Responses & Retrospectives: Cecelia “Cece” Otto on Reimagining Living History Performances in the COVID-era

CeceOttoSuffrageChair01_hr-819x1024This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!

In this installation of Responses & Retrospectives (COPA) member Rachael Woody of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC interviews Cecelia “Cece” Otto, a classically trained singer, composer, international best-selling author and historian who has performed in venues all over the world both as a soloist and in ensemble. In 2013, she completed her cross-country musical journey An American Songline, performing 30 concerts of historic vintage music on venues along the Lincoln Highway. Cece then went on to create other historical programs such as The Songs of World War I, and is currently performing a program about the women’s suffrage movement and developing a concert program about Prohibition. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has written books and recorded albums based on her research.

When we last heard from Cece Otto she was about to embark on a year-long tour of her women’s suffrage movement program and provided an interview for our Archives + Audiences series. Then COVID-19 hit, cancelling many of her performances that had been months–if not years–in the making. Over the last six months, Cece has reimagined her living history program and agreed to share with us her ideas, tips, and lessons-learned so that all archives, museums, and cultural heritage organizations can find the inspiration and know-how to pivot their own programming.

RW: How has your work shifted with the COVID-19 cancellation of events?

CO: It has shifted in a dramatic way. Prior to COVID-19, all of my appearances and concerts were in-person and 95% of my merchandise was bought at these events. When everything shifted in mid-March and events nationwide started to be cancelled or postponed, I had to hit pause and really think about how I could and should connect with audiences and venues. I wanted to continue to provide something of quality, but I had to think if my type of historic performing would translate well virtually. I pride myself on giving everyone an authentic experience, and performing virtually felt inauthentic in those early stages of quarantine. 

My calendar was booked solid and I had dates and speaking engagements all over the US. Everyone wanted to hear the Women’s Suffrage program, and I was on track to have my most profitable year in seven years. (I know things were similar financially for many sites and institutions too.) Each organization responded differently — some cancelled my shows right away, some waited until the last minute. Each state had their own COVID policies and I was trying to stay on top of it all. Some concerts in the last half of March were rescheduled to August to commemorate the ratification of the 19th amendment, but even then most of those events were postponed yet again because of various factors.  

That being said, there were some bright moments in all of this. I did my very first livestream performance with an organization that had booked me in 2018 because they had the funds and flexibility to make it happen. They were willing to pivot to keep their patrons engaged. When some venues mentioned above rebooked me, they told me I was the first person they thought of. Some places even noted that people had contacted them asking when I was going to be rescheduled. Because it’s an election year, people so badly want hear the songs and stories of the women who fought for the right to vote for over 70 years. 

RW: [Oh yes!] You recently performed live via YouTube premiere. What was that like?

CO: I have to admit, I was nervous about performing via a YouTube livestream. I didn’t know what to expect. Would people turn up? Would people comment on the songs and/or watch the whole concert? There were so many unknowns. But that being said, it was a fun experience. People did turn up! I had people from 15 states in all US time zones as well as people in Canada and Australia tune in to watch, which to this day still blows me away. All in all, I was able to reach regular fans and new fans who had never heard me before.

It was a little weird to not see people. I had to imagine applause at the end of each song, and I ended up saying “thank you” after every song, just like it was in a real show. The chat on YouTube was pretty active, but I couldn’t see it because I was on camera the entire time. Luckily, I had two people moderating comments, so when we did the Q&A at the end of the program the questions were all ready to go. 

That being said, it is a much more intense experience to perform for a camera and no physical audience. People are communal by nature, and we communicate verbally and non-verbally with each other even in a concert setting. The energy in the room that performers and audience members create is unique every time, and while the songs can remain the same each show is different because of people’s reactions. When you have no one there to perform to, that energy is gone and it can be hard to figure out how to introduce songs and talk about the topic at hand. Some songs I think played better in virtual setting because I could emote more and be more passionate on stage, others felt the same virtually as they did in-person, others may be better as live songs only. Because of these shifts, I was exhausted the next day after the show. But overall I was extremely pleased with how it all turned out.

RW: What were the technical, logistical, and theatrical considerations for delivering a virtual performance?

CO: Anyone can go live and be virtual these days, and I didn’t want this to be every single thing that’s appeared since we all went into lockdown in March. I had pressure from fans and organizations to “just get something up there”; many famous musicians were giving free concerts in their living rooms and they felt I can and should just do it like these top musicians did. While I appreciate that they put me in the same category, I financially am not in the same place as an independent musician and historian. The piano player has to get paid too, right? And taking virtual tip jar donations wasn’t going to cut it. This is music from a century ago, and I wanted to give it the proper treatment it deserves. 

My first obstacle was location, and it’s a big one. Theatrically, I had to think about what suited the music best. I live in a home that’s not a vintage home, and my pianist here in the Pacific Northwest has a period home, but a bad wifi connection for streaming a concert. The summer had vintage locations still very much in lockdown here in Oregon, and knowing I had to find a venue for the YouTube concert mentioned above, I put out a call to several places. One venue that I’d performed at a few times before immediately said “yes”, knowing that there would be less than five people in the building when the concert was happening so they would stay within COVID guidelines. They had a lovely parlor in the building that dated to the 1920s, the piano was in decent shape, and the wifi was excellent, so I knew that this space would be perfect. I will say that when thinking about filming, take into consideration the weather, lighting, and if the building has air-conditioning. When I did the test run it was earlier in the day and it was nice and cool outside. The day of the concert, it was 87 degrees outside, the parlor faced west and had no air-conditioning, so by the time the evening concert happened, it was warm and we had no fans to cool things down. It all turned out fine, but you want to be as comfortable as possible when you film.  

Next up was the additional equipment and software I needed to be able to stream properly. I had decided to use YouTube because its sound was better than most platforms, and all people needed was a link — no one had to download anything or needed a password to get in. I purchased one of those ring lights you’re seeing everywhere these days that had the capability to attach a webcam, and I used a USB microphone sat on the floor in front of me off camera. Everything hooked into my laptop and was streamed through YouTube and OBS, which is a free software that people can use for video broadcasting and live-streaming. Last but not least, we brought cleaning products so we could clean all of the surfaces before we left for the night. All in all, we found quality equipment that was less than $150, so any person or organization can and should invest a little if you’re thinking of doing more online content. It will make all the difference in the long run. 

RW: What challenges and opportunities do you see for performing virtually?

CO: The biggest challenge as a performer is that people will forgive bad video, but they NEVER forgive bad audio. If you have distorted audio or silence they will stop listening and watching almost immediately. My mouth didn’t match what I was singing sometimes and it’s a known YouTube issue, but people forgave it because the audio was crystal clear during the entire livestream. As a performer there were three things I had to keep in mind: 1) I had to find a platform that is inexpensive and easy for me to use 2) People know how to find and easily use the platform and last but not least, 3) It again has excellent audio quality. As much as Zoom and Facebook Live have their perks, the audio quality is inconsistent and the sound for music is terrible (talking is fine, music not so much). Many of these platforms are working on rolling out better audio for events in the future, but in the interim I chose YouTube because of its track record. 

Another challenge I again see is people arguing that my fees for my programs and services should be lower because I’m not traveling anywhere and not standing in front of them, which is extremely frustrating. Years of research and rehearsal need to be taken into it all, and I again think wearing period clothing is essential to the art and message of the music, which means I’m taking close to an hour to be camera-ready for a virtual performance. Add in the time and production costs for the filming and editing to create some virtual, and you can understand why rates need to stay where they are.  

But on the flip side, the opportunities to reach new audiences are and have been amazing. It would have taken months of touring to reach fifteen states and two countries, and I’m grateful that organization honored their 2-year commitment to me to make the livestream happen. I also have seen a hunger for people to learn more about me and how I do what I do, and that goes beyond just the professionals and academics in the field. While we’ve all been at home these past several months, we’ve been more curious and thinking about all the things we normally don’t think about. As a performer for many years, I didn’t think people wanted to see “what’s behind the curtain”, but what I’ve found out is that they do. Our world and society is looking back at historic events in ways they never have been before, and the public at large wants to know more. They frankly are yearning to know more. 

RW: What other opportunities do you see for innovating upon your work during this COVID-19 era?

CO: There’s more than I originally imagined! I’m so glad I hit pause and took the time to really think through what I could do and what would serve audiences and historical sites the best. I am grateful I took this time, I truly feel I’m able to provide something virtual that is a good substitute for an in-person show. There are real-time concerts and events of course, but there’s so much that can be done with repurposing what content I do have so more people have access to it. I’ve already taken the first livestream concert and given it to my Patrons on Patreon as a “thank you” for their support, and I was even able to use it to get more members (more on that later). 

I know budgets will be tight for many organizations in the next few years, so until live performances come back fully, I’ve set up three different virtual options that can give something new to members and patrons.

1) Concert only: This is an unlisted online link to one of my concerts that you could use and share with your patrons. They would have access to it for 30 days to view as many times as they like. I would absorb all production costs for this license; all you have to do is give them the link and you’re set!

2) Concert link with live Q&A at the end of the concert: You’d get the link as noted above, and then I would come on at a specific date and time of your choosing to talk with people and answer questions about the songs and my research. Q&A sessions can last anywhere from 15-45 minutes depending on how we get going!

3) Full exclusive livestream concert with Q&A: This option would be me in full costume performing the full program, with the Q&A session at the end of the program. The link would also be made available after the livestream for a set amount of time so if anyone misses it they can see it. Given people’s bandwidth these days, the concert would be 45-50 minutes long with 10-15 minutes of Q&A to keep screen fatigue to a minimum. 

RW: How can people support you and your work during this time?

CO: Until live events return, there are several ways that people can help. Booking virtual events, talks, and purchasing licenses to previous concerts are one way to support my work of course. My Patreon page is a great place for individuals and institutions to continually support what I’m doing as well, and there are various tiers. I’m building an online community there that’s not dependent on algorithms, and I talk behind the scenes about what I’m finding in my research. Patrons will get first access to music, videos, livestreams, and more. I’m even doing AMA (Ask Me Anything) chats. As more members join, I’ll be able to financially do more livestreams concerts that only they will have access to. 

I’ve also got books, concert program booklets, CDs and flash drives of music that people can buy from me directly. If people want to buy items in bulk, I offer discounts as well. Here’s a link to my Amazon Author page, and you can also find my songs distributed on iTunes, CD Baby and more. If finances are tight, something as simple as subscribing to my YouTube channel or leaving a review on Amazon or Facebook make a huge difference in my overall visibility. 

RW. When things are safe to return to in-person performance, how can people contact you about booking a show and is there anything they need to know?

CO: While the centennial of the 19th amendment occurred this year, many people have asked for this concert to be performed in 2021 and potentially beyond 2021 depending on when things get back to “normal”. And rightfully so! These songs and stories need to be heard, and as long as voting rights continue to be challenged, I welcome the opportunity to continue performing this program. 

I’m excited to report that I’ve also been researching and putting together a new program of Prohibition songs that will be ready next year! Not just the good time “fun” songs of the 1920s, but there are songs from the Temperance movement too and earlier. I’ve done programs of several important moments in American history, and I have been thinking about doing “artist in residence”-style performing where I could be in one location for a week performing a different concert every day. I love the idea of also doing talks and workshops with people in the community as well. This music is such a powerful learning tool, and I believe it’s a great way for us to open up and discuss sensitive topics. I feel the need to share that I’m very aware that venues and audiences will be different when we all come back together again, and I’m taking that into account. We’ve collectively been going through so much, and while we’ll all appreciate live entertainment more after this, I also know that we’ll all be processing this time in the months and years to come so the songs need to reflect that as well.  

I heartily recommend that if anyone is interested in working with me, they contact me sooner rather than later so they can ensure they have the date(s) they want. Once things get moving again, I have the feeling my calendar will fill up quickly! They can contact me personally at: cece@americansongline.com, via the American Songline website, or through any of the social media platforms below. 

RW: Where can people find you?

CO: There are many places they can find me online! My website is a great place to go first to learn more, and that link is www.americansongline.com. My YouTube channel is the next best stop—you’ll get to see excerpts of performances and hear testimonials from people who have attended the show. That link is: https://www.youtube.com/user/AmericanSongline. Of course, I’m on all of the major social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and I often post fun vintage, retro photos as well as concert and travel updates. Thanks again for the opportunity to share my experiences six months on, I really appreciate it!


This post was written by Rachael Woody based on an interview conducted with Cece Otto. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the interviewee’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

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