Whitefire Theatre’s Bryan Rasmussen – Planning for the Future

Bryan Rasmussen - Photo by Lesley Bohm

An award-winning actor as well as a director, producer, teacher, and coach, Bryan Rasmussen has been owner and artistic director of the Whitefire Theatre for the past fifteen years. Since that time, he has produced over 500 shows, including over 50 world premiere productions. Bryan also founded the well-known Itchy Foot Cabaret in downtown Los Angeles, was a past member of the famed South Coast Repertory company, and has appeared in multiple films and television shows. Clearly a very active artist, Bryan Rasmussen put aside time in his busy schedule to interview in March 2020.

BILLIE – An Upcoming Live Stream Presentation – Photo by Bryan Rasmussen

WHAT HAS BEEN THE IMPACT OF THE CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC ON THE WHITEFIRE THEATRE?

“We had to stop all operations on Friday the thirteenth…our final show was on the twelfth…we were in the middle of the largest solofest on the West Coast called Solofest…we had planned to do 80 shows in 90 days…we had done 63 when we had to shut down and postpone the last 17…after that, our only saving grace was live streaming.”

Upcoming Live Stream Presentation – Christian Brando – Photo by Champ Clark

TELL US MORE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT INVOLVED WITH LIVE STREAMING AND HOW YOU’RE DOING IT.

“We were live streaming 40 of our solo shows…we’ve already been doing live streaming for a while…I thought it was the future for theater in general…we’ve been developing live streaming since 2011 when we live streamed a show called “Firehouse” about a fire department in the Bronx…we had to get the equipment and trucks in to make it happen…now the tech is moving much more quickly…but it’s been a challenge…we have a camera in the front row center…the perspective is just like sitting there…not a whole lot of plays can benefit from live streaming…I think we’re one of the best studios around.”

To get it up and running, we kept experimenting trying to make it better since the first time we streamed…now every show can reach a wider audience…but it has to be a smaller show…you can’t just live stream something like “Hamilton” because the producers own the rights…you have to stream something in the public domain…for the smaller shows, the writers give us permission because they want to be seen by a larger audience…everybody signs a contract, and the show can be streamed all over the world…we’ve streamed to places like New Zealand and Poland…live streaming is Pay Per View…we split the money 50-50 between the writer/performer and producer for solo shows…we keep it a fair situation for everyone…we get $9.99 total per screening and split the money between writer, performer, and producer…it’s through our own website…it works well for solo shows because there’s one person performing, and that person is usually the writer too.”

Graphics Courtesy of Whitefire Theatre

HOW DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF LIVE STREAMING?

“I think it’s where live theater is able to go…before, there was a separation between television and the internet and live theater…but now it can come together…instead of a division between the three forms, they can complement each other…I’m an actor in TV as well…most of the actors in LA are working in TV, but they want to do some theater…what better situation than doing both…with one show a week, a working actor could still do shows and fit theater in the schedule…we’re also ramping up to do live streaming on a regular basis…we can live stream a singer or a play or even stand-up comedy.”

“With live streaming, you can do multiple shows…like the Solofest…different shows every night…with live streaming, there’s no cap on audience numbers…you can have 1,000 people watching…or just 30 or 40 at a time…I think it’s the only substitute for live performances…it’s new, and we’re the only company doing this on a regular basis…a lot of people aren’t hip on doing live streaming…I think theater is meant to be live, and it’s a new way to see theater…besides, you can create a stream of revenue so theater can survive…shows like “Hamilton” show the power of theater…I’m excited and hopeful because we know we can do it…I plan to do a Streamfest…solo and music…it’s set to begin on June 13 and continue through August 29…we want to open it up to the entire city to come in and do shows…we want everybody to be in on this.”

Whitefire Theatre’s Latest – Live Streaming a Past Live Performance – Graphics Courtesy of Whitefire Theatre

HOW DO YOU SEE THE IMPACT OF THE PANDEMIC ON THE THEATER SCENE IN LOS ANGELES?

“I don’t know how other theaters will survive…without funding, they can’t pay their rent…unless they freeze all bills around the world, theaters can’t afford to be closed…but I don’t know how you can force a business to close and still demand rent…everybody is waiting to see how it will work out…even if they give the theater owner low-interest or no-interest loans, you still owe that money…I’m not sure how people will survive…what we’ll do until theaters open again…it might happen at the end of May…but maybe even later…the other problem is I don’t know if people will come back to the theater…theaters can last a couple of months without audiences…I’ll see if live streaming will save us…most theaters were already having a difficult time, what with Equity…a numbers of theaters had to close, and a number of companies had to disband…I hope that we’ve come up with a way to keep going.”

“Besides live streaming, we started what I call a vertical rep…instead of one show for six weeks, we have different shows every night once a week…I think that the pros outweigh the cons…in the past, we never had a cash surplus…we were always behind…we started vertical rep at the time of the recession in 2008…one show a week with 60 people is better than one show for three nights with 20.”

TELL US MORE ABOUT “VERTICAL REP” AND HOW IT WORKS FOR YOU.

“It meant that we had to make some big changes…we had to get new computers and tech equipment…we were pushed back to our roots of theatricality…the truth still happens, but in the audience’s mind…the purest form of storytelling is still in the theater…theater tells a story, and you imagine it in your mind…it pushed us back to what we do better than anybody else…between live streaming and vertical rep, we’re making some money back…in some cases, we go into the black…that’s unheard of in today’s theater…that’s why we were so busy…we were doing six or seven performances a week…it’s like the Netflix of theater…people could see something different every night…some people came in several nights to see different shows…and you’re not decreasing the quality…it’s also easier to extend hit shows…this way, we can continue to run a show once a week for five or six or even seven months…it allowed good shows to stay open…we’ve been developing shows for quite a while…now we have academy-award level people involved…we’ve also developed some world-class artists and shows.”

DO YOU HAVE ANY FINAL THOUGHTS YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE?

“I’d just like to tell people how to go to our live streaming…you go to the Whitefire theater website… www.whitefiretheatre.com/live and you go to the purchase page…you pay by credit card or PayPal…we only do one stream per day…it starts 15 minutes before the show…it’s as if you’re sitting in live theater…now we’re getting ready to do that for previous performances…we should be opening that up in two or three weeks…we have a private library so artists are protected and people can’t watch for free…people get paid for their performance, so we don’t have a fund-raising situation…all the other companies have fund-raising burnout.”

“I think this is not the only way but one way for theater to survive…we’ll have 12 shows streaming next month…we’ll publicize it through social media, mostly Facebook…I spent a lot of years working on this idea, two or three years actively…and we started streaming last year…COVID-19 is just forcing us to move faster.”

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