IRL to URL: How Pittsburgh Organizations Are Adapting Events in the Age of Social Distancing

By now, we’re all familiar with the Zoom conference call, board game night, or networking event. But for Pittsburgh organizations with big events on the horizon, a webcam alone isn’t going to cut it. As online interactions become the norm, organizations are quickly shifting plans to recreate some of the magic of in-person gatherings online.

StartNow spoke to two organizations about how they’re replicating live events online with the help of technology, the local community, and an engaged audience.

“I’m over the Zoom happy hours,” joked Day Bracey, co-founder of the Fresh Fest Beer Fest, America’s only Black beer festival. With the festivities moved online, Fresh Fest Digi Fest will stream and share over 54 hours of content for festival attendees in a single day.

From noon to 9 p.m. on August 8, programming will be streamed across six different online channels, each uniquely themed and plotted out over the festival’s app. Programs include lectures, interviews, and live DJ sets and art. Other channels will feature pre-recorded content from local chefs cooking up recipes using beer.

Most of the programming be filmed live at different locations in Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood, where the award-winning festival planned to host its third annual event.

Additionally, festival-goers can mix and mingle by dropping into digital chatrooms, themed to local breweries or areas of interest.

While Bracey’s used to zeroing in on the smallest details for event planning, video production in the time of COVID is another story. “I’ve been scrambling to become a TV producer, basically overnight,” he said.

In partnership with Work Hard, they’re testing sets and planning production down to the minute. Part of the challenge comes from social distancing — every set, green room, and production area is designed with safe distancing in mind.

And a beer festival is nothing without a brew or two (or more). Bracey’s working with Black brewers across the country to ship specialty beers to attendees to sip from the comfort of their homes.

Joseph Hall was just days into his role as Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s new executive director when the pandemic all but shut down programming and fundraising.

COVID-19 has dramatically affected the world of live performances, but “this is not a time to hoard resources,” said Hall. “We decided to invite partners that we’ve had over the years into this virtual fundraising idea.”

In partnership with 1Hood Media, BOOM Concepts, Braddock Carnegie Library Association, Dreams of Hope, The Legacy Arts Project, and PearlArts Studios, Hotline Ring will stream on Thursday, July 16. Hotline Ring will feature art and performances from organizations led by or supportive of queer and Black creators and creators of color.

The scale of the event is new for the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, but so is the medium. “On the heels of COVID, staring at Zoom, how do we make it engaging?” said Sondra Woodruff, Kelly Strayhorn’s producer of engagement & social impact, who’s been learning new software on the fly. Woodruff hopes the livestream captures the excitement of live TV. “There’s a liveliness and unexpectedness to it all,” she said.

Hotline Ring will kick off with a champagne toast via Zoom and close with a virtual dance party, and attendees will be treated to live performances as well as archival footage from each organization. It also includes an optional culinary component — attendees can order specialty appetizer or dessert boxes from Casa Brazil and Everyday’s a Sunday to enjoy during Hotline Ring.

Viewers can donate before, during, and after Hotline Ring, but not in the Jerry Lewis-telethon style that Hall said helped inspire the feel of the event. A percentage of all proceeds will be pooled and distributed among all groups involved, with a greater portion going toward Black femme-led organizations as a direct response to financial inequity in the Pittsburgh region.

Events may be taking a new shape in unprecedented times, but organizations are rising to the challenge — making nimble pivots to replicate in-person gatherings with the help of digital tools and technology.