we leverage that to be an asset not only for us, but also for our broader community?

Q: And how did you dip your toes, so to speak, in the pond of live performances?

A: We knew it would be some time before people would feel comfortable coming indoors. Fortunately, we had just finished a major renovation of Frost Amphitheater in 2019, which provided ample space for social distancing. We started with screening popular movies, which allowed us to focus on the front-of-house audience experience, and not worry about what was happening on stage with performers. We started with a tiny capacity: 500 people in an 8,000-seat outdoor space—so we had lots of room to distance chairs and to keep people very far apart. In April 2021, we launched a seven-week film series that celebrated Stanford alumni. Our next phase was to activate the stage and bring that alive.

Q: That sounds like a double bind, to come up with performers on relatively short notice, and to entice audiences to come and see them. Quite a bit more complex than scheduling films…

A: You’re right on both points. But we were sitting on a great resource: an outdoor performing space that we could offer to other arts organizations in the Bay Area who, for the most part have indoor facilities that had been shuttered, so they hadn’t been able to connect with their audiences. It was potentially a win-win scenario, inviting other organizations into the space and also attracting audiences that hadn’t been to Frost. We reached out to the San Francisco Symphony, and they enthusiastically committed to five Saturdays in July—when we had thought that shooting for August was ambitious. So, we reached out to SFJAZZ, and they took Thursdays as jazz nights. We really thought about what would appeal to our community, our neighbors. And we were able to program a new Bollywood show, and to bring in a local mariachi band, and to work with a local promoter to create different types of programs for the very engaged Latinx audience here in the Bay Area.

“And as we scaled things back up, we felt more and more as though we were not only building back audience, but also we were building back community.”

Chris Lorway

executive director of Stanford Live

Set up for Movie Nights at Frost Amphitheater. Photo: Kimberly Pross
Performers take the stage for "My Bollywood Jukebox." Photo: Allie Foraker
Audiences enjoy the live performance of "My Bollywood Jukebox" at Frost Amphitheater. Photo: Allie Foraker
Tiffany Austin performs with the Marcus Shelby Quintet. Photo: Michael Spencer
Sold out crowd at the San Francisco Ballet's performance. Photo: Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet performs at Frost Amphitheater. Photo: Erik Tomasson
Graciela Beltrán performs with Mariachi Nueva Generación. Photo: Michael Spencer
Mariachi Nueva Generación at Frost Amphitheater. Photo: Michael Spencer

Q: And what sizes of audiences were you able to attract for the summer season?

A:  All of the shows that happened in July were set for between 1,200 and 1,600 seats. People were still socially distanced, and then the second week of August, we moved into our next configuration. For San Francisco Ballet, we wanted to put in essentially a 2,500-seat theater into the space, still giving the audience almost six feet around them. We turned the meadow area in front of the stage into an orchestra pit, and we brought the full ballet down with orchestra. And that was the first time that they had a chance to perform in front of an audience for well over a year.

Q: And how did audiences respond to being outdoors for performances they are accustomed to seeing inside? The SF Ballet, for example, at the War Memorial Opera House…

A: The SF Ballet performances at Frost were really quite magical. The Ballet performed the same program on two nights, hitting nearly 5,000 people in total. There was their core audience, combined with the Stanford community in the South Bay, many of whom have over the years become increasingly reluctant to drive up to the city for events. And then, to be outdoors at a time when that’s a safer space to be in, and the program was Balanchine’s Serenade, which is always an audience favorite. And I think people fell in love with the environment and how it looked and felt in the space.

Q: Could you talk a bit about what you think it means to audiences to see a live performance? How do you think it was, to be socially distanced, but still experiencing something together?

A: For me, it’s a great metaphor about community. We had lost our connections to people who are outside our families, people who share similar interests and similar loves. And, I think in some ways, it’s heightened the awareness of the importance of the live event, rather than something that’s virtual and on screen. There is a different dynamic, when you hear and feel the energy that a crowd has, that you just don’t get when you’re sitting in your living room. And when people get emotional, when they gasp, or when they applaud, you feel a sense of being a part of a community. And as we scaled things back up, we felt more and more as though we were not only building back audience, but also we were building back community.

“There is a different dynamic, when you hear and feel the energy that a crowd has, that you just don’t get when you’re sitting in your living room.”

Chris Lorway

executive director, Stanford Live

Q: Can you talk a bit about how these partnerships worked financially?

A: What we proposed was to go in “full risk” on each partnership. Stanford Live and each partner would split total expenses for the shows, and then would also split the net result based on ticket sales and, in some cases, fundraising—whether that was red or black ink. And the good news was that in every single case, it was black ink. So everybody walked away with something. And we actually ended up surprisingly well. In a normal season, we’ve grown to where we sell $2.2 to $2.3 million worth of tickets. And we sold $1.7 million over the course of July and August, thanks to a much larger seating capacity than we usually have indoors at the Bing. And while both we and our partners saw some financial benefit, even more importantly, we strengthened our relationships. Thanks to the flexibility of programming at Frost, we became, in some ways, one of the main cultural hubs in the Bay Area over the course of the past year. And for the first time, we were really inviting everybody from the region into our space.

Q: And who was the “everybody”?

A: Ah, this might be my favorite question to answer. We want to help ensure that our artists get the sort of crowd that we want them to have. We diversified our programming, and that attracted people who we hadn’t seen at Stanford before. We saw people coming over from the East Bay, coming over from Fremont, coming down from Marin for the first time in a long time, and it gave our venue great visibility. We saw members of the Stanford community coming out on multiple nights to see different types of artists, which, for me, was very exciting. All these new people came into our space, who hopefully will come back at some point. When we looked at our data, we could see that the audiences at our July and August programs included, on average, 50% patrons who hadn’t been here before. This was largely driven by two factors, the first being we were one of the few non-commercial spaces in the Bay Area with this type of programming, and, second, our partners brought their audiences. We hope to deepen these new connections in the next phase, as we all collectively emerge out of the pandemic.