What We Know, What We Don’t Know… and What We Can Do: The Performing Arts Community Finding Its Way Forward
By Jacqueline Z. Davis
For the performing arts community, the fall is time is usually filled with frenetic preparation, anticipation, and hope for the new season. However, we continue to find ourselves in a world turned upside down with shuttered theaters. Faced with a pandemic and an economy that will remain in partial shutdown for months to come, let us use this time to gather up what we know, what we don’t know… and ideas for what we can do.
What we know is that we are still in a crisis of major proportions. In New York, stage lights on Broadway went dark on March 12. We thought that in a matter of weeks artists would be working again on Broadway, off Broadway, and in regional theatres; dancers would be dancing; musicians would be playing again for devoted audiences. Weeks became months as the coronavirus continued to take lives and livelihoods. What we know now is the country won’t be going back to normal any time soon.
What we don’t know is how to proceed now or in the near future. The fact that we don’t know what the future will bring has led to a malaise and sense of loss of all the things we had planned that are on indefinite hold.
What we can do is use this time to think deeply about the nature of the arts, how we support artists, and how we connect to audiences and communities. In this shutdown, the artistic community, like gamers and sports leaders, has shined with its creativity.
Artists of every stripe have been developing new works expressly for social media channels. So many of us start our days opening up Instagram or Snapchat to see what our favorite performers are doing.
Virtual performances have, by necessity, sprung up everywhere. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS re-imagined its most iconic annual events---“Broadway Bares” and Dancers Responding to AIDS’ “Fire Island Dance Festival” as virtual shows attracting tens of thousands of viewers and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars online. The Metropolitan Opera’s “At-Home Gala” connected with its donors by gathering superstars from across the globe who one after another regaled us with gorgeous arias in the comfort of our homes. The Joyce pivoted to streaming its own content in addition to partnering with other organizations with whom they have had years-long relationships. The Lied Center of Kansas invited their artists to perform from their homes on Facebook Live.
Will virtual performance and Zoom chats with artists and producers be enough as time goes on? I submit that this pandemic, while terrible, has created an extraordinary opportunity for all of us. Those who recognize this opportunity and begin to plan will be ready for our new normal. Others who ignore the signposts may be left in the dust.
Theatre administrators are meeting to share ideas about how to go forward. They are exploring questions like how many seats can be safely sold with required distancing? What is the break point where producers go bankrupt on a show because they cannot sell out the house?
Will unions be willing to loosen rules to allow streaming of recordings of shows currently available for scholarly reference only? The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, for example, maintains more than 7,000 theatre titles going back almost fifty years. Access to these videos is only onsite, not online. Negotiating property rights issues is challenging. But why not work now to make these shows available to people in their homes while we are still waiting for “normal” to arrive? For example, with less restrictive dance union rules, New York City Ballet has been able to be more creative in its offerings. NYCB produced and streamed a six-week digital spring 2020 season. In addition, the Company created an array of content for its social media channels with their dancers performing and filming their own original choreography; “At the Barre” dancer-taught ballet classes; and weekly movement workshops for children and adults with disabilities
Artists have been incredibly busy thinking and zooming with new collaborators. Celtic singer and songwriter Ashley Davis has used this time to create a new album. Each of the musicians in her band collaborated on a song with her. She then asked them to invite a musician they admire to co-create with them. Performers working from San Francisco to Chicago, Nashville, Galway and Lawrence, Kansas collaborated to create the aptly titled album “When the Stars Went Out”, all from their own homes.
In addition to going online, the artistic community has also embraced the great outdoors. The Berkshire Theater Group has brought audiences Godspell, in a tent complete with masked actors and plexiglass barriers.
Key to creating the new normal is understanding the new psyche. Performing arts audiences have discovered that they can access concerts, theatre and music of any kind on their computers, tablets, and phones, for a fraction of the cost of going out to dinner and purchasing tickets.
Not just now, but also post-pandemic, we will need a new business model. So much of the creativity being displayed by artists in this time isn’t being compensated. A sustainable model will undoubtedly mean less funding in the pockets of investors and producers. On the back end, arts administrators are working from their homes. They tell me they will never go back to renting large workspaces.
Foundations, which are helping sustain hundreds of cultural nonprofits through this pandemic, may be particularly well positioned to help small arts organizations transition to a new future. Could there be a role for the funder community in building new cultural infrastructure? – a shared back office operation for arts groups; a WeWork for artists; or even a cultural Facebook and YouTube?
Being able to see favored artists up close and personal in their homes has in turn created a new fan base. The question remains: how will old and new fans go back into theatres… or will they feed their souls more and more with performances viewed from their home devices? Time will tell, of course. But given the energy exhibited by those who create and those who help ensure that the public has the opportunity to experience these efforts, I hope artistic leaders will take the lessons from this strange time to heart and continue laying the path to be even better in the new normal.
Jacqueline Z. Davis, a member of the NYU Brademas Center Advisory Council, is former Executive Director of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. She also served on the APAP board from 1984-1993 and as its board chair from 1990-92.