As the strangest, most unpredictable new season in memory is about to begin, signs of the pandemic’s ongoing cultural tsunami are everywhere.
Art Basel Miami Beach is canceled, while the Miami Book Fair goes virtual. Large performing arts spaces with seating for thousands remain empty. Of necessity, optimistic scheduled performance dates keep getting pushed later and later as arts leaders grapple with safety issues, economic fallout, and uncertainty over when and how audiences will feel comfortable returning to live cultural experiences.
All that has wrought havoc on institutions and their artists. In its ongoing monthly survey of the impact of shuttered facilities, wiped-out seasons and vanished audiences, Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs reports that from March through the end of July, the pandemic cost the county’s arts-and-culture groups and facilities $99.5 million, with 15,965 jobs affected.
In the face of an abruptly truncated 2019-2020 season and the myriad unknowns affecting 2020-2021, arts-and-culture leaders have had to think outside the literal boxes of indoor performance spaces and museums in order to reach audiences and utilize the talents of artists differently than before.
In some ways, the shift has come naturally if not effortlessly. Says Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator of the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, “We’re in the arts, and artists are creative problem solvers. This concentrated time to focus has taught us all new tricks.”
For museums, the creation of digital content has impacted not just what they have been able to offer during the pandemic but the variegated palette of what they’ll create for visual arts aficionados going forward.
Says Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami: “We have upped the ante of digital as it applies to everything we do … We’ll be spending a lot more time and resources in digital…It’s completely here to stay.”
Inspired cultural leaders have used the downtime from an unending cycle of performances and exhibitions not only to come up with viable virtual programming but also to dive deeply into change.
“This has meant a paradigm shift for literally every sector in the world,” observes Lourdes Lopez, artistic director of Miami City Ballet. “The choice is to stick to what I did before and wait it out; or, if I really love this art form and believe in its transformational power, we don’t have to be governed or imprisoned by what we were offering. Life presented this unbelievable opportunity.”
For most organizations that has meant going virtual: studio tours, artist talks, videos of past and new performances and online readings of plays. Although much virtual programming is free or produces only a fraction of the revenue generated by live performances, as Johann Zietsman, president and CEO of the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts notes, “It’s an amazing new tool that we’re all experimenting with. But a virtual experience cannot replace the live arts experience.”
Now, six months into the pandemic and with no end in sight, South Florida’s arts organizations are pivoting yet again as they move into what some are calling “the bridge season.” The bridge from before to after, from live to virtual, from closed to partly open.
Broward Center president and CEO Kelley Shanley has embraced collaboration with other performing arts centers nationwide. “We’re all becoming experts in things we’d never imagined,” he says. “The job of providing a bridge is really important so we can hit the ground walking, if not running.”
With the milder weather of winter in sight, some groups are heading outdoors. Others are returning to theaters and concert halls, with performances to be recorded and streamed. Still others are finding new “stages” in empty storefronts on Lincoln Road, the loading dock at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, even the outside of Hard Rock Stadium.
At Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, fresh virtual Arsht@Home programming continues to be added each Thursday and will continue even when the center fully reopens. Soon, partner groups such as Miami City Ballet will return to the building (with safety protocols but without audiences) to shoot digital content, such as the ballet’s Knight Foundation-funded premiere of a piece by choreographer Claudia Schreier and musician Jorge Mejia, which will then be streamed. “The Heritage Project: An Online Virtual Salon Series” examining the influence of Black art and artists on mainstream American culture, launches Sept. 30 and continues monthly through February 2021. The Arsht is also exploring pop-up events in different neighborhoods and on its Thomson Plaza.
Once the Arsht is able to reopen to audiences, initial social distancing protocols will allow 500 people inside the 2,400-seat Ziff Ballet Opera House. Tickets to some live performances remain on sale on the Arsht’s website, but of necessity many dates remain fluid.
The Broward Center’s offerings will remain virtual through the end of December, with a notable exception. Touring Broadway won’t be back at least until January, when “The Band’s Visit” plays the Au-Rene theater Jan. 12-17 — if indeed that can happen. But Slow Burn, the center’s resident theater company, is initially taking its act outside its home in the Amaturo Theater to an audience of 94 in the Peck Courtyard, where it will stage Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown’s musical “Songs for a New World” Dec. 18-Jan. 3.
The possibilities of outdoor performances in fall, winter and early spring — something not available in much of the country — have sparked creative plans from a number of South Florida arts organizations.
Nu Deco Ensemble, which has seen major growth in its online following during the pandemic, will present all of its 2020-2021 concerts at the North Beach Bandshell. CEO, artistic director and co-founder Sam Hyken says that while the orchestra quickly pivoted to streaming a treasure trove of its filmed concerts and creating educational content for its Nu Deco NXT youth ensemble, he and his colleagues have come up with a way to make the Bandshell concerts work.
“We’ll have a smaller version of Nu Deco, with reduced strings and percussion, dividers, with woodwinds and brass offstage. A stage expansion will allow for social distancing and masks onstage,” says Hyken, adding that the Phase 2 reopening plan would allow an audience of 500 to attend, with the first concert set for Oct. 23.
“The Bandshell idea was the third iteration of our planning. One was to have no season. Another was to start in January. We just wanted to be outdoors. The Bandshell has a [stage] covering so that’s less of a risk, and with the lighting and sound, it’s a great venue.”
The New World Symphony is offering virtual concerts through December, but it has a pair of outdoor in-person events for subscribers in October and November. On Oct. 17, subscribers can attend a drive-in-style Wallcast at Dezerland Park, 14401 NE 19th Ave., North Miami. On Nov. 14, the action shifts to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, where concertgoers will experience the music on a screen outside the stadium as they watch from a newly created outdoor park.
Miami New Drama, which has had a rich program of classes and presentations dubbed “MasterMiND” throughout the pandemic, is venturing from its home in the Colony Theatre to a series of empty storefronts in the 1100 block of Lincoln Road.
Likely beginning in mid-November, actors inside the storefronts will perform seven commissioned short plays under the umbrella title “7 Deadly Sins.” Audiences of 10 will sit outside each storefront, a total of 70 people watching and listening through headphones, separated by partitions, moving from one “sin” to the next. And the playwrights are an impressive bunch: Hilary Bettis, Nilo Cruz, Moises Kaufman, Rogelio Martinez, Dael Orlandersmith, Carmen Pelaez and Aurin Squire.
“We’re hoping to do it for 2½ months in English, then 2½ months in Spanish,” says Michel Hausmann, the company’s cofounder and artistic director.
Although the set for the world premiere Louis Armstrong musical “A Wonderful World,” which was one night away from opening when the pandemic hit, still resides on the Colony stage, Hausmann doubts he can open that show until the fall of 2021.
“I’d produce it sooner if things went back to normal, but if we’re not at full capacity, that means it’s still dangerous, and I won’t have that on my conscience. Theater is important, but life is more important,” he says.
Area Stage, now in its new home at Sunset Place in South Miami, has turned the original musical “The Ballad of Janis Matthews and the Dodo Scouts” into a podcast with episodes airing Nov. 6-27. But the company is also offering free open-air performances of “Shrek the Musical” Dec. 11-20.
As Miami City Ballet’s Lopez has contemplated how the company can work differently with its customary season out of the picture, she too has embraced a combination of digital and outdoor performances. In addition to the digital premieres of the Schreier-Mejia commission and another by Amy Hall Garner, which will be filmed at the ballet’s pop-up Lincoln Road space and on Lincoln Road itself, outdoor performances of “The Nutcracker” and the second act of “Swan Lake” are also in the works, with dates and venues still to be finalized.
“It’s wonderful being in a theater, but sometimes that curtails your freedom. You realize you can dance outside, and it doesn’t have to be 2½ hours long,” Lopez says. “It’s not about being a bigger cultural institution. It’s about being a better one. It’s exciting but daunting, a holistic change. But what better time than now, when everything is being disrupted?”
Other arts leaders, having discovered the impact of digital content, are opting to stick with it for the time being.
Tanya Bravo, founder and executive artistic director of the immersive Juggerknot Theatre Company, partnered with the New York-based PopUp Theatrics for “Long Distance Affair,” which whisked audiences all over the globe for a group of short solo shows in May. She’s teaming up with PopUp again for a fresh production of the show, likely featuring artists from India, Nigeria, Israel, Little Haiti and elsewhere, aiming for a virtual debut in early 2021. Creating online content is something she wants to continue exploring and refining even after the pandemic ends.
Bravo, now regularly donating plasma after recovering from COVID-19, has found it “tough to sit and wait and think. Actors, playwrights and designers need us to move forward. But theater leaders have been able to…see the holes in our companies, see how we can do things better. We’ve been having really big conversations in the community.”
At Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables’ Miracle Theatre, artistic director David Arisco has put together free weekly digital Friday Night Flashbacks, conversations-with-music highlighting performers from such past Actors’ productions as “Ragtime” and “Memphis.”
He’s also figured out a way to kick off the 2020-2021 season with a different version of “Camelot,” which was in rehearsal when COVID-19 forced the March shutdown. Four lead actors will perform what Arisco describes as “an hour-long, song-driven version of ‘Camelot,’” with narration bridging the gaps between numbers. The virtual performance will stream Oct. 14-18 on Music Theatre International’s new platform.
As for the live theater, “We’ll have to do smaller shows in the big theater with social distancing, which means we can only fit 200 into the 600-seat theater. But maybe we can find a way to film those shows and stream them to people who don’t feel comfortable leaving home yet.”
South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center managing director Eric Fliss has focused on showcasing local artists during the pandemic, creating virtual cabaret performances called Sessions.
“This is our 10th anniversary season, and we’ve always put a strong nurturing emphasis on taking care of our own,” says Fliss, who is juggling bookings for January and beyond at the still-closed facility.
“They were so enthusiastic and grateful for the opportunity to perform. We guaranteed each artist a fee without promising we’d broadcast everything — but that’s what we ended up doing. It reflected how these artists were living; it felt very local and real.”
Surviving the pandemic thus far has required resourcefulness on the part of organizations, their leaders and the vast array of artists who call South Florida home.
Laura Bruney, president and CEO of the Arts & Business Council of Miami, pivoted her group to digital sessions and a conference designed to help arts groups as they produce and market virtual content.
She’s “in awe” of what the cultural community has accomplished over the past half year but worries about what comes next: “Most groups have no income. Revenue streams have dried up except for grants. The landscape will change. I think some vulnerable groups will not return. And will audiences come back?”
Michael Spring, director of the county’s Cultural Affairs department, says arts groups can’t wait for the future to act.
“This much is clear: The arts community was the first to close, and it will be the last to reopen. It’s critically important to reactivating our economy,” he says. “We have to be relentlessly resourceful about getting resources to groups so they can get to the other side. But the big unknown is the duration. You can’t speculate about that.”
SUPPORTING THE ARTS
Arts-and-culture lifelines large and small have been vital to navigating the tightrope that connects past and future. A sampling:
▪ The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is investing up to $500,000 in Knight New Work 2020, the next iteration of its program to help Miami-area artists reimagine how dance, music and theater can respond to our altered existence.
▪ Through its Department of Cultural Affairs, Miami-Dade County supplied relief funds via the Miami-Dade Arts Support (MAS) Grants Program.
▪ The Arsht Center’s Arsht@Home program, which continues to add content, offers digital performances from musicians, actors and teaching artists as well as conversations among arts leaders and artists. The center’s Heart of Art program provides $1,000 each to 30 Miami-based artists to create new virtual works of dance, music, theater, spoken word and more.
▪ GableStage, which lost longtime artistic director Joseph Adler in April, launched Engage@GableStage, grants that underwrote digital work from a diverse group of artists. The resulting pieces are available on GableStage’s web site and YouTube channel.
▪ Miami-based YoungArts has given microgrants to its alumni and others in its affiliated community.
▪ Early on, the Boca Raton-based Theatre Lab held two virtual original works festivals to benefit actors and other theater professionals in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties; likewise, the South Florida Theatre League created and is awarding grants from its Emergency Relief Fund.