Performing in a pandemic

Artists keep moving and dreaming

click to enlarge Performing in a pandemic
Felicia Olin

Reggie Guyton's star was rising when the pandemic hit. In 2019, he directed Memphis – a musical with a diverse cast that features interracial love – set during the 1950s. For an adult show, cast members skewed young, and the talent on stage at the Hoogland Center for the Arts was immense. The production was a definite success, with sold-out shows.

In early 2020, Guyton was preparing to direct Ragtime, another musical that grapples with themes of racism and discrimination. It would be the first Springfield Muni Opera production Guyton led. Last March, auditions were held. That was before it was clear that the pandemic would be global and close to home. When it began to sink in that COVID-19 would close down businesses and public gatherings, he tried to hold out hope that the production planned in summer was still possible. "You spend so much time on it. It really does become like your child. And to see that not come to fruition, it was heartbreaking." Guyton said as disappointing as it was to know the performance was postponed, it was a great relief to protect the people in his cast and crew.

In December 2020, The New York Times reported about a "great cultural depression." During the quarter ending in September of last year, "52% of actors, 55% of dancers and 27% of musicians were out of work, according to the National Endowment for the Arts," the newspaper reported. The overall unemployment rate was 8.5% by comparison. Springfield, meanwhile, thrives on community theater – in other words, volunteers. Still, jobs supporting the arts have been lost. Shows have been canceled. Venue owners have wondered whether they could keep the lights on long enough to see the other side of the pandemic. But area actors and those behind the scenes have found ways to adapt, and they say hope is in sight.

Turning the lights off to keep them on

click to enlarge Performing in a pandemic
Photo courtesy Springfield Dance
Dancers performed with masks and were filmed during the Springfield Dance production of The Princess and the Frog last November.
Gus Gordon, executive director of the Hoogland, said the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) helped bridge the gap for a bit, but it soon became clear there was just no feasible way to employ part-time workers, such as security and box office clerks. "I'm hopeful that we get the majority back, because we had a really great team," said Gordon. "And that was the hardest thing I had to do – to say to these people, 'The money's just gone.'"

The Hoogland's building, 420 S. Sixth St., is massive and more than 100 years old. Utilities are no small cost. "We turned the lights out and we turned the heat down, or the air conditioning down, so that we wouldn't have these huge energy bills. We pruned a lot of the budget so that we could survive, and we are fortunate that that's worked out so far," he said.

The Hoogland still has some residents who use the building for their creative endeavors. It has hosted some performances, such as the Springfield Theatre Centre's October 2020 production of Songs for a New World, which streamed virtually. It was a small production, with only four cast members. And the material was timely. The abstract musical ponders various crossroads in life.

The Hoogland has hosted an online series about mental health and the arts. An upcoming show, Becoming Dr. Ruth, streaming March 19-21, features local actress Felicia Coulter playing Dr. Ruth Westheimer – the eccentric and widely beloved television sex therapist.

Gordon said audiences have found silver linings in the peculiarities of digital productions. "Some people I've talked to say, 'I love this because I can see their faces up close. And it's really intimate.'" He said supporters have been generous. "We would not be here without our donors." Gordon said vaccines and a downward trend in community spread provides hope as well. "We're beginning to plan," he said. "We're opening the doors slowly, so that when things are better – hopefully in the summer, or in the early to mid-fall – we'll be able to safely accommodate more people." For now, flexibility remains key.

click to enlarge Performing in a pandemic
Photo by Clay Stalter/UIS
UIS Theatre’s November 2020 virtual production of John Patrick Shanley’s Rogue's Gallery was filmed with no live audience.

Mystery movies and
The Music Man

The Legacy Theatre is run by volunteers, and therefore was ineligible for grants like the PPP, said Scott Richardson, the executive director. "Right now we have received zero grant money or state or federal aid." Community theater is a big part of its repertoire, but it also hosts events, from the official – political forums and weddings, for instance – to the quirky. Take for example Mystery Movie Monday. It's "this goofy idea we came up with about three years ago, where at seven o'clock on the first Monday of every month, people show up to the theater, and they don't know what they're going to see," said Richardson. The events would bring in a near full house. When it became clear the theater would have to close its doors because of the pandemic, screenings moved online to close out the planned season.

What was more difficult to plan around was The Music Man. Auditions were in January 2020 with a production planned for June. The show had been cast and was getting into full swing when it became clear the pandemic would shut down all but essential business, at least for a time. Negotiations for the Legacy's fall 2020 season were also underway and had to be canceled. "We just stopped everything," said Richardson.

Scenery being created for The Music Man was put on hold. But costumes were already due for construction by a small company in Texas. Richardson told the woman the show was postponed, but he wanted her to keep working on the project. He told her, "I'm sending you fabric tomorrow. She started to cry." She was grateful for the bit of work. All her other projects had been canceled, she told him. It's an example of the wide-scale loss when theaters can't operate as usual.

Richardson said he's grateful for donors who have helped make ends meet and he holds out hope that The Legacy might stage a performance of the musical this year, maybe even by July. "Everyone in the audience may be wearing masks. We may have to socially distance the audience," said Richardson. "We're cautiously optimistic. We're taking baby steps forward."

click to enlarge Performing in a pandemic
Photo by Reggie Guyton
The actor playing Abraham Lincoln wore a mask during Springfield Theatre Centre's production of The Spirit of Lincoln last year.

Staying in motion

Springfield Dance is a studio that serves about 400 students. During a normal year, its dancers would perform on The Legacy's stage. But that wasn't able to happen as planned in 2020. Still, "I have yet to cancel anything. We've shifted things, we've made it look a little different, but we have not canceled a single event yet," said Ronda Brinkman, director of Springfield Dance.

As cancellations of myriad activities and events were happening, "I was watching our children's spirit just be crushed, over and over," said Brinkman. She said after the initial March 2020 shutdown, lessons moved online. Once the studio was able to reopen, families could choose to have their kids attend class in-person, while others attended online. A recital last year was done outside. Parents could bring lawn chairs to see one class perform at a time. Also last year, a production of The Princess and the Frog was filmed in late November. Families could view video of the dancers in their tutus and masks.

Last month, Brinkman held auditions for a production of The Jungle Book. She said it's too soon to say where the performance, slated for August, might be held. Brinkman will be exploring options, maybe an indoor or outdoor venue for a live audience, but she'll be prepared for another video-only option if necessary. "We're artists and we're meant to create. And this is just a prime example that we can create anything."

Meanwhile, The Springfield Ballet Company and Springfield Youth Ballet Company have outdoor performances planned for April and June at Duncan Park. The ballet company has also announced performance dates in October and December of 2021 of Rockballet and The Nutcracker at Sangamon Auditorium. "We're hoping that we'll get back indoors for performances. It may be a limited audience, but that's what we're hoping for," said Julie Ratz, artistic director of the ballet company.

Ratz said the focus has been on the 60 or so ballet company members and trainees over the past year, with both in-person and online rehearsals. Dancers have to continue to train and stay in shape, said Ratz. They've continued to learn new choreography. "We all have a new appreciation for what we do and how important it is in our lives."

Instead of having a typical Nutcracker last year, dancers helped create a documentary that is sold as a fundraiser for the nonprofit. Last October "we did the full snow scene, and we were able to use everybody in the company, and the Storyteller Studios came in and they recorded that," said Ratz. Dancers also did part of Nutcracker with the Illinois Symphony for a digital performance. "We still got our little taste of Christmas. It wasn't quite as sad as it would have been if we weren't able to do anything."

click to enlarge Performing in a pandemic
Photo By Brian Galecki
No bands have given a live performance on the new stage in Dumb Records yet.

Better than nothing

Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson, who teaches theater at University of Illinois Springfield, found herself in the same position this March as she was exactly a year ago – rehearsing for the UIS Theatre production of Twelfth Night by Shakespeare. The show had been postponed. Rehearsals now are very different. Cast members meet online. The production in April will be via video. While the current situation is not ideal, it's better than nothing. "Something as opposed to nothing – it's still feeding my creative soul," said Thibodeaux-Thompson.

Thibodeaux-Thompson was able to obtain masks with a clear, vinyl screen, so the students can see each others' facial expressions during her classes. "We can still do the vocal warm-ups and things, safely distanced," she said. Class capacity has been limited to provide ample space to spread out. In November, UIS Theatre was able to stage a production of monologues, since actors were only on the stage one at a time. Crew members wore masks and the performances were recorded. There was no live audience.

Thibodeaux-Thompson said those in the theater world have a reputation for working hard and playing hard. But the pandemic has given everyone a pause to think more about the importance of mental health. "We can still push ourselves for excellence. But we don't have to push ourselves to the point where it's detrimental to our physical and/or emotional health."

Like others, Thibodeaux-Thompson hopes "some semblance" of a live audience might be feasible by fall. The need for theater is stronger than ever. People are hungry for an escape, for entertainment, but more than that, "they want to be moved," she said.

A first for First Night

Last year, the Springfield Area Arts Council (SAAC) was able to keep some activities going by making adjustments. An arts relief grant helped fund free outdoor concerts, held in partnership with Cafe Moxo. That was in lieu of a typical Artist on the Plaza series, which features street performances.

The Adult Prom fundraiser, which typically brings in up to $10,000 for the nonprofit, was canceled. Sheila Walk, executive director of SAAC, spent much of 2020 applying for grants, which included a PPP loan that helped pay her salary. First Night, the city's New Year's Eve festival run by SAAC, was done virtually. Springfield partnered with organizations in Florida and California to feature performers from other parts of the country. "It was great. It really seemed polished. It kept the tradition alive," said Walk.

Each year, SAAC hosts area entrants for Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation competition for high school students. In February of this year, Walk coordinated filming the performances, without a live audience. SAAC remains active in a number of community partnerships, including a new one, called CAMP.

click to enlarge Performing in a pandemic
Photo by Jesse Jaems of Mister Sister Photography
Reggie Guyton on stage as a member of the chorus in Memphis, the production he directed in 2019.

Rock on

CAMP stands for Creators of Art, Music and Poetry. It was the brainchild of Springfield musicians Tom Irwin and Jamie Merideth. Originally planned as in-person events, it became a way to feature Springfield-area artists who no longer had the option to play before live audiences. "The overall idea is to spotlight the amazing talent that this community holds, specifically original content creators," said Merideth.

"We're trying to help support their efforts in whatever way we can." Artists are filmed by Crowdson Creative. Episodes, viewable on CAMP's Facebook page, combine visual artists with musicians and poets and so far have focused on Americana, indie and folk genres. Meredith said he's looking forward to shifting the series to in-person events as originally planned, though it's too soon to say when that might be.

Downtown Springfield Inc. (DSI) is planning for an outdoor concert series this year. It will be free to attend. In 2019, DSI secured its first Levitt AMP grant to host outdoor concerts on the Y block. It again got the grant for 2020, but the series was canceled. DSI recently learned it is guaranteed a Levitt AMP grant for 2021 as well as 2022.

DSI director Lisa Clemmons Stott said the plan is to create pod seating arrangements, where families and groups of up to six people sit together, but wear masks when not in their own socially distanced area. It's too soon to announce a lineup, Clemmons Stott said. "Right now we're looking to expand our partnerships and looking to expand the number of sponsors." She said the 2021 venture will be more expensive to produce than it had been in 2019, with the goal for sound to cover the entire block where people will be spread out.

Streaming the symphony

Becoming a member of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra (ISO) is competitive. People from all over the country have auditioned for a spot in the group, which typically performs in Springfield and Bloomington-Normal. It, like other orchestras, has focused on maintaining some performances by streaming them online. "As with any challenges, there comes opportunities as well," said Ken Lam, ISO music director. While patrons tend to be older, many have learned how to navigate Zoom and other online platforms by necessity, to stay in touch with family and friends, said Lam. They have been able to navigate the same technology to keep up with events streamed by the orchestra.

ISO hosts a virtual Sunday at Six series. Solo musicians play a 45-minute recital and then have a conversation about themselves and their art. "I think that's important for the community, to make them feel they're part of the symphony," said Lam. While the 2020 season was canceled, there was a 2020 holiday performance. Musicians were socially distanced. There were dancers, who wore masks. And, of course, the performance was streamed online. There was no live audience. "I think everyone felt really good about it, because we knew we did it safely," said Lam. It also sent a signal, he said, "that we are going to beat this pandemic." Details for the coming season are still pending. Smaller scale performances will continue to stream online for now.

"What better time to start collecting records?"

Dumb Records, 418 E. Monroe St., is a record store with venue space. It was hosting shows before canceling them all in March 2020. A new stage had been built, but no one has performed on it yet. A new arcade was also built last year. Dumb Records hosted an ongoing pinball challenge. Downtown business owners and the mayor participated. And music sales are keeping things going. "Vinyl revival is still a thing – now more than ever. The pandemic even amplified that in a lot of ways because everybody's at home," said owner Brian Galecki. "What better time to start collecting records?"

Punk and indie shows featuring central Illinois talent don't draw huge audiences, but they have a loyal following. Many ask Galecki when he will reopen for shows again. It's too soon to say. But he knows, given the tiny venue space, he won't be one of the first. "We're an enclosed, inside space. We fill up pretty quickly," he said. "We're not able to distance people that well, so we'll probably be the last place to do it."

Safe and inclusive stages

Reggie Guyton, who had what was to be the first Muni production he would direct canceled due to the pandemic, is keeping active in local theater. He is a historical actor for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. He's also on the board of the Springfield Theatre Centre, which staged a performance of a Ken Bradbury production, The Spirit of Lincoln, last year. Guyton was one of the performers who attended socially distant rehearsals and wore masks on stage. The production is viewable by video on demand.

On March 4, The Springfield Theatre Centre hosted an online conversation with local health experts about how to perform safely, which Guyton helped facilitate. Illinois is currently in Phase Four, based on the governor's reopening plan. Those who attended the conversation wanted further guidance on what that means for performers. According to the current phase, groups of 50 or fewer can gather, or 50% of a room's capacity, whichever number is lower. But does that mean 50 audience members? Or 50 people including cast and crew? And singing has been shown to more effectively spread potentially contagious droplets. So should masks be worn by singers on stage, even if they stand six feet apart? What about choral groups rehearsing, is that advised? And when can large audiences sit inside a theater again? No one can predict that one for sure. But the rate of community spread in Sangamon County has been on a downward trend since reaching a peak in November of last year. More and more people are getting vaccinated. There is hope yet.

When theater does return to normal, it won't be taken for granted. Performing arts are moving. They take us out of the realm of the ordinary, to a place where magic might be possible, where dreams take flight. And who doesn't need that right now?

Guyton and others are also working to ensure that once theaters reopen, their stages are more diverse. Guyton is a member of the Springfield Black Theatre Alliance and serves on a Muni board focused on diversity and inclusion. "I think that realistically, there is going to be a culture shift," said Guyton. "We are starting to see a shift in people's consciousness, and an overall growth of empathy and understanding that we are so tied together."

Contact Rachel Otwell at [email protected].

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