“On Stage at Curtis” producer finds creative recording solutions from afar and celebrates a jump in viewership after 15 years on air
Since pandemic lockdowns began a year ago, audiences have been offered countless new and innovative options in digital performances. But one option, WHYY’s On Stage at Curtis, has provided avid fans and casual viewers alike with an exceptional at-home concert experience since 2006. For many in the Philadelphia area, the show may have been their first introduction to the “hidden gem” off Rittenhouse Square, airing full-length student recitals directly from the Field Concert Hall stage.
Philadelphian and producer Lillian Paulmier has been the driving force behind the series since 2015 and has seen it through developments in look, format, time slot, and more. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed: a season 14 episode, “The Making of Anansi and the Great Light,” received a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award nomination and the most recent season saw an unprecedented uptick in viewers.
Over its 350 episodes to date, On Stage at Curtis as covered the lives and performances of nearly 1,000 students. Many episodes are available on-demand at WHYY.org and season 16 will begin airing in October 2021.
We recently sat down with Ms. Paulmier to discuss her vision for the show and how she has had to adjust her own operations while Curtis remains remote.
For many years, On Stage at Curtis was an hour-long program, airing select student recitals from beginning to end. Season 15, which ran from October 2020 to January 2021, represented a big shift in the show’s format, inserting in-depth student stories alongside the curated performances over the course of 30 minutes. What led to this change and how has it been received?
With the old format of On Stage at Curtis you could very well turn it on and walk away because it was mostly music, so Terri Murray [Chief Content Officer, Vice President Programming and Production] wanted to change that visually and thought people may be interested in learning more about the students. And there was a lot of positive feedback from audiences to seeing the students outside of the performance. So it was decided to make the change permanent.
What’s interesting is that season 15 had the highest rating that any local production from WHYY has had in a number of years. What’s even more interesting is we increased our number of younger viewers in the 18–49 age group. This is the kind of change in audiences we’re working on at PBS.
How do you approach the creation of each episode?
I look at each of the students very differently. I don’t have a set format for any of them. I look at their personality and what they have going on with upcoming performances and projects, and let that shape the narrative.
Have you had to find any creative solutions for producing the show during the pandemic?
I had some groundwork done and some shooting done, but then the pandemic happened. Luckily you guys are still having the recitals and [the students] can help me be videographers or filmmakers themselves.
In the current school year, students are producing their own performances in a sense. In Field Concert Hall, the audience is there, they come on stage and perform. Now, they’re at home. They have to think about “Where will I do this performance? Should I have a certain background that says something about the piece I’m about to perform?” That’s really interesting, so I think in season 16 the audience will see a little bit of that.
Based on their interests, some students may film video diaries of themselves baking croissants or biking. [Organ student] Aaron Patterson became interested in the organ because his father is an organist. In the past WHYY was unable to record the organ recitals because of the instrument’s location in Field Concert Hall and the locations of the cameras. But that’s something we can explore while he is performing in different venues this year.
When it comes to their on-camera interviews, I may have to approach it differently than I did in the past. To avoid doing entirely Zoom interviews, I was looking at universities or colleges close to the Curtis students’ homes to see if they have a crew within their Film and Media Department that could assist me with the interviews.
What has been a challenge during remote production?
I edited all of season 15 virtually at home and it took me a good few weeks to get in the groove and feel comfortable that it’s going to look okay. All the WHYY producers and editors can get into the editing rooms through remote access. But the rooms are scheduled day and night, depending on how many shows are editing. On top of that I have to do the graphics myself. And often as I’m editing I realize there are things that I need or that were forgotten. I had been in touch with students throughout the summer to help fill in the gaps in profiles and they were pretty good about it. Some of them taught me something new about how to get their existing performance videos off YouTube.
Working at home, I can be editing all day and then at 9 o’clock at night I can say “Oh, you know what, I think I want to change this.” And the fact that I can edit in my house, I can go in and start working for another two hours, which I really shouldn’t. So that’s the danger to working from home: you just actually don’t stop working.
Can you share some of your background and how you got to WHYY?
I grew up in North Philadelphia near Temple University and went to Edinboro University in upstate Pennsylvania. When I was getting interested in television I knew…I did not want to do news. I wanted to do something that explored topics rather than “Here’s a topic, here’s the information you want, and that’s the end of it.’ WHYY, at the time, was one of the few places where you could [do this]. So I got a lot of experience in live, live-to-tape, and documentary projects.
I stopped working for thirteen years when I had my children, so On Stage at Curtis was nice to get into after being away so long. I knew nothing about classical music, but I wasn’t intimidated by that.
Do you have any mentors in video production?
My earlier mentor, Louis Massiah, is the founder/director of Scribe Video Center and a documentary filmmaker. He was also a MacArthur prize winner and community activist. I worked with him a lot in my early days. He taught me a lot, especially about producing documentaries.>
And most recently, Trudi Brown, who was my executive producer. She taught me a lot too. I’ll still be in touch, asking “What do you think?”
When I produce documentaries or public affairs shows, I do have a result in mind. But with this I don’t because I think music’s a little bit different. I think everyone experiences music in their own way. Even the student who performs has a unique experience. What I do want is for the audience to not be intimidated by classical music.
The audience sees “Wow, this student is a record collector, and she collects not just classical music, but collects blues. I can relate to that.” Or “I didn’t know that young people still played the organ. And he got interested because of his father, and I remember going to the Wanamaker store.” I think that kind of thing will let people think of classical music not as elitist or inclusive. That’s why I try in my profiles to have some diversity.
I really enjoy when the composers are profiled because they let the audience know it’s more than just music that you hear; there’s thought and communication in these compositions. You may not hear it the same way, but there’s a message behind it and a certain creativity. When I do documentaries, there’s a whole different thought process. Documentaries all come with a point of view, but for On Stage at Curtis, I try to do what I can when I pick the students, the instruments, and so forth, and let the audience figure out everything else.
Has working with On Stage at Curtis changed you at all?
I think I can hear a person who’s accomplished and trained…my ear became better at that. I know pieces now. I’m certainly more knowledgeable than I was in the past. And I really understand opera a bit more, and I see what it takes to be a brass player or a vocalist, and I see the work that goes into [music-making].