City Lights’ Annual Plays Festival Goes Digital—Maybe for Good

When the coronavirus pandemic halted City Lights Theater Co.’s Lights Up! annual festival of plays last year, Ivette Deltoro made a push to go digital.

The casting assistant for City Lights thought the online version of the festival would be just an interim solution in the wake of the region’s strict lockdown orders to slow the spread of Covid-19. It turns out, the idea was such a hit the digital iteration could stick around for good.

“The playwrights love it because they want to hear their words out loud and the podcast is the perfect medium where everyone is really focusing on the words itself,” Deltoro told San Jose Inside. “Of course, it’s a little different for the typical theater patron to get used to the idea of listening to a podcast and leaving a review, but we have gotten a lot of positive feedback from people.”

The digital festival-turned-podcast returned this week with its first 2021 episode Tuesday. City Lights will post four episodes in all each Tuesday in April via its podcast channel, Filament.

The short plays deal in drama, comedy, murder and smart speakers. As one of the managers of Filament, Deltoro said the podcast has been a big hit with patrons and the artists that in years past would have hopped on a stage to perform.

Arcadia Conrad, a voice actor in this year’s Lights Up! festival said digital theater has filled a void left by canceled shows in live theater productions and would be a welcome mainstay even when gatherings are allowed again.

“City Lights has pivoted so excellently to create productions that people can listen to during their leisure time that even in the future as we look forward to live theater, we can still enjoy [these] multimedia collaborations and art forms,” she said. “I think that’s fantastic.”

Each of the plays are 30 minutes or less with a maximum of five actors per play—a format that specifically works well for radio or podcasts because they feature smaller casts and need fewer visual cues. Despite those requirements, City Lights received plenty of “fascinating submissions” for its Lights Up! festival, Deltoro said.

“Our submission process for playwrights was always open and now was made more accessible because so much of it was being done online now,” Deltoro said.

Indeed, the digital medium proved to be a boon for Conrad and her fellow actors and playwrights in the production process they could collaborate and record from their own homes rather than gather physically.

“Being that I’m also a theater arts teacher, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to accept an offer to be involved in this had I not been able to do this over Zoom,” Conrad said. “Doing this virtually definitely has its advantages because there is something nice about short projects and being able to log on ... and connect with the cast and director really quick. It’s very efficient, and everyone works well together.”

Although Deltoro said City Lights is busy preparing for its reopening, the digital medium has grown its audience base because of the format’s accessibility. Those who can't physically attend shows in a traditional theater setting now can be a part of the action remotely. Meanwhile, the actors, playwrights and theaters have grown their audiences and following well beyond their locale.

“Since the podcast began, I noticed our listenership was of people from every continent, which is amazing,” Deltoro said. “That’s the kind of really cool data you can get and the exposure that a company would love to have, but it’s not possible if you were doing just in-person performances. But when you have local people who can now tell their friends or family members in Denmark, for example, you see that people from all over the world can access what City Lights is doing.”

Anyone can listen to the Lights Up! podcast online for free this year—and potentially for years to come.

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