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A Reimagined World: Performing Arts in a PandemicLock Icon

7 min read

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the performing arts. Nonprofits whose business model revolves around bringing people together — to see dance, view a play or listen to live music — are unleashing all their creativity not only to stay in business but also to continue to deliver their products: beauty, solace, fun, joy.

Ballet Arkansas, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra are fighting to keep the lights on — and, where possible, Arkansans employed — while retaining their audiences, who need what they can provide never more than during a pandemic that has killed almost 220,000 Americans and more than 1 million people worldwide.

They’ve pushed back their seasons, but they’re also reimagining what performances look like in a world of limited physical contact.

Dance, like athletics, is physically strenuous, resulting in heavy breathing that produces the aerosol droplets that can transmit the coronavirus, and, like athletes, dancers touch.

Ballet Arkansas “determined the best course of action was to be conservative on the front end until we had the best information we could get our hands on,” said Michael Fothergill, the professional dance company’s executive and artistic director.

“That meant canceling most of our summer activities and turning them virtual,” he said. “It meant canceling our final two productions of last [season] and our two productions that led into this season,” 2020-21.

Ballet Arkansas

That announcement came March 30. On Sept. 1, the dance company announced that it was canceling its annual, and much-loved, Christmas season performance of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” Almost 350 people, many of them members of the community and children, participate in the cast of “The Nutcracker” over the course of four days, Fothergill said. “Some of these events could very well have been super-spreader events if we weren’t conscientious,” he said.

These were major blows, Fothergill said. “The important note that many folks need to understand is that nine out of 10 performing arts organizations employ a greater number of contract employees than they do regular full-time employees within their own organization,” he said. For “The Nutcracker,” the company might employ a contract staff of 40.

The blows came, he said, just as Ballet Arkansas was poised to soar.

Fothergill, raised in Des Moines, Iowa, took over the dance company in June 2017.

And those first three seasons under his guidance “had been the strongest three seasons on record,” he said. “We have nearly doubled the organizational budget in two years and eliminated 100% of the organization’s debt.

“We were looking at trying to find ways to enhance programing with the surplus that we had built as well as bolster our education programs.”

And then the pandemic struck in March. Fortunately, he said, Ballet Arkansas had just held its annual fundraiser, the Turning Pointe Gala, on March 6, which “put us in a fairly sustainable place when the pandemic hit.”

Ballet Arkansas, which puts on between 35 and 50 performances a year, has a full-time staff of 18, 15 of whom are professional dancers and are on a 30-week contract, which went through May. The company ended its season on March 12 but was able to pay the dancers through the length of their contracts.

It then used federal Paycheck Protection Program money to bring the dancers back during the summer to produce digital performances that the nonprofit can release over the fall and into December.

Now Ballet Arkansas, whose most recent annual budget was about $800,000, has brought the dancers back for short-term contract work in November and December.

The dancers will resume the 2021 season contract in January.

The dance company, headquartered at 520 Main St. in Little Rock, has upgraded ventilation in the studio and implemented health protocols, including a health-screening system for dancers as well as pairing dancers who have regular exposure to each other, such as roommates or husband-and-wife teams, into dance “pods.”

To keep audiences and supporters involved until regular programming resumes, Ballet Arkansas is focusing on collaborative projects such as one with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, an open-air, broadcast live performance. It’s also planning digital and in-person “pop-up” events and it’s focusing on digital and cinematic content.

Arkansas Repertory Theatre

The Rep is no stranger to hardship. The theater company, facing a decline in contributions and ticket sales, suspended operations in April 2018. A Save The Rep capital campaign allowed it to announce in November 2018 an abbreviated 2019 season, and in January 2019 it announced that it had hired Little Rock native Will Trice, a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer, as its new executive artistic director.

Its 2020-21 season was meant to put The Rep back on the path to normalcy with five or six shows. But on March 30 it announced that it was canceling its productions, events and educational efforts.

Before the pandemic, “we were definitely on the right trajectory,” Trice said. “I think we still had a long ways to go. I think one thing that definitely hadn’t happened was kind of establishing financial stability or the bedrock that might have enabled us to weather a storm a little bit differently.”

In fact, the pandemic wasn’t a storm, he said. It was a “hurricane. And it’s still very much going on.”

Trice observed other theater companies across the country forced to change their plans over and over as it became apparent that the pandemic was not ending anytime soon. But “with us, it was a pretty clear-cut decision. Like in March, we were like, ‘Nope. We’ll be dark through 2021.’ And the strategy was to shrink the operation as much as we possibly could.”

That, of course, involved painful decisions. The Rep went from 27 staffers, who were paid through June, to three full-time staf members and three part-time employees. “As clear-cut as the decision was in March to shut down, it was also a heartbreaking one,” Trice said.

With the performing arts, “our revenue model is based on as many people at once as possible, because our costs of a production don’t change,” no matter how big or small the audience is. “That kind of fundamentally doesn’t work in a social distancing context,” Trice said.

As important as ticket sales to The Rep’s $4 million budget — it’s a fraction of that now, Trice said — are charitable contributions, and fundraising without programming is “very difficult.”

And, as does any business, The Rep still has fixed overhead costs, like property taxes, rent and utilities.

Now, Trice said, he’s concentrating on communicating with the company’s supporters, “reassuring them that our goal is to reopen, whenever that is,” and to be well-positioned when that time comes. And he’s developing a strategic plan and “trying to find an operating model that is more sustainable, because there’s always more improvement that we can do.”

Trice said his hope “is that we will have two smaller productions in the spring — kind of late spring or early summer — that will both be in nontraditional outdoor spaces.”

He added: “Hopefully, these performance sites will actually add to the experience and make it more fundamentally theatrical than even sitting in an auditorium.”

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra has 28 full-time employees, 40 musicians on contract and 50 to 75 part-time workers. And though it has pushed its Pops Live! concerts to the 2021-22 season and is revamping the six spring Masterworks concerts to focus on works that don’t require a full orchestra, it has been able to keep all of its full-time workers, said Christina Littlejohn, orchestra CEO. “We pay their health insurance,” she said. “People moved here for these jobs.”

The six Masterworks concerts, between January and May of 2021, will be “reimagined,” because they will be shorter in duration, with no intermission, and will feature fewer musicians on stage. The musicians are likely to be string players, because the breath isn’t used to manipulate their instruments.

“But it will still be lovely music,” Littlejohn said. “There’s gorgeous music that we don’t normally perform because you’re normally not putting 20 some-odd people on stage. You normally have 50 to 80 people on stage for an orchestra concert.”

When the pandemic began to be felt in Arkansas, in March, members of the orchestra began a “Bedtime With Bach” series of brief recorded performances uploaded to Facebook, an effort that received favorable play in the Washington Post.

The ASO, with a $3.5 million budget, is also presenting live-streamed concerts and smaller ensembles such as a group that recently performed a concert on a Friday night outside Byrne Hall in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock and a Sunday afternoon at the Terry Mansion. The Friday night concert attracted about 40 people, and the Sunday concert drew about 80 people “and two dogs,” Littlejohn said.

The symphony is also live-streaming two or three different performances a week by these smaller groups of musicians.

In addition, “we’re still teaching hundreds of children music every week,” she said. “It’s just on Zoom now.” And the ASO’s youth orchestra programs are continuing. “It’s not quite the same but at least we’re still providing some sense of structure in the community so kids can at least see each other, even if it’s only on Zoom.”

Donor support remains strong, Littlejohn said. “The reason why we’ve been able to continue to employ people is because people are still donating to us.” Board members, past and present, are being “extremely generous,” she said, but the ASO has also been getting a lot of smaller gifts from individuals.

Michael Fothergill of Ballet Arkansas said he tells people who love the performing arts and think they play an important role in the community that “now is the time to really get behind those organizations that mean the most to them.”

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