How artists handle performing during the age of social distancing and public fear.
by Ben Swenson
The Hurrah Players were ready. The nonprofit had received the country’s first license to perform Moana JR., a musical adaptation of the animated Disney film. They had worked for months, sunk $60,000 into the production and sold 1,100 tickets for each of the weekend’s four performances at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts.
On what was to be opening night, cast and crew met in the morning and left the theater about midday, a break before staging the production. But before the curtain rose, Virginia Beach officials declared a state of emergency, and the show was off.
The stage went dark indefinitely. It was March 2020.
“We were devastated,” says Hugh Copeland, the group’s artistic director. The mood turned even more dour as reality set in: COVID-19 cast an ominous shadow as far as they could see into the future.
More than a year after the onset of the global pandemic, arts and cultural organizations are feeling the sting of canceled performances and lost revenue. The arts have not been the only victims of the pandemic, but the damage has been pervasive.
Organizers have tried to make the best of the situation, finding creative workarounds. But the fundamental issue remains – mass gatherings are problematic. Painful as it has been, there may be a silver lining once the world emerges on the other side.
The losses have been staggering. The Brookings Institution, an economic think tank, estimates that 2.7 million jobs in creative industries have disappeared. According to a report by Americans for the Arts, the arts and cultural sector nationwide has lost $14.6 billion since the onset. In Virginia, direct losses have totaled nearly $19 million.
Economist Robert McNab, from Old Dominion University, says 17,400 people in Hampton Roads were employed in the arts, entertainment and recreation industry in Hampton Roads in the second quarter of 2020. And when they shed employees, it causes a ripple effect that depresses economic activity.
The Virginia Arts Festival, for example, had to cancel 55 shows, according to executive director Robert Cross. “We didn’t hire any of our seasonal employees, which is about 50 people,” he says, and that doesn’t include the vendors, tent rentals and advertising. “It was a loss for the whole region.”
Cross says policymakers tend to worry about industries such as airlines, hospitality and automobiles. The arts, he says, are not foremost on their minds. Meanwhile, sidelined performers are often at a loss to make up for cancelled gigs. Jae Sinnett is a jazz percussionist who typically performs live with his ensembles anywhere from two to six times a month. Those appearances completely stopped during the pandemic, he says.
Sinnett recognizes he’s fortunate to have other means to get by; he’s jazz producer and radio host for 89.5 WHRV–FM. And he says many professional musicians were already teaching private lessons, which have migrated to Zoom. But others have had to look for secondary jobs. If there’s a point the pandemic has driven home, Sinnett says, it’s that musicians and artists “now understand the significance of having a Plan B.”
The damage has not been limited to the performing arts. Cultural institutions across the world have reimagined how to safeguard and present cultural treasures when social distancing upends tradition. The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News has reported a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in year-over-year revenue, according to Howard H. Hoege III, president and CEO.
But the museum took stock of its controllable attributes and developed a game plan to see it through the rough waters. Prior to the pandemic, museum leadership tweaked the business model to safeguard against uncertain times. That forethought, along with a Paycheck Protection Program loan, allowed the staff to remain intact.
The museum began offering organized tours of the surrounding park and adjacent lake, catering to a new group of people working from home, and pivoted to online programming. Web metrics show that these efforts have been successful, according to Hoege. This is part of the reason museum staff decided the galleries, which have been shuttered since March, would remain closed while they tackled some major projects.
That fundamental shift in how culture is presented and consumed is a pragmatic workaround to the lack of face-to-face engagement. Hurrah Players taped their annual seasonal productions Hurrah for the Holidays and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and streamed the performances online.
Alternative modes of engagement have been crucial for formal arts education. People learning to become professionals in the arts rely on close interactions with instructors, as well as performances and exhibitions where they can showcase their work.
The pandemic “required faculty to be innovative and do some deep thinking about modes of instruction,” says Carmenita Higginbotham, dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. What resulted was a creative mix of different types of instruction and presentation.
Whereas some courses, such as studio classes in the department of craft/material studies, continued to meet face-to-face, other disciplines, like film, were able to lean more toward online engagement. In many cases, Higginbotham says, the VCU arts community collaborated to create entirely new virtual spaces.
The school’s theater department performed the play She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms on the video-sharing site Vimeo. Actors created sets, performed and recorded their parts largely in their own homes, which fellow students stitched together digitally. After its online autumn performance, the play became a regional nominee to be screened with other online performances at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
“A byproduct of the pandemic is that … it has pulled us all into a tech-savvy world when it comes to exhibiting and performing,” Higginbotham says.
Sinnett says technology has also helped many performers work around social distancing. He’s been recording drum parts on tracks that other musicians send to him, an unfamiliar method for Sinnett, “but it’s working,” he says.
Yet Sinnett cautions that technology isn’t necessarily the perfect antidote to the pandemic’s restrictions. Some novel digital concepts, such as pay-to-watch online performances, sometimes fall flat, and there are technical hurdles, such as online lags. And art through a screen will never entirely replace live interaction, he says. “I believe ultimately there will be a great movement of support for live entertainment once everyone feels safe enough to venture out again,” he says.
Anecdotal evidence bears out Sinnett’s prediction. When Virginia officials moved to Phase Three guidelines, permitting 30 percent capacity for performing arts venues, Virginia Arts Festival sponsored 16 performances at their outdoor courtyard in Norfolk and sold out all 60 tickets each time.
There are snapshots showing generosity, and an acknowledgment of the value of the arts, even as charitable giving has changed drastically during the pandemic. When the Virginia Arts Festival tackled the herculean task of refunding money for canceled events, two-thirds of ticketholders offered their money as a donation or requested it be kept as a voucher for future performances.
Sinnett says that fundraising for WHRV’s jazz programming has been outstanding, and he hopes this mindfulness spreads. “Without donors now, venues won’t survive,” he says. “Nonprofits need folks to step up now more than ever before and they are doing it.”
Undoubtedly some organizations will ultimately collapse under the weight of the pandemic, but there’s a general sense of determination among the stewards of arts and culture to take what they’ve learned during these difficult times and grow. “Whatever the future holds,” says Hoege, “we hope that we have used this crisis to get far better than business as usual.”