Parsing the Pandemic: Part 3

How We Play

The Performing Arts Outlook

By Craig Keller

The arts shouldn’t have to vanish for the public to realize their value. But when stages went dark, movie screens flickered out and museums shuttered galleries because of the pandemic, it quickly dawned on many how much they’d taken their visceral and cerebral pleasures for granted. Chicago’s theatre and music scenes are among the most lively and innovative in the world. Facing an existential crisis, both industries found new ways to reach their audiences.

THEATRE

The pandemic blindsided theatre artists with a double whammy to their wallets. They lost work on stages, and the second jobs they commonly turn to between productions—teaching, voiceovers, TV roles, serving in restaurants, entertaining visitors at theme parks—became scarce as well.

PJ Powers

“It’s brutal,” says PJ Powers (THE ’95), artistic director of Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre Company, which he co-founded with five other DePaul alumni in 1997. “I know a lot of people have explored lines of work with no dotted-line connection to performing arts, whether they’re getting their real estate license or working in a totally different field. I fear that a lot of really talented people might not come back.”

Nonprofit regional companies like TimeLine that can prevail upon donors to help make up for lost ticket sales may get back on track sooner than for-profit venues. Broadway theatres in New York and large commercial theatres in Chicago’s Loop reopened after requiring audience members, performers, backstage crew and theatre staff to be vaccinated, and audience members masked, for fall performances. The return to nightly packed seats is a gradual one.

TimeLine Theatre Company completed its run of James Ijames’ “Kill Move Paradise” via online viewing.

Online productions in varied forms, including podcasted dramas, have become another, albeit secondary, revenue source that many companies intend to keep and improve upon. TimeLine has streamed conversations with playwrights and clips of past hit shows with commentary from the cast and crew. Chicago’s Goodman Theatre has staged new one-act dramas with small ensembles sold in online subscription packages. Filmed with multiple cameras, they owe a nod to the Disney Plus-streamed version of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” which blends stage and screen to impressive effect. The trend, however, comes with caveats.

“There have been some helpful discoveries in the past year about how to use technology in a way that casts a wider net,” says Powers. “We’ve reached people across the country, and in other countries—which is amazing—and people who wouldn’t be able to visit us for health reasons. But I don’t want to suddenly be a television producer. There are very good people who make a living in that art form, and I want them to have that turf back for themselves.”Despite such advances, Powers fears Chicago’s storied off-Loop scene, where grassroots troupes squirreled away in any available space to experiment freely and occasionally give birth to successes like Steppenwolf Theatre Company, may be endangered.

“These are the hand-wringing questions we’re all asking now,” he says. “We’ve all experienced amazing work in these great storefront spaces, but even pre-pandemic, we maybe thought, ‘This isn’t the safest venue.’ It’s possible they won’t survive, and that’s soul-crushing because our company is a part of that lineage. At the same time, we need to take care of our people in ways that perhaps the industry hasn’t in the past.”

TimeLine’s performance space is tucked away in a 111-year-old church in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood that was recently converted into a synagogue. The company now is in the process of designing a new home in the city’s Uptown neighborhood with funds from an ongoing capital campaign. But Powers says the company’s goals and the disparate safety guidelines from the city, state and unions representing actors, directors and designers have taken time to fully coalesce.

“How do you do a costume fitting that protects the designer and actor? How do you rehearse intimate or physical scenes or stage combat in ways that keep people safe?” Powers ponders. “All the unions have to write new policies and keep them in flux. While we’re in an advantageous position because we’re designing a new home, we’re still a few years away from that home being built and open for business. So, between now and then, and as a company that occupies a rented space in a 111-year-old facility, we’re in that big bowl of not-sure-what-to-do.”

MUSIC

Pent-up demand for live music was obvious in Chicago as tickets for returning music fests Lollapalooza, Pitchfork and Riot Fest went fast. Lollapalooza, the first juggernaut to relaunch, required its guests to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for entrance, a tactic that motivated a younger demographic that’s been less inclined to get vaccinated. Millennium Park offered an abbreviated schedule of pop, classical and jazz concerts at full capacity. Many small and midsize rock, folk and jazz venues pegged September to restart live shows with vaccination and mask requirements in place.

Livestreaming blew up on social media and new streaming platforms during the pandemic. Viewing intimate performances by prominent musicians in their homes and other interesting venues without audiences was novel and revelatory, and sales, in some cases, were robust. It’s a trend that’s certain to grow.

That said, live music venues were among the first businesses to be shut down at the start of the pandemic and among the last to reopen. For-profits, in particular, face a long road back to pre-pandemic revenues despite lifelines from the Save Our Stages program, a grassroots industry initiative that led to federal funding legislation that established the $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2021

Large, nonprofit organizations such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) suffered pay cuts rather than layoffs and benefited from the largess of generous donors to weather the storm. Yet, like the Lyric Opera of Chicago and commercial theatres, their business model functions effectively only when they can pack seats to full capacity.

“The hope is that by January or February of 2022, we can be back to some sense of normalcy in terms of audience size and what we can present on stage,” says James Fahey (MUS ’83), director of programming for the CSO’s Symphony Center Presents and Jazz at Orchestra Hall series.

The CSO has gradually ramped up the size of ensembles on stage. After launching a streaming channel, CSOtv, in September 2020, the orchestra staged online, ticketed chamber performances each week throughout last season until they were able to have about 20 musicians on stage perform for a limited-capacity audience in late spring 2021.

“We’re definitely planning to maintain an online streaming presence,” says Fahey. “We’re seeing audiences from all 50 states and more than 20 countries access these programs.”

The online platform has also facilitated more flexible programming, says Fahey, including works by Black, Latinx, female and Chicago composers and rarely performed chamber music pieces such as Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” Another new online series called Orchestral Excerpt Insights features CSO members, including DePaul School of Music faculty, sharing insights for job-seeking musicians and curious classical music fans about how to perform often-requested short sections from the symphonic repertoire.

In the nonvirtual world, Fahey says the pandemic’s disruption of global travel has greatly affected the CSO’s ability to book visiting artists, a lingering dilemma that has led many industry programmers to emphasize local performers more prominently.

“All the international artists we would normally be bringing to our stage, be they conductors, soloists or visiting ensembles—all of that stopped,” says Fahey. “There are still questions about how much international travel will be affected as we try to predict what will be possible in the future.”

One thing Fahey hopes to make possible is highlighting vocalists in this season’s jazz series.

“We’ve missed the human voice in so many ways during the pandemic,” he says. “Featuring these amazing jazz vocalists who are new to our stage will really be something to celebrate.”

See also:

Part 1: How We Move
Part 2: How We Dine and Lodge
Part 4: How We Teach and Learn

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