Here’s how to sample free arts, culture events online by local, international groups

Lawrence Toppman
·7 min read

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an incredible outpouring of free online culture offerings from organizations that never made them available before.

They’re trying to keep you not just entertained but connected to what they do, so you’ll be a fan when the novel coronavirus pandemic passes and they start charging money again. From concerts by a world-renowned orchestra across the Atlantic to reader’s theater by actors across town from you, groups large and small use the Internet in unforeseen ways.

No one has cataloged all the offerings, or could. No one can predict how much will remain available after the crisis. (Less, surely.) But for us sequestered folks, this represents a welcome temporary bonanza. The list below is a sampling of what can be had for free right now, whether internationally or locally. Offerings change weekly, and some expire. The smartest thing to do is to check websites of groups you admire to see what pops up.

Theater

England’s National Theatre shows a different play every week while it’s closed; it’s already done “One Man, Two Guv’nors” (which made James Corden a star) and “Treasure Island.” Next up: A gender-bending “Twelfth Night,” with Tamsin Greig (“Belgravia”) in the leading role of Malvolia.

Speaking of gender-bending, that’s old news at Shakespeare’s Globe: It just finished streaming “Hamlet” with a male Ophelia and a female Hamlet. The upcoming “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” play things straight, so to speak, and each will run for two weeks.

Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London just finished streaming for free “Hamlet” with a male Ophelia and a female Hamlet. The upcoming “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” each will run for two weeks.
Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London just finished streaming for free “Hamlet” with a male Ophelia and a female Hamlet. The upcoming “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” each will run for two weeks.

You can glut yourself on Broadway shows for one free week any time you sign up at Broadway HD, though you have to pay after that. You can enjoy “Kinky Boots,” the Hugh Jackman “Oklahoma!,” “An American in Paris” and many more. What better time to binge-watch?

Charlotte theater companies have only a small stockpile of recorded shows, so they’re more creative about the ways they reach audiences. Children’s Theatre of Charlotte did have a watch party for a streaming of this season’s “The Invisible Boy,” a funny and pointed story about classroom exclusion (intentional or otherwise); it will leave the video up, and more may follow.

Theatre Charlotte presented “Outward Bound,” the company’s first play in 1928, as its initial Isolation Readers’ Theatre outing; actors performed at home, and Theatre Charlotte cut performances together. An “Isolation Radio Hour” followed, with half-hour episodes of the old-timey “Father Knows Best” and “Escape.” (You’ll find them through YouTube or Facebook.)

Local performers bring musical theater chops to Quarantine Concerts, doing selections from shows they love and introducing local theatrical entrepreneurs. And Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has gathered short videos of all sorts under the hashtag #quarantinedcreatives.

Classical music

The Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s best big ensembles, has played without a lengthy interruption for 138 years — until now. So it has opened its entire Digital Concert Hall to the world for free for a limited time: performances, interviews, documentaries, even artist profiles. (You can play these via your TV or Blu-ray as easily as on a computer.)

The New York Philharmonic presents more than 150 hours of audio and video, from award-winning radio programs to videos of Young People’s Concerts, complemented by lessons and games. Some of it’s quite rare: Charles Munch leads Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra, while Leonard Bernstein conducts Paul Ben-Haim’s “The Sweet Psalmist of Israel.”

Maestro Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic Orchestra during opening night, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Maestro Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic Orchestra during opening night, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)

Idagio Live may be a bit specialized for casual fans, but it offers in-depth looks at music through performances, interviews and analysis. Baritone Thomas Hampson hosts the series, and where else are you likely to find 75-year-old conductor Michael Tilson Thomas recounting anecdotes about interactions with prickly genius Igor Stravinsky?

I prefer one-stop shopping, so I was glad to discover the League of American Orchestras’ ever-growing Symphony Spot, a wonderful directory of resources at places both small (the Arapahoe Philharmonic in Littleton, Colo.) and large (the Chicago Symphony). Dozens of orchestras have opened their archives and/or put programming online, and the riches overflow.

Among them is the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, whose #CSOatHome slate provides audio of past performances, listening guides, educational materials and more. You can see what its musicians do at home to stay sane and sharp, including a “joint” performance that may be a national first: “A Symphony A Part.”

There the musicians play their parts in the final movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, where rustics rejoice after the passing of a storm — but not together. Instead, every musician appears in a separate video, so you can see what anyone is playing at any given moment. (The movement lasts 10 minutes, so you’ll need 10 hours to cover all the ground.)

Film

Hollywood scarcely blinked an eye when movie theaters closed all over America. Studios simply moved their product online, jacked up viewing prices with the justification that most people wouldn’t watch alone, then scheduled theatrical releases down the road when they expect venues to re-open.

Yet if you search, you can find free options. Focus Features has started a screening program called Focus Movie Mondays, which resurrects favorites from that indie company. Kevin Smith’s comic “Mallrats” and Pawel Pawlikowski’s romantic “My Summer of Love” are set for the last two Mondays in April; no word yet on whether this program will go into May.

Lionsgate has simultaneously kicked off its Lionsgate Live! A Night at the Movies series; it runs Fridays through May 8 (at least) and offers the likes of “The Hunger Games,” “Dirty Dancing” and “La La Land.” (North Carolinians should feel flattered: The first two were mostly shot here.)

Opera and dance

Every day in April, the Metropolitan Opera has been streaming high-definition productions it formerly simulcast to big-screen theaters. The production quality can’t be bettered, and you have a chance to see operas (“Adriana Lecouvreur,” “The Tales of Hoffmann”) that aren’t likely to reach Charlotte any other way.

Dance troupes have been busy, too. Many major companies will connect you to interviews with dancers, short solo videos (or duos, if partners sequester together), virtual learning, choreographic workshops and other footage: Pick your favorite website and explore.

The long-established ones also sometimes feature performances. Martha Graham Dance Company holds Martha Matinees every Wednesday and Saturday; the company just had its 94th birthday and celebrated with the choreographer’s iconic “Appalachian Spring.”

Elizabeth Auclair, right, performs “Heretic” with members of the Martha Graham ensemble during the final dress rehearsal of Martha Graham Dance Company 80th Anniversary gala at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, Tuesday, April 18, 2006 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Elizabeth Auclair, right, performs “Heretic” with members of the Martha Graham ensemble during the final dress rehearsal of Martha Graham Dance Company 80th Anniversary gala at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, Tuesday, April 18, 2006 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Speaking of birthdays, Merce Cunningham (who died in 2009) would have been 101 this month. You’ll find fascinating excerpts of his work on Vimeo — you can join for free — by searching under “Merce Cunningham Trust.” His abstract pieces require and reward multiple viewings.

If you’re looking for modified one-stop shopping in this field, consult the New York Times article headlined “12 Places to Watch Dance Online.” It mentions not only Graham and Cunningham but obscurer corners of the dance world, such as Rosas. That’s the Belgian company founded by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, whose controversial choreography for a new “West Side Story” stirred heated responses before Broadway shut down in March.

Here at home, Charlotte Ballet has stayed busy on social media with dancer profiles, online tutorials — maybe you’ve wondered how to create the hairstyle that got dancers nicknamed “bunheads” — and even a full-length performance of Christopher Stuart’s “Dispersal,” matched with interviews and rehearsal footage.

That complex, engaging piece got its world premiere in January at Innovative Works, the last production Charlotte Ballet was allowed to open before the health crisis. Watching it again, I realized how deeply we’ll need this kind of beauty and mystery when it’s safe to go back into theaters again.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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