Will COVID-19 serve as a curtain call for the fall performing arts season?

Performing arts organizations consider different approaches to their 2020-21 seasons.
Grand Rapids Ballet dancers performing Adam Hougland’s "Cold Virtues." Courtesy Scott Rasmussen

In June, when this article was written, several performing arts organizations across the country had already announced cancellations for the fall portion of the 2020-21 season, while many others were taking a wait-and-see approach; some hoping to open their seasons with limited audiences or utilizing outdoor venues, others hoping to open later in the fall, just in time for holiday productions like “The Nutcracker.” In Grand Rapids, the conversations were similar.

James Sofranko, Grand Rapids Ballet artistic director, said it was hard to predict what life would be like in the fall, but he acknowledged already scrapping the 2020-2021 productions originally slated for the upcoming season. Instead, Sofranko, along with the rest of the GR Ballet, were busy thinking of different ways they may be able to present the ballet in the fall.

“The likelihood of us being able to bring a full audience of theater-goers together for one show is becoming more unlikely,” he said. “We are going to have to adapt and be creative and figure out other ways to bring ballet to our audiences and, hopefully, maybe even reach new audiences in the process.”

He predicted the fall will see GR Ballet “do some socially distanced work in the theater, we will film, stream and get some audience in there as much as we can at that time.” He suggested if the ballet is able to stage performances with an audience, those shows would likely be shorter and without intermissions.

“We will have to rethink what is going to be put on the stage. It’s going to have to be more solos and duets, and not what was originally planned,” he added. “By the second half of the season, if there is a cure or vaccine, or if we feel better, maybe we will put on a big show again. Until that moment, we will stay within what we feel is safe.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony made the decision to revise its previously scheduled season as well. “We’re planning to start our season in September, as we always have, but our format and seating will be determined by federal, state and local health requirements at the time,” GRS President and CEO Mary Tuuk said. “While you’ll see changes in our traditional concert format and programming, we’re also inspired by the dynamic and inclusive new ways we’ll use to reach new audiences.”

Tuuk added, “We’re planning a season that is very flexible so we can easily scale up or down our programs and audience size depending on conditions at the time of the concert.”

Rosanne Cash performing at St. Cecilia Music Center. Courtesy St. Cecilia Music Center

St. Cecilia Music Center, which originally hoped to present its 2020-2021 season as planned, spent the summer months rescheduling its entire fall season.

“I am in the process of rescheduling all of the concerts that were to take place September-December 2020 into the months of May and June 2021,” said Cathy Holbrook, executive director for St. Cecilia Music Center. “That would mean that our first physical show would be on January 21, 2021. We will reassess where things stand in November as to whether we can start the season in January.”

Meanwhile, Opera Grand Rapids is hoping to be able to continue its season as planned this fall, banking on its later season premiere. “OGR fortuitously scheduled ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ by Mozart as its fall production [scheduled to run late October], a show that only requires a few singers on stage at a time and a smaller orchestra than grand operas like ‘Turandot’ or ‘Aida,’ which each take roughly 250 artists to execute. With Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ and Verdi’s ‘Aida’ both scheduled for the spring, the 2020-2021 season is expected to be the grandest season in OGR’s 53-year history,” said Opera Grand Rapids Executive Director Emilee Syrewicze.

That said, Opera GR will be “implementing social distancing standards for artists, audience members and staff/volunteers (based on) advice/rules promulgated by health authorities at the time of OGR’s shows.” It also will be asking “opera-goers to wear gloves and masks responsibly.”

“Our mission of performing music will continue no matter how insurmountable the obstacles may appear to be. As one of my mentors once told me, crisis does not build character, it reveals it.”
Mary Tuuk, GRS president and CEO

Broadway Grand Rapids also is hoping its later start date will allow it to continue with business as “mostly” usual. “As of June 15, our incredible lineup of six shows is scheduled to open in October,” said Meghan Distel, director of marketing for Broadway Grand Rapids. But, Distel added, “Certainly, there is a possibility of having to look at additional dates for shows if we are not able to gather in large groups by the late fall. We are viewing every action we take through the lens of health and safety, including office hours, ticket sales and performances to be sure not to put anyone in harm’s way.”

If shows do begin in October as planned, Distel expects health and safety protocols to be instituted at DeVos Performance Hall to help keep people safe.

Impacts of COVID-19

All local performing arts organizations already have been impacted by COVID-19 — most of which were forced to cancel spring performances due to stay-at-home orders that went into effect in March and continued through most of May.

“March 10, 2020, opening night of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ was the same evening state officials announced Michigan’s first two confirmed cases of COVID-19. As the curtain came up, we were optimistic that the breadth of the pandemic would not be felt in West Michigan for several weeks. In the span of two days, the reported cases became an avalanche. Friday morning, we cancelled the five remaining performances of ‘Charlie,’ simultaneously with Gov. Whitmer’s orders prohibiting large public gatherings,” explained Distel.

Talia Suskauer and Allison Bailey in the North American Tour of “Wicked.” Courtesy Broadway Grand Rapids

Broadway GR would end up canceling the remainder of its season, which included a run of Jimmy Buffett’s “Escape to Margaritaville” in May.

Opera GR also faced the tough call of canceling its eagerly anticipated “Scalia/Ginsburg” performances scheduled for the weekend of March 14-15.

“The stage was, quite literally, set and the opera singers were warming up at The Betty Van Andel Opera Center on Fulton Street when the OGR executive committee decided the production could not continue as planned,” Syrewicze said.

Rather than cancel the performance entirely, Opera GR was one of the first performing arts organizations to get creative — deciding to offer the performance virtually.

“Rather than send the artists home and cancel the production, OGR executed an unprecedented ‘Hail Mary’ and broadcasted the performance to ticketholders via a virtual ticketing system set up within 24 four hours,” said Syrewicze. “OGR sold more tickets than it would’ve if the production had proceeded as planned and made national industry headlines in the process for its ethical treatment of artists and ability to deliver a product to its ticketholders.

“In fact, The Middleclass Artist named Opera Grand Rapids ‘One of the unsung heroes of COVID-19.’ The company was the first performing arts organization in North America to attempt a virtual, ticketed production in the first 24 four hours of the COVID-19.”

Out-of-the-box thinking

It would not be the last. Quickly, performing arts organizations realized they would need to get creative to try and salvage their budgets and keep audiences engaged, especially as the stay-at-home order was extended.

“Given the need to stay at home, our only available option was going online,” said Tuuk. “We quickly launched a series of virtual performances by our musicians called From Our Home to Yours. Beginning on March 27, we posted a new performance every morning through the end of April, and we’ve continued to add to the series.

“We’ve also produced several large-scale performances beginning in April with the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ involving more than 70 members of the orchestra and Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus. It debuted just before Easter, and we were thrilled that the nationally syndicated news magazine ‘Inside Edition’ aired a portion of it to close their broadcast on Good Friday.”

Grand Rapids Ballet turned to its video vault and took advantage of streaming opportunities. “Right off the bat, we started releasing videos of our past performances, we called it our ‘weekly moment of Zen,’” Sofranko said. “We also did full-on virtual programs, where I put three or four pieces together into a mixed bill evening, typical of what I’d do for a program.”

Performers face unknown season

By Charlsie Dewey

While performing arts organizations are facing an unknown future, so too are the performers. “Many musicians across the country have been furloughed by orchestras that have concluded that programming must be cancelled for a period of time,” said Mary Tuuk, GRS president and CEO. “Musicians who are continuing to perform will be working under a new set of health and safety protocols involving social distancing, masks, sanitation and individual health assessments.”

Grand Rapids Symphony musicians were set to see their contract expire on Aug. 31, but recently signed a new agreement. “Negotiations already were underway on the next collective bargaining agreement when COVID-19 struck,” Tuuk said. “Representatives for the orchestra and for the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians, which represents our players, quickly reached agreement on a one-year extension of the most recent contract. Both sides agreed it would be a prudent course of action that would provide stability for the next year.”

Grand Rapids Ballet performers also work on a contractual basis with the organization and how the upcoming season plays out could influence the dancers. “We have 18 full company members on a 31-week contract and if we can’t give them all those weeks that is a hardship for them,” said James Sofranko, artistic director for Grand Rapids Ballet. “It means they are having to find other work or stay on unemployment [ballet dancers are furloughed during the summer months]. It means they can’t fulfill their passion. We are keeping an eye on the industry. It’s going to be the same in most companies, and I imagine orchestras, too. We have an endowment that will help us to a point … hopefully be able to help keep our people stable. But, yeah, it’s going to be hard.”

Sofranko said organizations like Grand Rapids Ballet are hoping to provide as much work as possible for performers, but he acknowledged it takes revenue to
be able to support those efforts.

In return for a donation of any amount, the GR Ballet provided a link to the program, which was available for 72 hours. “We saw people donating more than what they’d pay for a ticket or paying what a ticket would cost,” Sofranko said. “I’m happy to have many people still experiencing the ballet.”

Over the summer, the ballet also converted its summer ballet school classes to an online program and began experimenting with film.

“I just did this film with Meijer Gardens where I filmed the dancers apart and then we’re going to put them together in the film, so it looks like they are dancing together.”

He added, “One of the programs we just presented last weekend as a part of our virtual programs, ‘An Evening with Penny Saunders,’ our resident choreographer, she created a brand-new ballet remotely with the dancers. She choreographed via Zoom and a film editor put it together. They put together a beautiful dance film. We premiered it as part of our virtual program.”

Sofranko said while it won’t replace the thrill of seeing dance live, he is excited by the possibilities these challenging times are opening up. “It’s starting to open choreographers’ minds. What can I do with film? …What can I do in the final product? There are a lot of creative ways to have a big effect and still get a lot of dancers together. …There’s always been a collaboration between dance and film … there’s still more to be discovered and that is what I am excited about. What more can we do? I’m a choreographer myself, and I’m starting to think about how I can get 20 dancers on a stage where it looks like they’re all on the same field, for instance.”

Tenor Peter Scott Drackley as Antonin Scalia in Opera Grand Rapids’ production of “Scalia/Ginsburg.” Courtesy Opera GR

Since streaming “Scalia/Ginsburg,” Opera GR has continued to find ways to engage with its audience from afar. It created its Singing-in-Place and Education-in-Place virtual series’ and a virtual arts festival.

Syrewicze said the organization is currently “building virtual performances into our normal season.”

“Virtual performances have the potential to widen audiences and, in particular, can be used as a resource for those with mobility challenges and hearing impairments,” she said.

All the performing arts organizations are confident they will weather this storm and eventually return to the stage with a full house applauding.

“Our challenges are great, but leadership is about overcoming challenges and steering the ship toward solutions,” Tuuk said. “Our mission of performing music will continue no matter how insurmountable the obstacles may appear to be. As one of my mentors once told me, crisis does not build character, it reveals it. Our Grand Rapids Symphony is resilient, and we will continue our journey with fortitude as we serve our West Michigan community.”

Editor’s Note: In July, Broadway Grand Rapids announced “Come From Away” had been rescheduled to Aug. 31-Sept. 5, 2021 and and “Hairspray” had been rescheduled to July 20-25, 2021. GR Ballet postponed its 2020-21 in-person programming until the 2021-22 season. Please see organizations’ individual websites for performance schedule updates.

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