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Is Covid 19 The End for Theatre and Live Music

Maybe you are sitting at home pondering whether you will ever return to the office again. Technology has facilitated working from home and the learning curve has been fairly easy for most. Companies have simply been obliged to find other ways of working and have proved it possible. But what is the fate of art galleries, the performing arts and the museum community?

As a passionate fan of live musical and theatrical performance especially in smaller, more intimate venues, I have been very worried about the potentially devastating affect Covid-19 and its consequences may have on both the performing and visual arts. Festivals of all stripes, from Westben to Prince Edward County’s classical and jazz festivals, have been cancelled. With art galleries closed, I have also been concerned to discover how the lives of artists and art galleries have been affected and what future may hold for them.

What with the internationally respected Swan Theatre in Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon and The Globe Theatre in Southwark, London (UK), in dire financial distress, what hope is there for the Regent Theatre in Picton? What hope for the Quinte Ballet School of Canada? What hope is there for individual musicians and artists? With the recent and terrible news that Cirque du Soleil has filed for bankruptcy how can the little guys stay afloat?

To test the waters, I have consulted widely with the arts community and these are my findings.

I began with Al Lerman, the multi-instrumentalist singer and songwriter, founder and leader of the award-winning band Fathead, blues icon, and established solo act accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and rack harmonica. With characteristic generosity of spirit, Al acknowledges that he is moving towards the end of his career, his concerns are mostly for those younger musicians trying to break through and make a living as professional musicians. Al, who had only just recovered from a career interrupting broken wrist, was booked up till Christmas, working six nights a week plus a Saturday matinee. Covid-19 brought that to a sudden stop. Many musicians have resorted to online performances, and Al has given that a try, but slow rural internet and the lack of feedback from the audience dampened his enthusiasm. Al explained, “Singing in front of my computer is not the same as singing for an audience…you feed off an audience’s energy. You may as well just listen to an album.” He notes despondently, “That suicide rates are up.” Playing in front of a computer provides no opportunity for CD and merchandise sales, all of which contribute to paying the bills. “I have tried outdoor concerts in the garden with small audiences. Touring is expensive with airlines counting a guitar as a person, but I remain hopeful for some late summer and fall gigs.”

Next up – Kim Doolittle. Covid-19 forced Kim to stop in her tracks: she went from being booked solid a whole year in advance to absolutely nothing! Furthermore, her day job evaporated. For three months, she did not socialize, using the time to rest, sleep, reflect and most importantly to concentrate on writing. “It has caused me to feel very anxious, performing musicians do not know the future of live performance and whether it will still be possible to make a living. We all miss playing…it is in our DNA.”

I am working very hard practicing my craft and running on faith that after forty-five years, I will be able to keep doing what I was put here to do. I believe there is a future, as long as there is a tomorrow, there is a future.” Though financially devastating, there are creative opportunities and Kim is writing straight from the heart. “If we document the times, be it Covid, a new world, or George Floyd, we are doing what musical archivists should do and there will be an audience as no amount of digital wizardry is as connecting as a live audience. Once a performer, always a performer.”

I am sure Frank Horvat, Grapevine’s own part-time music correspondent and full-time musician whose output spans the gamut from classical to rock, would agree with Kim’s sentiments. Frank’s immediate response was to pen Music for Self-isolation, which like many of his creations, has gone round the world on social media.

He questions whether live performances can ever resume. “How do we ensure that audiences will return?” Many classical organizations were struggling prior to the pandemic to attract audiences, especially from a younger demographic. A typical orchestra’s audience is precisely the demographic most affected and concerned about Covid-19. “Can they be relied upon to turn up?” It gives Frank absolutely no pleasure to imagine that this may be a death certificate for classical music performance. However, he believes, the old stalwart of music education will continue to provide most musicians with the opportunity to stay afloat as concert income dwindles.

Franks feels monetizing digital content is a way forward but is fully aware of the challenges of persuading people to pay for material, in a climate where it has been mostly free for years.

In the new reality he speculates that there will be fewer live concerts and they will take place in smaller and unique venues and follow social-distancing protocols.

Festivals support the economy everywhere, and let’s not forget cultural tourism is typically generating of the most revenue. Cultural tourists spend money attending concerts and festivals, then go out for dinner and may spend a night or two in a local hotel or B & B, and gas up before returning home. Such expenditures promote the local economy.

The first three months of Alexandra Seay’s tenure in the hot seat of the Regent Theatre were those directly preceding the Covid-19 crisis…you might say a baptism of fire. A baptism of fire which burned through eighty percent of projected revenue.

Alexandra anticipates the theatre’s traditional audience demographic of the over fifty-fives, may be slow to return but has faith that in demonstrating the safety of the experience, confidence will be restored. A hybrid programming model is being adopted as well as a collaboration with the Mustang Drive-In which will present the theatre’s content on their open-air screen. The council has funded the acquisition of the necessary camera equipment to allow the theatre to build external capacity, but it will be a long haul to make up for lost revenue. For the future Alexandra predicts further collaborative ventures with other parties to mutual benefit.

More intimate concerts focussing on local talent are the immediate future followed by streaming direct to peoples’ homes. I raise the objection that people have become used to free content online and with so much free material, it may be challenging to persuade people to open their wallets. Alexandra counters by suggesting, “That more and more paywalls will be encountered, and people will get used to paying for material online as it becomes more the norm, it will just be a question of time.”

I then had the opportunity to speak with Cathy Taylor of the Quinte Ballet School in Belleville. Cathy confesses to being very sad, “Sad for all the dances that have not and will not be danced.” This year’s graduates had no end of year show watched by proud parents and relatives. Their whole year of study was celebrated by a ceremony in the parking lot.

Try as they might, and indeed they have adopted the digital solution as far as possible, ballet is very much a hands on learning experience and it is often easier to guide somebody in to position, than demonstrate it on screen. “It needs to be tangible like modelling clay,” says Cathy. Be that as it may, they have been doing their best improvising solutions in kitchens, basements and bedrooms…anywhere where an edge can used to assist barre work, but obviously that does not allow for turning or jumping. Nor does it afford the opportunity to learn choreography and patterning, or work with partners. Further their online efforts have been frustrated by an archaic internet connection, consequently a high-speed connection is in the works.

Cathy admits it is difficult to see the way forward and the ballet school is now working on plan D or even E. “Nothing can replace the energy, spirit and vibration of the live event,” but “We are trying to remain on our toes,” says Cathy ruefully.

The loss of Westben’s entire season represents a financial disaster with an immediate drop in revenue of over fifty percent and refunds having to be offered. But of course, there is more to Westben than money, the crisis has meant no concerts, no choir rehearsals, no visits from volunteers, nor patrons dropping in. Some patrons have been happy to transfer their tickets to next season, and some have gifted them to Westben’s Sunbeam Campaign. The mandate remains however, “to bring people together through music.” Donna and Brian believe that art and music can continue to play a part in peoples’ well being, even if only experienced online. Covid-19 has propelled Westben into the world of digital programming which they optimistically entitle Sunshine Ahead! “Instead of inviting everyone to The Barn or The Clock Tower in person, we are bringing the unique Westben Experience to peoples’ homes.”

Sunshine Ahead offers four main programs, a podcast series Music for a While, in which Brian Finley and Barb Hobart discuss composers and musicians. Westben Kids, a program designed for children to have fun with music inspired by Donna Bennet’s work with the four Westben youth choirs. Musical Moments presents musical performances enhanced by videos to “calm, soothe and rejuvenate.” New Digital Concerts at the Barn will present concerts with a new twist: a videographer has been recruited who will integrate the natural beauty of the grounds into the performance. As Donna says, “Nature is an important element of musical performance at Westben.” Perhaps the most exciting development to emerge from the situation is with the Performer-Composer Residency Program. Now in its third year, eighty musicians applied for the eleven places. With the decision to take this online, sixty-one of the original eighty applicants have committed to the program run by Ben Finley to collaboratively create new music. This initiative is supported by metaphorhome of Warkworth and Celebrate Ontario.

Westben’s aspiration is to create online content that will extend their reach now, but which could remain relevant in a post Covid-19 environment.

For live music performance the immediate future may be all doom and gloom, but it is somewhat different for art galleries which have been able to build on existing online activity. To my knowledge two art galleries have ceased to trade as physical entities, one of which will remain as an online gallery, and the other is courageously morphing into a theatre company.

Art galleries have been successfully selling artworks online for several years and for many galleries, online sales constitute the majority of sales. Online sales provide artists and galleries with a world wide audience on the plus side, but ironically also challenges the very need for a gallery to exist as a physical space presenting exhibitions and holding receptions where artists can discuss their work with an attentive public. If online sales of art become the norm, there will be no need for art galleries to occupy premium locations in prominent streets in major cities. Such locations are expensive to buy or rent. Art galleries will migrate to cheaper out of town environments and graduate into mere fulfillment centres. Paintings and sculpture will be received and distributed to the purchaser without any personal interaction between artist, gallery curator and purchaser. I see the danger that art will just become another product, and the sale of art will just become a transaction like buying a can of beans. I feel this would be a detrimental step. Surely, art is more than a commodity?

Further, if most purchases are to take place online, the role of the device upon which the prospective purchaser observes the work, becomes an important part of the picture. (Pardon the pun.) If you view works on an iPad, computer monitor, or a cellphone you will see bright lustrous colours because you are looking at a back lit screen. The painting could disappoint when seen in real life as what one then sees is reflected light. Many years ago, I was told by Carlyn Moulton of Oeno Gallery, that she could never sell Susan Collette’s works on paper online as their subtlety eluded the device upon which they were displayed. As artists come to realise that in order to have a chance of selling, their work must firstly display well on a screen of some kind, this will have an affect on the work they produce. This “medium is the message” may not be a welcome development. And further down the line, one might imagine that one no longer even buys a painting at all, you just buy a stick or a download containing information and display it on your tv, computer screen or home cinema.

In the meantime, you can visit Oeno, and Sybil Frank, (by appointment) and Carbon Gallery is reopening with appropriate safety protocols, with works concentrating on local craftspeople. Glanmore House reopens on the 14 July. The Art Gallery of Northumberland has taken the wise decision to extend the run of their 60th Anniversary show, so take my advice, get out there and enjoy real paintings in real art galleries whilst the opportunity remains.

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