Home Culture Culture Having a ball — online: Galas adapt to going virtual

Having a ball — online: Galas adapt to going virtual

Having a ball — online: Galas adapt to going virtual
The pandemic forced many organizations to host virtual balls and galas in 2020. (Photo: Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library)

With months of planning and thousands of dollars invested, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s gala isn’t usually 40 minutes long. But there also isn’t usually a pandemic making large gatherings unsafe.

Originally planned as an in-person event in April at the Anthem in Southwest D.C., the gala made an abrupt about-face when planners at the Folger decided in March to host it online on Sept. 14. That solved the problem of restrictions on the size of public gatherings but created new ones about just what an online soiree looks like.

When the change was made in March, “the only thing we had left to do was actually drop our invitation,” said Cari Mozur, the Folger’s associate director of development, who oversaw the project. “We had to go back to the drawing board.”

That was a common theme among organizations like the Folger that rely on galas as their main source of fundraising each year. What they found is that a virtual event can not only still raise money, but also be more inclusive, both in terms of performers and attendees.

For instance, Mozur made the Folger’s gala universally accessible by removing ticket prices and posting the video on YouTube and Facebook Live. But to still raise money, she added options for guests to make gifts, which brought in an additional $40,000, bringing the total raised to nearly $400,000 — about the same as the in-person event, she said. And whereas a couple hundred people would have attended in person, the video garnered more than 4,700 unique views.

At the Folger Shakespeare Library’s online gala, guests were able to watch gala co-chair and renowned chef José Andrés make a gazpacho from a historic recipe book like those in the Folger collection. (Photo: Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library)

The program opened with a two-minute montage of people reciting the prologue of “Henry V” before library director Michael Witmore welcomed guests and acknowledged the unique challenges of navigating normalcy amid COVID-19 and the social and political unrest of 2020.

He explained how art, history and the humanities can provide insights into our understanding of what community means, before the mood lightened with entertainment that included world-renowned chef José Andrés, the gala’s co-chair, who brought viewers into his home to watch him make gazpacho. Viewers also got to see performances of scenes from Shakespearean works and were given a sneak peek at renovations under way at the Folger Library building.

“We tried to feature performances that we would normally have at a gala, but would translate really well to a video,” Mozur said.

For the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC), the situation provided unexpected benefits to its annual gala programming, including some aspects that may stick around after the pandemic passes. Most significant was the representation of people in 25 countries who submitted videos of themselves reciting their favorite piece of Shakespeare for the event’s opening.

“Seeing this force from people around the world of different cultures all connecting through Shakespeare and being able to re-envision what theater looks like and make it more inclusive was a great opportunity,” said LeeAnet Noble, co-director of this year’s gala and STC’s director of equity and enrichment.

Going virtual allowed the Shakespeare Theatre Company to feature actors such as Angela Bassett and expand its gala audience. (Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company)

What’s more, STC was able to include snippets from celebrities including Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Norm Lewis and Courtney B. Vance.

“The fact that it was digital offered a lot more possibilities that honestly wouldn’t have been possible if it was in person,” Noble told us. “In the future, we now know what’s possible.”

STC usually hosts 550 people, but its Oct. 3 virtual event attracted more than 13,000 views, said Laura Willumsen, STC’s senior director of development. It also exceeded her net fundraising goal of $400,000.

Actor Ralph Fiennes appeared in one of the online segments of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s virtual gala. (Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company)

“It was like sculpting with wet toilet paper,” Willumsen said of revamping the gala in about eight weeks, rather than the eight months she usually has. But she said the overhaul was a success, crediting decisions such as not having honorees this time around and making access free to the public, instead of a private affair accessible only to wealthy constituents.

“Making this available to everyone helped people feel more brought in to help sustain it,” Willumsen said. “I think that gave people a sense of generosity.”

For gala sponsors, STC provided virtual rooms where they could sit at a table of guests, similar to the in-person setup, to allow for socializing and to enhance the value of the sponsorship.

To keep the exclusivity of the National Italian-American Foundation’s (NIAF) annual gala, the organization decided to only air its live online event once (guests received a Zoom link), instead of posting it on YouTube. Still, hundreds were able to tune in to catch an array of performances and celebrities, as well as honoree Anthony Fauci (also see “Fauci talks about his Italian-American heritage at NIAF gala”).

Like other organizations, the Greater D.C.-Maryland Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society went virtual for its Ambassadors Ball this year. The 42nd annual event featured Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals baseball team (whose mother has MS) and an array of other notable figures on a video that’s available on YouTube and has received close to 900 views — whereas the in-person event typically brings 500 guests, said Amanda Snellings, senior manager of leadership events at the organization (also see “Ambassadors Ball goes virtual to raise funds to fight MS”).

“It really was able to get wider reach, and people who may not have been able to attend in a normal year were able to benefit from the program,” Snellings said.

“I think the thing that was so wonderful and actually really personally moving was how much people still wanted to help,” she added. “The pandemic has increased the amount of support that we need to give people [living with MS] because there are people on medicines that may make them more compromised and a lot of people dealing with financial struggles compacted by the pandemic, and we help people with all of that.”

Elaborate table settings fill the Anthem at the 2019 Ambassadors Ball. While the 2020 ball had to go virtual, it still raised $300,000 to support research and treatment for those living with multiple sclerosis. (Photo © Tony Powell)

At the Phillips Collection, Jessica Teaford, special events and gala manager, and Keith Costas, director of special events, said things broke pretty evenly. For instance, about 350 to 400 people usually attend in person, and on the night of the virtual event (Sept. 25), 234 households logged in, while the video on YouTube has gotten more than 250 views. Additionally, although this gala grossed 48% less than last year’s, the museum had a 68% savings in expenses because it was online.

Originally slated to be in person on May 15, Teaford and Costas first postponed the gala to September before deciding in July to move it online. While they could no longer provide the intimate experience of dining in person among the museum’s famous artworks, they were able to keep the gala’s theme of arts, innovation and impact intact.

“We knew that we wanted to ‘wow’ the guests and stay on brand for our unique gala,” they said in a written statement to The Diplomat. “We decided to have a pre-recorded program where guests could log in and view the program that night and to deliver specially designed branded ‘Gala in a Boxes’ to the guests at their homes.”

Phillips also maintained its years-long tradition of having a diplomatic committee and chairperson for the gala. This year’s chair was Ashok Mirpuri, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, and his wife Gouri Mirpuri. The event also honored Liu Thai Ker, architect and urban planner of modern Singapore, and Margaret Leng Tan, an avant-garde musician and creator of innovative concert experiences.

All of the event planners are now looking ahead to 2021’s galas with one eye on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a finger on the pulse of Washingtonians’ comfort level with gatherings once coronavirus vaccinations become more widespread.

“I think we really learned that the venue and the centerpieces and all of that doesn’t matter when you really go back and focus on the mission and the work that we’re doing,” Snellings said. “That’s the most important thing — to give people a program that is inspiring.”

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.