It was the final dress rehearsal, and cast and crew were abuzz backstage at the Capitol Theater. Laetitia Hollard, the 16-year-old McFarland teen playing Peter Pan, readied herself to fly into the Darling family nursery. This audience was small for the 1,089-seat theater — just 250 friends and family — but the excitement was palpable.
Before the curtain rose, Roseann Sheridan, Children’s Theater of Madison’s artistic director, called her cast together. This night, Friday, March 13, was supposed to be the first full performance of many. Instead, it would be the only one.
“Everybody stood in the wings and watched the entire show,” said Marcus Truschinski, who played Captain Hook. In the audience, “they were applauding entrances and exits. Every time Laetitia and the kids would fly, they’d applaud.
“I was in tears the whole time, both from joy and the sadness of watching these kids perform,” Truschinski said. “They knew it was this fleeting thing. It was maybe the most magical experience of my theater career.”
The decision to cancel “Peter Pan’s” seven-show run wasn’t really hers, Sheridan said later. In the days leading up to the opening, spread of the coronavirus led Gov. Tony Evers to declare a public health emergency. Earlier in the day, Overture Center announced it would cancel the rest of the run of the musical “Wicked,” which opened March 11 in Overture Hall.
“When it moved from being a choice to a necessity, it was a little bit of a relief, in a way,” Sheridan said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Did I do the right thing?’”
Nationally, Americans for the Arts estimates the economic impact on arts of COVID-19 to date is about $4.8 billion. In Wisconsin, 219 arts and culture-related organizations surveyed reported a collective loss of about $6.8 million, about $900,000 in Dane County alone. Arts and culture generate $250 million annually in Dane County, according to the most recent Arts & Economic Prosperity numbers (from 2015).
Local arts leaders sound stressed but hopeful. They’re moving content online — archived material from previous shows, dance classes held like video conferences. Overture Center made its 2020-21 season announcement via Facebook Live.
Some companies canceled shows, like Madison Ballet’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Forward Theater’s “The Amateurs.” Others were able to postpone spring productions to the fall. Summer shows are in limbo.
“We have multiple contingency plans,” said Sara Young, director of communications at American Players Theatre. APT hopes to have an update on May 15 on when the season might start.
“We want to stay flexible because we’re determined to produce theater this summer if we can,” Young said.
The main challenge for the arts, just like for everyone else, is the unknown end of this pandemic. Ed Yong in The Atlantic made a persuasive case that, even in the most optimistic scenarios, “a quick and complete return to normalcy would be ill-advised.” We’re not going back to crowded public spaces anytime soon.
“Arts businesses, like every other business, are grappling with that reality and trying to figure out what that means,” said Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin. “Everyone’s in the same boat, every restaurant and market and gas station. The arts are not any different. This is not something any of us can control.”
The show must not go on
It’s tempting to compare the current situation to other times when things were hard — after 9/11, for example, or during the Great Recession.
In 2009, the Madison Symphony Orchestra cut a concert weekend out of its season. Madison Ballet canceled performances, cut staff and eliminated live music for “The Nutcracker.” Musicians at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went on a six-month strike. Deeply in debt, the Madison Repertory Theatre closed in March 2009.
The language that arts managers used then sounds similar to now. The numbers were scary. Nobody knew how long the economic downturn would last.
“During the Great Recession, if you asked, ‘What can I do to help?’ the answer was, ‘Go out and buy a ticket, go to a show,’” said Tom Linfield, vice president of community impact at the Madison Community Foundation. “That’s the problem right now. You can’t. You can’t even go out and show your support.”
The Community Foundation administers endowments for many arts organizations, including Pleasant Rowland’s Great Performance funds. Beneficiaries include CTM, Madison Ballet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Forward Theater is supported by the Great Performance Fund for Theater.
Linfield called COVID-19 closures “a triple whammy.”
“Performances have had to be shut down, schools have had to be shut down and fundraisers have had to be shut down,” he said. “All three of those are a natural part of any arts agency’s life cycle.”
“Orpheus in the Underworld,” the third production of Madison Opera’s 2019-20 season, was supposed to play Overture Hall on April 17 and April 19. Because contracts are in place for next year, general director Kathryn Smith said the production will likely appear in the season after next (2021-22). Smith told the creative team to save their scores, keep costumes that had already been fitted, and hang on to the lighting designs.
“We’ll see what the government response is,” Smith said. “It’s a response to the arts as employers, to some degree. We pay people who have to pay their rent and buy groceries.”
Usually, subscription renewals for the coming season go in the mail the week of the final mainstage opera. Instead, on April 21, the opera announced its ‘20-’21 season on social media: Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” the musical “She Loves Me” and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
“We have to proceed with certain things,” Smith said. “We can’t suddenly decide next month, ‘Let’s do an opera.’ Even we cannot be quite that flexible.”
Smith imagines that arts organizations like hers will pivot to new ways of engaging audiences, enabled by technology. They’ll have to.
“Every place will be different. I think we’ll make mistakes along the way,” she said. “I think people want what we have. People want the art. How that pivots and whether it’s a permanent pivot, or whether it’s for a year and everyone will want to go back to Shakespeare and Mozart — I don’t know.”
Opera in the Park, a perennially popular, free-to-the-public event, is currently scheduled for Saturday, July 25, in Garner Park. As of this writing, Concerts on the Square are set to begin on Tuesday, July 28. Whether those can go forward is still an open question.
“Madison loves to convene,” Linfield said. “We love our runs and races and farmers’ markets and Opera in the Park and Concerts on the Square. We are a city that revolves around community events, most of them arts events — Art Fair on the Square. They’re a huge visibility raiser and fundraiser for pivotal arts organizations.
“All of that right now is in limbo.”
Concertos from the couch
First Kanopy Dance, the Madison contemporary company, postponed its spring production. “The Far Out Prophecies of Nostradamus,” a collaboration with the Are We Delicious? theater troupe, is now part of the 2020-21 season.
After a week, it became clear that the dance school, Kanopy Academy, couldn’t continue either.
“That’s significant for us,” said co-artistic director Lisa Thurrell, who has run Kanopy with Robert Cleary since 1995. “Our school of modern dance, choreography and improvisation, ages 3 all the way through adult, is integral to our economic structure.”
Kanopy holds some 40 classes a week at its studio at 341 State St. Within weeks, they’d figured out how to use a combination of pre-recorded, living room-friendly dance classes and weekly live check-ins over Zoom, the videoconferencing service.
“It’s strange,” Thurrell said. “It’s at home — there are all different spaces. We keep that in mind when we structure a class. I had to think smaller and take some of the larger traveling movements and explain to everybody … we don’t have the safety of doing huge leaps. We’re going to focus on strength and flexibility, balance and musicality.
“We also keep in mind that the attention span virtually, online, is shorter than in real time.”
Every week, Kanopy puts out a new set of materials for each class level. Kanopy dancers from the company are sending along “quirky little dance phrases” for the students. Guest artists have sent along videos, too.
This is all a thin substitute for a hands-on, in-person class. Thurrell and her teachers can’t do adjustments, check alignment or help dancers work up to triple turns. She sees the online resources as a backup for future times of crisis.
“It will definitely be there if something like this happens again,” Thurrell said. “It will be a good resource for us as we are tracking and archiving material. I would not see it as any replacement for live teaching.”
Dance Fabulous founder Lyn Pilch rents space at Kanopy’s studio, among other locations. She’s moved dance classes online — Monday and Friday nights on Zoom — and said figuring out the choreography for small spaces has been “a fun puzzle.”
“It is a new world of trying to teach this way,” Pilch said. “You come up with choreo that fits those parameters. I do no more than two steps to the right and left, two steps forward and back. We don’t turn around too much.”
When pandemic shutdowns began, Pilch was close to premiering a new show, “When You’re Falling,” at the Bartell Theatre. It involved more than two dozen dancers, spoken word monologues and music, some composed and recorded by local musicians.
The cast of “When You’re Falling” had been rehearsing since January for performances set to open on March 20. The closest they came was a run-through with most of the costumes on the Sunday before.
“There are moments of embrace in the piece that felt like such acts of rebellion, to be touching each other,” Pilch said. “Those moments were not lost on the cast. It was very emotional.”
Pilch has video footage of that rehearsal. Many shows that canceled early do, but releasing online video of live performance comes with its own set of challenges around permissions from writers, actors and musicians. Pilch could pursue streaming rights, but she’s not sure she will.
“Honestly, it’s like, how much more money do I spend on a show that I can’t sell tickets to?” she said. “I’m holding out hope that this work can be seen by people in person, with a live audience. Even if nobody ever sees it, it will be one of the things I am most proud of.”
When the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra called off its March 27 Masterworks III concert, it offered patrons an online consolation: a livestream, available for just one night, of the WCO’s Dec. 27, 2019 performance in the new Hamel Music Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
That concert featured violinist Rachel Barton Pine, mezzo soprano Kitt Reuter-Foss and Jason Kutz on piano. Some 2,500 people tuned in, which is half the volume of the orchestra’s full indoor season.
For new CEO Joe Loehnis, these online connections offer an unprecedented opportunity for the orchestra to grow its audience.
“We’re trying to stay nimble and relevant and get product out there,” Loehnis said. “It’s been a really interesting, innovative, exciting time for this orchestra and organization. It’s going to be fun to see how this evolves.”
The orchestra has put up 12 new homemade videos in its “#coucherto series” — WCO musicians playing solos in their yards, with their kids, in their studios and living rooms. (Loehnis, a classical cellist, made one with his son, 3-year-old Levi. They played the “ABCs.”)
Loehnis plans to livestream more previously recorded concerts, including one in place of the Masterworks V concert scheduled for May 8. Andrew Sewell, now in his 20th season as the WCO’s music director, may do some Facebook Live videos.
“The industry needed a radical change,” Loehnis said. The pandemic “has really forced the hand. Organizations that are eager to change and excited are going to do well.”
Loehnis admires the work of orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and its “digital concert hall” with thousands of subscribers. But he doesn’t imagine anything like that could replace live performance.
“Our whole industry is predicated on people gathering and appreciating each other and the art form,” he said. “I think people will be hungry to get back.”
The weekend before the shutdowns began, Strollers Theatre’s “The 39 Steps” had its first production meeting. With a cast of four actors and a volunteer-run creative team, the show was able to regroup and reschedule for the fall.
“Strollers and all the volunteer companies are significantly better positioned because we’re volunteer,” said Benjamin Barlow, a co-producer of “The 39 Steps” who has been involved with the community theater for about three years. “Not to say we’re not going to have losses — we absolutely will, we still have to pay the rent at the Bartell.
“If things hit the fan, it’s not unreasonable to have the foundation support,” Barlow added, referencing the Bartell Community Theatre Endowment. “That’s potentially accessible in crises like this.”
Linfield, at the Madison Community Foundation, predicts that nonprofits with a healthy reserve and endowment will be able to make it through a few months of shutdown “relatively unscathed.”
“We reached out to all the grantees (and said) if you need to reprioritize the funds we’ve given you, please do so,” Linfield said. “We respect that a lot of agencies are doing their best to steer the ship differently. If we can help with a little money, that’s wonderful.”
Earlier this month the Wisconsin Arts Board and Arts Wisconsin hosted a webinar with Shira Rachel Apple from the U.S. Small Business Administration, to help arts organizations apply for those loans. The Arts Board and Arts Wisconsin have been hosting “listening sessions” to foster brainstorming and mutual support.
“The biggest issue now is the rolling horizon of this, not knowing when people can leave their homes,” said George Tzougros, executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board. “Nobody knows how audiences are going to react. Are they going to want to quickly come back together? Will there be requirements to keep a seat in between because you don’t want to sit so closely? When can the season begin?
“And then, of course, there’s the possibility of another bounce in this and people have to go back to being safe at home again,” he said. “There’s a lot on people’s plates, and that doesn’t even take into consideration that many of them had to cancel the back end of their current season.”
Tzougros noted that $75 million was earmarked for the National Endowment for the Arts in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Wisconsin is set to see $466,000 of that. For context, the impact of arts and culture in Wisconsin is about $10.1 billion, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
“It’s nothing, it’s like throwing a pebble into the ocean on some level,” said Tzougros. “But it’s symbolic that Congress included support for the Endowment in the emergency relief bill.”
Grants from the NEA, Tzougros said, are for arts organizations, not individual artists.
There are funds in the CARES Act earmarked for the National Endowment for the Humanities, too ($75 million, grant amounts up to $300,000).
Mark Fraire, director of Dane Arts, introduced quick, easily accessible grants for practicing artists. He called the program DANG! (Dane Arts Need Grant). Within two days, the funds — $15,000 worth, in maximum increments of $250 — were gone.
“It’s not that much money. It’s really not,” Fraire said. “I’ve asked for more dollars, and it’s in discussion. I just knew Dane Arts needed to do something publicly to say, ‘We are paying attention.’
“I’m sure there are folks that are going to take shots at this, complain about it not being enough, and I agree,” he said. “But that’s what we have.”
In its most recent grant cycle, Dane Arts received 85 applications from arts organizations requesting $350,000. It had $130,000 to allocate. Fraire described plans for a new professional artists registry that he hopes to debut in a few weeks. He’s shifting the Dane Arts Buy Local Market this fall to online workshops for artists in place of a public event.
“People need to understand that, right now, the arts are saving them,” Fraire said. “We turn to arts for comfort, joy, spiritual guidance, escape. People aren’t going to their financial adviser’s website — well, some are, I’m sure. But they’re going to the creative arena to seek comfort and support. I hope after this pandemic, they’ll continue to support what helped them through this terrible time.”
Truschinski, the actor who hung up his Captain Hook costume early, believes that can happen. The arts are his livelihood — Truschinski and his wife, Tracy Michelle Arnold, are both core acting company members of APT.
Truschinski helps run a small company, Two Crows Theatre, in Spring Green, that ended its season early. He and co-founder Rob Doyle live across the street from one another and have been having online meetings about Two Crows’ upcoming season.
Next year, they hope, the show can finally go on.
“Everything is going to change,” Truschinski said. “But there’s a need for it. Even if we’re sitting six feet away from each other while we’re watching, we still need it.”