The Arts Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) recently held its first-ever live virtual open mic poetry night. Communicate got a chance to speak with Bill Bragin, Executive Director at NYUAD’s Arts Centre to understand what kind of challenges he faced and what opportunities live streaming offers the institution.
What exactly is a “live virtual poetry open mic night”?
Every month, we present Rooftop Rhymes- an open mic for spoken word artists and songwriters to share their original work. Some are well-renowned performers while others are new artists who may be stepping on stage for the first time. When the monthly in-person series was no longer possible, because of the call to stay at home, we decided to [stream it online.] We asked each of the performers to perform from their homes, and the audience can tune in to our NYUADArtsCenter Facebook page to watch it live. With nearly unlimited content available on-demand; we wanted our online event to still have a sense of community, where audience members can show their appreciation through virtual “snaps” as well as chat with each other, and give feedback to the performers during the show. It’s more important than ever to find a way to connect with one another through the arts and [utilize different] outlets for self-expression.
How did this project come about?
Rooftop Rhythms was founded by poet and teacher Dorian Paul Rogers and recently celebrated its eighth anniversary. He started it as a way to gather artists and fans, from all over the country to connect with the UAE’s deep love of recited poetry. When The Arts Center opened five years ago, we adopted the series, first as a one-off event, and then making it a central part of our annual season. When we realized that we won’t be able to gather in person for the 8th-anniversary edition, we found a way to host the event and stream it using Zoom and Facebook Live.
How did you use these tools?
We used Zoom to bring all the participants into one space. Then we ran Zoom on a second screen and fed that into the OBS (Open Broadcaster Software), by using the display capture option. For audio, we ran Blackhole, an audio interface driver as a virtual soundcard to feed the Zoom audio into the OBS. From the OBS, we streamed the feed into Vimeo, and then on Facebook and Youtube. Once the stream is running, we can share it on other pages. Additionally, we also share a document with all the participants with instructions, input, and advice on: placement of the camera, internet connections, do’s and don’t, etc.
How does an institution like NYUAD adapt to the current circumstances?
We’ve been looking at everything we do in real life, and thinking about how we can adapt it to the online space. [We’ve been considering options such as] sharing performances, artist talks, and even testing [the idea of] an online dinner-party with some of our artists. Of course, like everyone, we’re all working from home and trying to balance all the demands. We’ve been adding weekly virtual events, for now, to help keep [people’s] spirits up, and are also testing new approaches. We’re talking to all the artists planned for next year to come up with back-up plans, and back-ups to their back-up plans. More than ever, this points to the fact that the arts are essential to the quality of people’s lives, and we want to be there for our community and audience, and keep inspiring them.
How were you using live streaming before the Covid-19 crisis vs now?
We were live streaming selected shows – some of which would stay online and remained available on-demand, and some were only streamed at the time of the performance and then taken down. But we archived every performance we ever presented, many of which have never been shared with the public. For Rooftop Rhythms, we’ve live-streamed from the venue but never had a remote performance before. In our Wednesday nights Reconnect series, the latest thing we’ve added is a live Q&A with the artists, even when the performance streamed might be an old one.
What opportunities does live streaming offer to you and how do you activate them?
We’re promoting our live streaming events like we do with real-time events – creating Facebook events and using digital marketing to get people to RSVP so that they get notified when the video goes live. We’re finding that the press has been very supportive of these initiatives. Everyone recognizes how valuable these artistic offerings are to people during such a challenging time.
Streaming gives us the opportunity to have an international audience. In last week’s Reconnect concert with 47Soul, we had virtual attendees from about 10 countries, including UAE, Lebanon, Egypt, US, and even Argentina. For Rooftop Rhythms, we can now invite artists from our global spoken word and music community, to be guest performers and expand our artistic universe even further. And most importantly, perhaps, it gives us a chance to show to the world, how vibrant and creative the artistic scene is in the UAE.
What were the challenges you faced?
There are still technical challenges – not everyone has the same access to stable, high-speed internet. We’ve been using a virtual background as our stage which doesn’t work on everyone’s computer. We’re still finding ways to ensure consistency of quality, sound, and lighting for 20 performers in 20 different places. Even planning the order of performers is different for in-person vs online events. So we’re still experimenting and having lots of post-event conversations to make constant improvements.
How would you describe your audience and how did they react to this initiative?
Our audiences at The Arts Center are always incredibly diverse – that’s the nature of the UAE. Now each of our regular audience members can invite their friends from all over the world to join them in Watch Parties, so our audience grows even further. When we held our first virtual open mic at the end of March, the performers told us that it was really therapeutic for them. To come together as artists, to share their work and their emotions during this very intense time. And the audiences were incredibly supportive of the artists as well. The chat stream during the performances was filled with enthusiasm and love.
What other plans do you have in the pipeline?
Rooftop Rhythms is a monthly event, so after a pause for Ramadan; we’ll be back with the season closer on May 29th, which will also be the final poetry slam i.e. the spoken word competition, with the audience as judges. We have our Reconnect series every Wednesday, with highlights from our archives and post-show talks with the artists. The next two are on April 15 with the Cuban Khaleeji Project, featuring post-show Q&A with Cuban-American pianist Arturo O’Farrill, British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, Kuwaiti guitarist Ghazi al-Mulaifi from Boom.Diwan, and French-Moroccan vocalist Malika Zarra- presented in association with the Ministry of Culture & Knowledge Development’s #CultureUpFront initiative.
On Earth Day, April 22, the very first show from The Arts Center’s inaugural season, is the concert version of Toshi Reagon’s opera, based on Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower. We’re in the process of selecting appropriate performances to share during Ramadan. And we’re piloting a virtual version of our Off The Stage educational series on Saturday, April 18th, sponsored by the US Embassy, with American jazz pianist John Beasley and Emirati classical composer Ihab Darwish, talking about cross-cultural collaboration.