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September 11, 2020: On Thinking Outside The Box

Good day,

A news story today sent a shudder down my spine.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s leading expert on COVID-19, said we likely will not be able to return to theaters for at least another year — or more.

It’s a harsh reality check for the optimists among us, hoping that a return to normalcy is right around the corner.

I was already planning today on talking about those who have been using these past six months to explore alternative ways to share artistic experiences.

But now it seems even more relevant.

You might loathe that overused expression — “Thinking outside the box” — as much as I do. It’s a cliche that’s been repeated so many times during this pandemic that I now prefer to think of it as a drinking game.

But as we watched spring turn into summer and then into fall with no prospect for an immediate return of our audiences en masse — especially here in the U.S. — the stories that are now especially important may be those about creative artists in music, dance, theater and the visual arts who have broken free of the structures of their typical or traditional performance spaces.

Instead of “restorationists” — those who focus solely on the return to business-as-usual in these unusual times — the immediate future may belong to these “re-envisionists” from across all disciplines who are doing what artists do: experiment and seeing things in new and sometimes radical ways.

Often their results are not resounding success at first but sometimes they hit on something that may lead to something else that may be viable — or at least that catches the public’s attention and engagement.

Some of these experimental efforts are perhaps more beneficial for morale than the box office and fall considerably short of a “silver bullet” business model.

But they also point the way to other institutional and organizational mission objectives such as education, audience engagement and doing work that reflects and inspires a community.

So…a dancer on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But one dance company in the East Village created “Arts on the Roof,” a new performance series affording some of the few opportunities to watch live dance in New York this summer and fall.

“In looking for ways to safely present live dance,” wrote Siobhan Burkein in The New York Times, “Ms. [Chelsea] Ainsworth and Mr. [Kyle] Netzeband requested rooftop access from their landlord, thinking he would say no. “Normally it’s like, ‘Don’t ever go on the roof,’” Ms. Ainsworth said. But to her surprise, he agreed to their proposal for an outdoor performance series, provided they took certain precautions. They now have performances scheduled through September — a mix of music and dance — and permission to use the roof through November.”

Or how about the Philharmonic on a truck, where members of the New York Philharmonic take their music literally on the road?

As Joshua Barone, also writing in the Times, quotes a countertenor standing on a bed of a pickup truck: “No one has heard this music before!” he told the small crowd, as if he were a carnival barker. “We are so excited to do this for you.” Then he cued a trio of players from the New York Philharmonic, which had not given a public performance since the coronavirus pandemic forced it to close in March. The orchestra made its return with this pop-up, pickup concert from what is being called the NY Phil Bandwagon.”

Or an opera in a tent?

“The Atlanta Opera will produce a fall season of two shows in an outdoor circus tent pitched on an Oglethorpe University baseball field. The opera will alternate performances of Leoncavallo’s iconic ‘Pagliacci’ and the satire ‘The Kaiser’ of Atlantis… Each show will have nine performances with a reduced orchestra under a big tent that will hold up to 240 people. The tent will be set up on a baseball diamond, with the walls rolled up to allow for air circulation.”

Or taking that large empty lot and transforming it? That’s what happened in Dallas.

Outdoor spaces in meadows, parking lots and drive-ins have also been used effectively around the U.S. and elsewhere. American Theatre magazine reports many theaters looking elsewhere to perform, including the Barter Theatre in Virginia.

“Artistic director Katy Brown described how, after realizing their indoor spaces were inadequate for COVID-safe producing, she drove around the rural area…brainstorming about possibilities for performing outdoors. She kept coming back to the Moonlite Drive-In.…According to Brown, the idea has bred success and cultivated new audiences who had never been to Barter, or had not attended for years. ‘Over 6,000 people saw our first show,’’ Brown said, “and we had so many people tell us that it was the first thing that had made them feel normal in months.’”

There may be financial opportunities in some of these outreach efforts, too. In creating artistic expression online last month, the Edinburgh Festival is looking at increasing its digital outreach, seeing global opportunities there in those mega-numbers.

“The festival said its 26 digital productions, which featured specially staged performances involving about 500 artists, musicians and technical staff, were watched 1.013 million times in nearly 50 countries worldwide. Last year, its live shows in Edinburgh had an audience of 420,000.”

So there’s still much to learn and yes, measure with savvy surveys, that can help keep the arts alive for another season — or more.

As theater writer Lyn Garner writes in UK’s The Stage: “…the pandemic has sped up the need for theatre to engage with different forms and methods of distribution. Those who cling to the idea that eventually theatre can return to some kind of normal are in danger of finding themselves left behind, as other theatremakers embrace ways of telling new stories in new ways and redefine what theatre can be.”

— Frank Rizzo


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