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Behind-the-Scenes of a Virtual Wisconsin Union Event

Ever wondered how in the world a virtual event works? Well, we’re pulling back the curtain on how our team creates virtual experiences for a lifetime. 

We, at the Wisconsin Union, are committed to providing events for you, our members and guests, and, this year, event restrictions in light of COVID-19, required that our team re-imagine the events you love and we love to create for you. we have provided them in a one-of-a-kind way. The Wisconsin Union Theater and the student-run Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) Performing Arts Committee (PAC) have been hard at work making sure we could continue to offer these amazing opportunities.

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Performance artist and award-winning playwright Ebony Stewart kicked off this year’s Black Arts Matter Festival with one-woman show OCEAN and Q&A on Nov. 5.

Wisconsin Union Theater Director Elizabeth Snodgrass gave us the inside scoop on their virtual event process.

Last spring, the Theater team prioritized remaining committed to the scheduled performers and to reimagining their performances in light of COVID-19 event guidelines. The team only canceled one performance out of the entire lineup. The Theater team either rescheduled or moved other events to a virtual format.

The artists offered high-quality, pre-recorded performances or live performances from their locations. Performances included Welcome Week events, such as a virtual Q&A with comedian and activist Hasan Minhaj, classical Concert Series performances, jazz and multicultural music events.

Some Madison area artists performed live without an audience in Shannon Hall with physical distancing precautions and a limited number of performers and crew members. These live performances included the 2020 Madison World Music Festival and some jazz artists through the Theater’s partnerships with the Madison Music Collective and Madison Arts + Literature Laboratory.

“Adding a live element such as a conversation with the artist helps avoid passive consumption of screen time and create a connection with the performers as people,” Snodgrass said. Another interactive element audiences enjoyed is the live chat feature where attendees could discuss the performance with other patrons.

The Theater team considered a lot of factors and event aspects with both the live and recorded performance such as how the art translates to a virtual format, broadcast licensing and ownership of rights, differing time zones for artist and audience, ticketing options, streaming platforms, revised promotional strategies, and of course, cost and value proposition. Additional elements to consider include microphones, cameras, internet reliability, and film/video production factors like camera angles and what is in the frame.

But, to the Theater, the ability to bring the arts to people and the opportunity to continue to serve the campus community and guests around the world made it all worth it. 

Minhaj kicked off the Theater’s fall virtual events lineup during the Wisconsin Union’s lineup of events to welcome students back to campus. After several tech runs, the Union team live-streamed the event without a single technical issue.

“There is no replacement for the shared experience of an in-person arts performance, and we will not pretend we are delivering something that is equivalent, but we will keep our commitment to quality and our community,” Snodgrass said. “When the pandemic is behind us, we will have emerged smarter, stronger and with a greater sense of humanity and purpose.”

Love supporting artists? The Theater is launching an exclusively local artist virtual performance series starting in January 2021, which will feature local musicians once a month. Stay tuned to union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater for details. 

Another virtual event pioneer is the WUD Distinguished Lecture Series (DLS) Committee, one of 11 committees that make up the student-run programming board. DLS presents impactful speakers to provide free educational opportunities and encourage thought-provoking conversations and ideas. This fall, the Committee presented an entirely virtual lineup.

Caoilfhinn Rauwerdink, a UW-Madison student and the DLS marketing and outreach associate director, sat down to share about their virtual event process. Now a junior, Caoilfhinn joined DLS her freshman year and brought both historical knowledge and dedication to make programming happen this year despite the challenges the Committee faced.

A social media post to promote the WUD DLS event “The Death of Democracy: Voter Suppression in the 21st Century” on Sept. 22.

While the speaker lineup took shape this summer, the DLS team made many changes to account for the needed virtual format, including how to stream the event. 

To attend a DLS event, patrons registered for the event to receive a link to the lecture stream on YouTube. While all could view each DLS event live, campus community members could access the talks afterward for a limited amount of time through their wisc.edu email accounts. 

Caoilfhinn and the rest of the Committee experienced a fast-paced semester, but it also gave her leadership experience in creating and publishing social media content and many Committee members’ new, event-related learning opportunities. Students leaders in DLS and across WUD exhibited incredible adaptability and perseverance in fall 2020.

“We can meet virtually, put on fun events and talk about important issues that are happening,” Caoilfhinn said. “Having virtual events makes everything feel a bit more normal.”

WUD and Wisconsin Union staff look forward to creating more virtual events and activities in the months to come. For more information, visit our calendar here.

Author: Katherine Kermgard

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