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The show will go on! Performing arts pivot during pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of American life, including the performing arts. Actors and dancers are experiencing unemployment rates over 50 percent, and many companies have said they will remain closed for in-person performances for the foreseeable future. But there are glimmers of hope and pockets of movement where the show goes on. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The pandemic has affected every aspect of life, including the performing arts.

    There's plenty of data, third-quarter unemployment rates of 54 percent for dancers and 52 percent for actors, a 33-fold decline in consumer spending on all performing arts.

    Many companies have announced that they will remain closed for in person performances for the foreseeable future.

    But, as Jeffrey Brown found, there are glimmers of hope and pockets of movement, where the show, even in new ways, is going on.

    Here's a look for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    On a recent Indian summer evening in an urban New York City field next to a cemetery, the thrilling sound and movement of flamenco dancer Nelida Tirado, performed for a small socially distanced audience.

    This is the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, known as BAAD!, an organization that presents work by local artists, especially women, people of color, and LGBTQ artists.

    Dancer and choreographer Arthur Aviles is BAAD!'s co-founder and served as the evening's emcee. Its theme? Staying alive.

  • Arthur Aviles:

    What's important to us is to make sure that we keep in touch with who it is that we are in these unfortunate times.

    We want to create a platform for the community to be a star on. That's really what we say.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Housed in a Gothic revivalist church, with a black box theater that seats just 50 people, this 21-year-old organization has a seven-person staff and budget under a million dollars, supported by foundations and government grants.

  • Arthur Aviles:

    BAAD! is one of the few theaters or presenting arts organizations in the Bronx. And in this particular area, there are none. And that's really sad for the Bronx.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Indoor performances aren't possible, but BAAD! offers its space to local artists to create virtual events, and to teachers to continue dance and other classes.

    In one, young students take turns in person, while the rest join via Zoom.

  • Arthur Aviles:

    This is about boxes, and where we are confined to that. And art is all about pushing against the boundaries of those boxes, and helping all of us see the world.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You're used to having to deal with difficult circumstances.

  • Arthur Aviles:

    People would say, oh, you're just poor. And I would say, yes, and, yes, and.

    You can find great creativity in the simplicity of the voice, of the simplicity of the body, of the simplicity of communication.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In Portland, Maine, another approach as we watched a rehearsal for an upcoming indoor performance at Portland Stage.

    How can this show go on? Through a determined response to an existential threat.

  • Anita Stewart:

    It's like going on an expedition to the moon, in a way, Jeff. It's a different way of doing something that I have been doing for years and years and years, and that seems so secondhand.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is the kind of theater where the artistic director, Anita Stewart, pitches in to paint the sets.

    Last spring, Portland Stage was closed, leading to a million-dollar loss in ticket revenues, a huge hit for a company with an overall budget of $2.5 million.

    Was there ever any question for you that you would be presenting live theater?

  • Anita Stewart:

    Oh, yes, absolutely. This summer, it seemed like it was not going to be possible.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Instead, they're aiming for an October 29 opening, but with a play, Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly," directed by Sally Wood, with just two actors. And Kathy McCafferty and David Mason are married. No fears about social distancing.

    Portland Stage installed equipment and its HVAC system which can eliminate any COVID virus in the air. And it provides regular testing for actors, crew and staff.

    The audience will be limited to just 50 in a 288-seat theater.

    Even 50, how do you convince people to come in?

  • Anita Stewart:

    It is a challenge. And I think a big part of it is doing the work that we're doing to make sure know that we are taking safety precautions that are going to make this experience as safe as it possibly can be.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's helped by being in a state with relatively few COVID cases. Still, going forward is fraught.

    Is this a viable financial model for you, though? This isn't going to bring in much money, right?

  • Anita Stewart:

    Long-term, this is not viable. This is about providing a service right now. And it's a service of the heart. It's a service of the soul.

    It's a service for the artists that we can employ. And it's a service for the small number of people that will be able to come in and see the work.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Innovative new production and financial models are also being tested, including scaling down the grand in opera to something more intimate and even colorful, in an outdoor circus tent on a baseball field.

  • Tomer Zvulun:

    You know, they say never waste a crisis. And I think this crisis created two sort of business models that could be with us for years to come, and that's the people and the location.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Artistic director Tomer Zvulun is still working with international-caliber singers, but all are Atlanta-based, and now comprise the Atlanta Company Players, a kind of hometown all-star team.

    They were all grounded anyway, with lost bookings and income. And, as soprano Jasmine Habersham told us, there's now an added and unexpected benefit.

  • Jasmine Habersham:

    It changes the dynamics.

    You can have a family, and you can be secure, and you can even just have that availability to be by the ones that you love and do what you love as well.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The company canceled its planned season and scaled down for a COVID era alternative, fewer singers and musicians, a smaller audience and budget, from $10 million to $6.6 million.

  • Tomer Zvulun:

    This pandemic really exposed the vulnerabilities of non-for-profits with a very high cost structure.

    And it's a lesson to all of us to make sure that the cost structure that we keep is nimble enough for us to pivot when times get rough. During some of the darkest time in humanity, artists found ways to connect with other people through performance.

    And that is something that this company is very committed to.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The lessons here won't apply to all performing arts organizations, and success for any of these groups is hardly guaranteed, with winter bringing new challenges.

    Still, in some places, and last night in Atlanta, in new forms and spaces, the show goes on.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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