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Even with Broadway going dark and all in-person performances shuttered for the foreseeable future, Playbill—the iconic publication for theatergoers—is pushing ahead with a busy summer schedule.
Fortune spoke with Playbill’s chief digital officer Alex Birsh for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, about how the outbreak has affected the stage-production-adjacent business and what we can expect for live shows in our socially distant future.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: When did you realize the outbreak of COVID-19 was going to affect your work at Playbill?
I had an inkling in mid-February that the spring was not going to be normal, but envisioning how was the hard part, since anyone alive now has never experienced such a pandemic. Once the Jazz vs. Thunder game was canceled due to a player testing positive for the virus, I knew we were in truly uncharted territory. You just don’t see referees run onto a court, call a game off, and tell everyone to go home. It was staggering; it was like something out of a movie.
So I immediately started thinking that Broadway, very soon, is about to be affected in a huge way. I don’t think anyone could have envisioned for how long, though. The NBA season was immediately suspended, and then Broadway was suspended soon after.
All shows, plays, and musicals on Broadway—and virtually everywhere else—are canceled for the foreseeable future. Without live shows, how is Playbill keeping the business running? How is it engaging with the audience, and has it been doing anything in particular to support the casts and crews of shuttered productions?
Ever since my father started Playbill On-Line, its old title, in the mid-1990s, Playbill has been the most extensive and consistently updated online theater resource. We write about theater and theater-adjacent news; we have the Playbill Vault—a digital library of all the information you could ever need about Broadway’s productions of the past and present; we have a Jobs section on our site to help people get their start in the industry; and we have a separate make-your-own-Playbill site called PLAYBILLder. We also have an incredibly passionate following on social media, with more than 1.5 million total followers across the major platforms.
When anyone asks me what the fastest-growing part of our business is, my answer is always the same: our Instagram profile. We have ventured into the content creation space, either streaming live or recorded musicals and plays, such as Pride Plays, our Playbill Pride Spectacular concert, and the just-announced Playbill Virtual Theatre Festival, or holding interviews through interview series like Stream Stealers and The Broadway Q&A. Through all this, we keep engaged with new and old online audiences who are theater-obsessed, along with the army of new and exciting creative forces in the industry.
June is Pride Month, and the first of the Pride Plays just aired via live stream. Could you explain a bit more about this initiative, what inspired it, and what else fans can expect from the Pride Plays 2020 Festival?
Pride Plays is produced and directed by the great trio of Michael Urie, Doug Nevin, and Nick Mayo, in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The festival was obviously supposed to be an in-person experience, just as it was wonderfully done last year, but we wanted to be part of the reason these plays were able to reach the digital public, and we are thrilled to partner with Pride Plays and host them digitally on our site. The Plays help raise funding and awareness for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS through honoring impactful LGBTQIA+ plays through history, an organization that is near and dear to my heart.
On Friday, we just held our first play, Donja R. Love’s One in Two, which was just outstanding, and up next we have the Five Lesbian Brothers reuniting for a one-night-only live reading of their 1992 play Brave Smiles…Another Lesbian Tragedy at 7 p.m. ET on June 22; Mart Crowley’s The Men From the Boys, directed by Zachary Quinto at 7 p.m. ET June 26; and Masculinity Max by MJ Kaufman at 7 p.m. ET June 27. And to top it off, we have our Playbill Pride Spectacular concert on June 28.
Among the most depressing forecasts as the pandemic continues is that live shows and performances will not be able to resume for the rest of 2020, at least. But as the old saying goes, “The show must go on,” so how does Playbill plan to adapt to whatever the social distancing, self-isolating future holds?
We will continue to create content fitting for our site to keep our audiences engaged, and when theater returns, we will return to the theaters to serve our beloved readers and collectors. Playbill is one of the rare theatrical institutions that has been around longer than many theaters themselves—we were established in 1884—so we have seen our fair share of history surround and impact us. We, like the theater itself, will rebound well and be smart and responsible in helping bring people the joy of theater in the safest ways possible.
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