This spring, Penn Live Arts is welcoming patrons back to its theaters at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, but with plans to adapt to a changing landscape that’s made remote access a game-changer for some populations—and a preference for others.
“We wanted to retain that terrific digital audience. We’ve had people write to us saying they enjoyed it, or some people with health conditions expressed they wanted to still be able to access programs,” says Chris Gruits, executive and artistic director of Penn Live Arts. “Plus, we heard from a lot of Penn alums outside the Philadelphia region who’d say, ‘It’s really great to be able to see these shows. What can we do to still participate?’ So, we are maintaining streaming, but in a way that’s complementary to our live performances.”
The result is a series of four performances during Penn Live Arts’ spring season that will stream a performance in real time, but also include a live audience. Gruits notes that the Annenberg Center was one of the few theaters doing real-time livestreams during the height of the pandemic last winter. In total, there were 27 streaming events, including five world premieres—with good uptake and high engagement to boot.
Gruits describes this new model as a “hybrid” sort of approach, with the live audience and digital audience blended through an audience Q & A that takes place through online chat. Those in the audience and at home will both submit questions digitally.
“It’s a bit of an experiment for us, but it goes back to what the Center was founded for, and what Penn Live Arts tries to do, which is experiment in the performing arts and leverage current technology—digital media—to amplify in-person programs and welcome this broader audience,” Gruits says. “The audience will get a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to put these performances together, and to see the artist in a new light, which I think is exciting.”
The first performance to apply this format at the Annenberg Center will take place on Friday, Jan. 28, with the Campbell Brothers. The group, consisting of five performers, will play their Sacred Steel gospel-inspired rendition of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” as well as some of their original works.
Their performance at the Annenberg Center has been a long time coming, originally postponed by the pandemic. Their work, Gruits says, is “incredibly authentic” and their interpretation, which notably includes steel guitar, involves an “important regional form of music in America that hasn’t necessarily been seen in recent times in Philadelphia.”
The Campbell Brothers’ rendition of “A Love Supreme,” which covers all four of the album’s thematic movements, began as a commission by Duke University in 2013, with the debut occurring at Lincoln Center in August 2014. It was part of a “Wall to Wall” series that reimagined classic works from a variety of artists, including legends like Miles Davis. The brothers were approached by New York City promoter Bill Bragin to imagine John Coltrane’s seminal work with steel guitar.
“We were apprehensive at first, as you might imagine for such a class work, to tackle something like that,” says Phil Campbell. “And we’re not jazz musicians, but that was the entire point: He wanted someone from a different perspective and felt the way we played our instruments and approached them was more in the vein of Coltrane than what perhaps a jazz musician would be.
“So, this is not about doing a cover, but instead seeing a different aspect of the piece.”
Because the group has a church background, they also resonate in a different way with the meaning of the music; Phil Campbell describes similarities between Coltrane’s overcoming of addiction and the way the brothers accept the Holy Spirit in their worship.
“That journey mapped onto what our experience was and what we drew upon with our interpretation,” says Phil Campbell, who plays electric guitar.
The steel guitar, meanwhile, is a tradition that replaces the organ in gospel music. Phil Campbell describes it as an element that takes the place of a vocal, while adding a spiritual quality and a straightforward rhythmic quality.
“It was surprising to me to find myself getting taken away in a spiritual realm when I was playing ‘A Love Supreme,’ and it’s something I didn’t expect,” says Chuck Campbell, who plays the steel guitar. “I expected it to be more like when we do a cover. But the piece is so inviting to the spiritual part of you as a musician that it really does make you feel good to be able to even play the piece at all.”
Phil Campbell notes that their performance is meant to be inviting to the audience and encourages participation, inviting expression of pleasure and emotions, which ultimately makes the performance well-suited to both in-person and digital audiences.
Gruits says the live audience really helps with the energy.
“For artists, having a live audience brings out a completely different vibe than a remote audience,” he says. “These hybrid performances will help engage the energy of the audience in the room, which will translate to the screen in a compelling way for our remote audiences.”