HAVE FUN! — If the performers are having fun, the audience is having fun. That sounds like an obvious point but it’s not. I have seen so many virtual performances where people feel strained, or not fully prepared, or taking themselves too seriously and that’s not at all what people can engage with at home. Laughter is infectious. If the performers are giggling, I can guarantee it will catch on to people at home!
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Holly-Anne Devlin.
Holly-Anne Devlin is an award-winning director, writer and producer based in New York City. She has been a part of the creative teams for many Broadway shows including Jersey Boys and Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays as well as dozens of National and International tours and sit-down productions. She specializes in developing new musicals from inception and bringing them to a global audience as both a creative and a producer.
Recent projects include global hits Wine Lovers The Musical, the world’s first wine tasting musical, seen by over two million people after opening Off Broadway in New York in 2006, and still running globally after thirteen years; PROHIBITION, which she created, wrote, directed and designed, and consistently ranked at the top of global entertainment offerings for Norwegian Cruise Line; and a newly envisioned production of Jersey Boys at the Ogunquit Playhouse, the first licensed long-running regional production since the completion of the production’s Broadway run. Her production companies, Kaleidoscope Entertainment, Wine Lovers LLC and Happy Hour Entertainment are currently developing 16 theatrical and television projects while operating 13 companies of Wine Lovers and Prohibition globally, all of which she oversees creatively and operationally.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’m from outside Boston, Massachusetts and have always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Even as a small child I would add dramatic flair to selling Girl Scout Cookies. Think the “Troop Beverly Hills Cookie Time Talent Show” but much more low budget. I always knew that I wanted to own my own company and put big new ideas out into the world!
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
When I moved to New York to attend Fordham University, my sights were set on Broadway and I was very lucky to transition intoworking on Creative Teams relatively quickly due to calling and pestering anyone I could for internships and gigs! As my Broadway career progressed, I also wanted to have an outlet that was all mine, and began to work in immersive theatre, incorporating food and beverage into theatrical performance, and I’ve never stopped!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was first a Production Assistant on Broadway, I wasn’t familiar with the family sized portions at Carmine’sso I accidentally called in an order of salad, pasta and chicken for quite literally 20 people when it was supposed to be for…one person. When I showed up with catering trays and his credit card had been charged for 200 dollars for his simple tech break dinner it was quite a moment…
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I couldn’t stop watching this movie and reading this book as a child. It truly taught me to dream big and in full color.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The word is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” W.B. Yeats. There are so many moments where we can be dragged down by the weight of the world or the stresses of the moment, but there is always so much joy and light to be unlocked if we continue to seek it….
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Producing virtual events is an unbelievable experience, one that I never expected. Audiences are absolutely desperate to CONNECT with people these days. We all are. To be able to feel like someone is reaching through the screen, speaking directly to you and RESPONDING to your needs while you’re isolated is so important. The experience in producing such events has been so cathartic. Emotions are so high right now and we’re all operating at an 11, ALL OF THE TIME. When we film Speakeasy, all of the performers and audience members churn up emotions we didn’t even realize that we were suppressing and it’s so joyful to see!
We have a fabulous burlesque artist who dances in a giant cocktail glass — FILLED with water — and there were definitely some hilarious moments bringing the glass in to shoot, water spraying about everywhere — it’s one of those “hold your breath let’s get through this so she’s not soaking wet all night” moments!
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I think that we’ve done a great job at Kaleidoscope and we were really motivated by The Present which was a virtual magic show streamed from the Geffen Playhouse. This was a wonderful example of connecting with the audience and bringing them into your world, fully.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Not understanding the full breadth of the technology needed for the event is the key mistake that people make. You need to test, test, test, test your equipment dozens of times before bringing a paying audience into the virtual space. Glitches in technology are so behind us now — we’ve been doing so many of these events for eleven months, you really need to be on top of your game with the basics of streaming or else the event can really falter.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
I think that Broadway On Demand has done an excellent job with their various streaming platforms. I’m really proud that we have partnered with them for New Year’s and Valentine’s Day events and hope that we can find more opportunities to work together. Their platform, support and marketing teams are incredible and I’m honored to work with them.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
LIGHTING AND SOUND is key. Not just your software but proper lighting and sound set ups are truly what separates the event from feeling high end or thrown together.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- LOOK INTO THEIR EYES — The performers need to truly connect with each and every audience member. The way that we do that in our shows is that our performers speak DIRECTLY to the viewers at home. You truly feel like Madam Lulu, our leading lady, is only inches away from you.how, may you ask?
- GET UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL — We’re not filming in a far-away proscenium style look. Our performers are filmed in a fish-eye style so that it feels like they are coming out of the screen.When Hazel Honeysuckle is splashing around in her life-sized vodka glass you FEEL the spray of the water that she’s in!
- GIVE YOUR STORY A PERSONAL TOUCH — Have your characters connect by improvising lines WITH the audience, or if you’re not in a situation where the audience can respond, mine information from your guests in advance and add lines about the guest and maybe an inside joke about them — to the show! This makes for a wonderful experience that feels truly personalized and unique.
- HAVE FUN! — If the performers are having fun, the audience is having fun. That sounds like an obvious point but it’s not. I have seen so many virtual performances where people feel strained, or not fully prepared, or taking themselves too seriously and that’s not at all what people can engage with at home. Laughter is infectious. If the performers are giggling, I can guarantee it will catch on to people at home!
- FORGET THAT YOU’RE NOT IN THE ROOM — Act as if you’re all in the same space and the rest of the world will melt away. Remember that we’re all human and longing for connection — BRING IT to your guests and they will feel it viscerally.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
You need to focus on getting proper sound and lighting equipment FIRST before you even go out and purchase a camera or a tripod for your iPhone. Yes, now that the 12 Max Pro films in 4K you could actually shoot small virtual events just using your phone!
Make sure that whatever background you will be producing your event in front of isn’t distracting and is clean and clear for your story. Everything that you do should feed and support your story rather than pull focus. This means that you should be in a quiet, controlled environment when filming so that your performers and material can shine without interruption!
REHEARSE. Don’t let the first time that you’re streaming be in front of an audience! Do as many test performances as you possibly can to make sure that your connections are strong and you understand the virtual platform that you’re working with fully!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I created the Hell’s Kitchen Happiness Krewe, an outdoor musical pop-up group, to inspire hope and joy in New York City during our darkest days. These musical pop-up’s would happen at random times all over the five boroughs and the sheer, unbridled happiness that they provided made my heart explode. If I could produce these magical pop-up’s for the rest of my days I would as they inspire random acts of kindness and collaboration that New York City, and the world, desperately needs right now.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I adore Fran Lebowitz and Amy Sherman-Palladino. I think that they’re the sharpest two women I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing on the periphery and they give me hope that you can truly be comfortable and successful living in your own skin, owning every aspect of what you do from inception to production and inspiring others with your strength of wit and character.