Food & Culture

Arts groups use skill and imagination during the pandemic

Struggling arts organizations pull out all the stops

By Heidi Mills October 19, 2020


On a warm evening at Green Lake Park, dancers wearing masks leapt, twirled and danced their way down the circular path. Some of their audience only happened to be strolling the lake at dusk and watched them pass by, while other avid arts fans planned their attendance and wore headphones to hear accompanying music streaming from the Whim W’Him website. One awed viewer found Whim W’Him artistic director Olivier Wevers to tell him the evening scene of the dancers leaping around the lake was simply “epic.” 

The summer performances were one way for a local arts organization to reach the public in a year when connection has become almost impossible. Across town, lonely theaters and empty stages reflect the harsh reality of the pandemic. Instead of launching their fall seasons, arts organizations are scrambling to come up with ways to stay both relevant and alive. Actors, singers and dancers hope they can make their next month’s rent, and arts groups pray they live to see another season.

“The entire performing arts community is paralyzed,” says Christina Scheppelmann, general director of Seattle Opera.

The financial reality of the Seattle arts community amidst Covid-19 is sobering. A study by local nonprofit ArtsFund last spring found that 5,000 people from arts organizations in their network had been furloughed or laid off. That includes actors, dancers, carpenters, accountants, box office staff and any number of other roles that support arts groups. Pacific Northwest Ballet normally has about 350 people on payroll, but as of this summer, it had plummeted to 32. It has already cancelled 35 holiday Nutcracker performances, which means a loss of $6 million, or half of its annual ticket revenue. 

“I’ve lost an awful lot of sleep,” admits Ellen Walker, executive director of Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Most arts groups are surviving only by dramatically cutting expenses and receiving relief grants and donations. They’ve taken loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Some have benefited from the Seattle Foundation’s Covid-19 relief fund. ArtsFund raised $5.3 million for arts groups through both its annual grants and two special rounds of relief funding. ArtsFund president and CEO Michael Greer notes, however, that the funds only covered 5% of the stated needs of applicants. For arts groups to make it, Greer says, more state and federal funding will be needed at a time when the clamor for increasingly scarce public dollars is intensifying.

“It is a dire situation,” Greer says. “Individual contributors are helping weather this day to day, but it will take a larger initiative from the state or federal level to weather this entire pandemic.”

Creativity Counts

While the forecast is bleak and the end unknown, arts groups are finding ways to stay creative during the pandemic. They continue to produce content, broadcasting shows online or staging outdoor theater such as the Whim W’Him park appearances. Though these efforts aren’t producing the same kind of revenue as packed theaters and are sometimes offered for free, arts leaders hope they keep subscribers and loyal fans engaged.

“These are not viable revenue streams long term, but it’s a way to connect with the community,” Greer says. “Our organizations understand the power and need for art.”

Bernie Griffin, managing director of the 5th Avenue Theatre, has filled notebook after notebook with ideas for the upcoming season. She’s come up with 15 different plans, and thinks she’ll continue pivoting until the pandemic is over. The theater is operating with a skeleton crew of 40 people, down by 70 percent from its typical operations. Even so, Griffin is charging ahead with whatever theater art the theater can continue to put forth. During a typical season, the theater produced five or six productions, each of which ran three to four weeks.

The educational arm of the 5th Avenue Theatre, which draws high school students from across the state, has been operating virtually. To replace Fridays at the 5th, where teens enjoy a theater show and a class and conversation with cast members, the 5th hosted digital nights with workshop classes and Zoom conversations. Instead of the Rising Star project, in which high school students recreate a show after a professional production with the same sets and choreography, they did RadioActive Musicals. In partnership with KUOW, student teams produced 10-minute musicals that were then performed on Zoom.

To retain and engage subscribers, the 5th Avenue Theatre will release regular digital content in place of the theater season. It will offer backstage tours, interviews with theater insiders and recordings of individual performances. Griffin hopes the content can help the theater survive this season.

“Our subscribers are our nearest and dearest,” Griffin says. “We are hoping they’ll stay with us and help us make it through this year.”

Youth outreach has been a pandemic project for the Bellevue Arts Museum as well. After the museum closed in March, it partnered with the Bellevue School District to give away educational craft kits to children receiving school lunches. This summer it distributed 5,000 educational kits in place of its annual Bellevue Arts Fair.

Bellevue Arts Museum Executive Director and Chief Curator Benedict Heywood has worked to continue education online for adults as well. In a series of videos, Heywood presents works the museum has on display. Museum staff are also creating a series of Zoom lectures with artists. 

The Bellevue Arts Museum store reopened when King County moved to Phase 2, and the free admission forum space is available to anyone walking in from the street. If the county moves to Stage 3, the rest of the museum can open. Heywood recognizes that museums are in an easier situation than performing arts groups that rely on theaters full of people.

“My heart goes out to performing arts organizations,” Heywood says. “They are in a worse situation than us.”   

Few Live Performances

The Seattle Opera is one such group grappling with the reality of a season with little hope for live performances. It has paid individual singers to record recitals from their homes, posting the performances online for free. Since large gatherings are unlikely during most of the upcoming season, the Opera will start creating and posting productions for paying subscribers. This summer, it tested a new digital stage at McCaw Hall with a green screen and added images behind performers. The Opera is working with the singers to make sure all safety precautions are taken before recording any performances at McCaw Hall.

“I don’t want to just cancel the entire season,” says Scheppelmann, who joined Seattle Opera just 19 months ago. “I can deliver something, even if it’s by streaming. Is it the same as a live performance? No, and I would never pretend that it is.”

Scheppelmann is considering outdoor spaces for performances if they’re allowed. She envisions singers on the loading dock at the back side of the building, with a small audience sitting in folding chairs. Scheppelmann believes it is her responsibility to come up with ways to keep the opera going – for her singers and for the general public.

“This situation needs emotional comfort, and music is that,” Scheppelmann says. 

The hope of art remains alive at Seattle’s Cornish College for the Arts, which is holding both in-person and remote classes this fall and winter. Students will meet in small groups and spread out across different rooms on the campus to minimize contact. In the print lab, for instance, each student will have a zone with a printer, table and sink, and will touch only their own equipment during a class period. A teacher might instruct a class from one studio and broadcast it to other neighboring studios. For Cornish dance performances, school staffers are considering outdoor locations. The logistics are a complicated puzzle for Pinky Estell, director of creative spaces and event services for Cornish. 

“Change is inevitable in the arts, but the pace of change has been so fast this year,” Estell says. “It’s been exhausting.”

Though this year resembles a juggling act for Cornish, school staffers also see some positive elements coming from online teaching and performance broadcasting, as they’ll be able to make their students’ art available to people around the world. Cornish just began offering online continuing education classes for adults as well. One of the classes, called The Power of Solitude, reflects the reality of the pandemic by having students examine art created in solitude and share their own work from this period of isolation.

“This is obviously a situation rife with challenges, but it’s also pushed us to think about our present and future in totally new ways,” says Natasha Dworkin, chief marketing officer for Cornish. “We are an over 100-year-old art school, and there are many ways we will reinvent ourselves through this.”

An Experiment

At Whim W’Him, Wevers began reinventing the way his company produces art when it became clear his dancers wouldn’t be performing on stage anytime soon. Though he could post archival footage on the website, the films felt flat because they had just a camera capturing a performance that was meant to be viewed live. 

Wevers decided to create dance films meant for the screen, with different camera angles and cinematic cuts. Wevers hired a filmmaker and began replacing scheduled shows with films. He’s filmed dancers outdoors and one at a time for safety reasons, and then later edited the footage so it looks like they are dancing together. 

Whim W’Him’s online platform now includes not only dance films, but interviews with choreographers and dancers, as well as dance classes for adults, kids and professionals. Individual tickets for a program cost from $5 for a teen to $20 for general admission, or someone can subscribe to Whim W’Him online for a year for $120. 

For Wevers, all of this is an experiment. He hopes loyal patrons will continue to support the organization.

“This is not about trying to make money,” Wevers says. “It’s about sustaining the company.”

Other Whim W’Him pandemic initiatives have nothing to do with making money. The dance down the Green Lake path gave a glimpse of art to a public that hasn’t set foot in theaters since March. In addition to Green Lake, Whim W’Him dancers visited Myrtle Edwards, Jefferson and Seward Park on summer evenings, dancing with the sunset as a backdrop. 

The dancing continues at Pacific Northwest Ballet as well, which brought people back to the studio with stringent safety measures. The company formed dancer pods of two to five people, and they interacted only with those within their small group. Only dancers who already live together have physical contact during rehearsals. PNB artistic director Peter Boal has been adjusting choreography to minimize touching.

“This has been a bit like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded on a tightrope,” Boal says. “Despite all the efforts needed to return to the studio safely, it is well worth it. To see dance again is sheer joy.” 

PNB announced in August that its entire season would be offered digitally, with subscriptions for the year starting at $190. Since one performance is past, they are now $155. The Nutcracker, a holiday staple at PNB, will be offered as an archival video, since there is no way the company can stage the massive production while abiding by social distancing rules. PNB will record new content with small groups of dancers at the recording studio at McCaw Hall. 

PNB’s dance school ran all summer virtually, with 175 students taking Zoom classes. An instructor, pianist and student demonstrator recorded the classes at the studio. The participation marks a major drop from normal, as PNB typically has 1,500 students in its school. With the school and live performances taking such a hit, PNB’s operating budget is now $14 million, down from $25 million last year.

“That retraction is massive,” Walker says. “Our margins were already so tight. It’s very challenging.”

Walker’s worries are shared by Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater. The company’s school typically generates a good portion of its cash flow, but people aren’t interested in paying for online dance classes, Byrd says. Byrd managed to hold his spring classes for free due to the generosity of a donor, but he’ll need to raise more funds to continue to do remote school this fall and winter. 

Byrd has planned out a season for his dancers but knows he won’t be able to hold shows until King County reaches Phase 4. In the interim, he’s attempted to engage his staff in other projects. Byrd spent five weeks deconstructing dance technique and methods with his dancers, a process they’d typically never have time for if they were developing performances.

Byrd has also been talking to virtual reality and game designers to imagine how he could bring dance to the screen in a more compelling way than a simple video. He worked with a designer of 3-D holographic technology to talk about possibilities, and wants to explore it more this fall. For Byrd, it’s an attempt to bring joy to a medium he never envisioned working in.

“On an emotional level, how do I find excitement if it’s only online?” Byrd asks. 

Taking Advantage

If any kind of performing art can translate online, it’s the spoken word, and Town Hall Seattle is taking advantage of that. A robust lineup of speakers has been recording digital interviews. The pandemic hit just nine months after Town Hall reopened its century-old building following a major renovation. Town Hall executive director Wier Harman had spent years raising funds and planning to transform the building into a state-of-the-art concert hall and lecture facility. Prepandemic, the organization hosted more than 110,000 people annually at its 400-plus events spanning civics, the arts and sciences.

“It’s emotional walking around the empty halls,” Harman says. “All the plans we had for our first season were swept away by the pandemic.”  

Though it pains Harman to see the beautiful new building sitting vacant, the remodel also positioned Town Hall, a nonprofit, for virtual content. Workers wired the building for audio and video recording and added a control room in the basement, assuming the organizations would live stream sold out events. When the pandemic hit, Town Hall shifted its calendar online.

“Hearing from a speaker doesn’t lose as much emotional power online as a performance by a string quartet,” Harman says.    

As of early August, Town Hall Seattle had done 94 live streams. Most took place remotely, and three lectures and 15 concerts were filmed from the building. The silver lining of the pandemic has been that Town Hall can sign on guests from across the world without regard to travel logistics. Two speakers recorded from London and Oxford, and many more reside up and down the east and west coasts of the United States. An interviewer can hold a conversation with someone hundreds of miles away.

Harman says attendance at most of the virtual events was comparable to an evening in the physical building, and some exceeded typical crowd counts. Former Secretary of Labor and political commentator Robert Reich’s talk drew a live audience of 2,400. Three times that many watched it over the next three days.  

In September, Town Hall featured a wide range of guests, including activist Erin Brockovich, liberal radio host Thom Hartmann, comedian Michael Ian Black, U.S. Senators Chris Murphy and Sherrod Brown, and materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez. 

During the spring, Town Hall experimented with offering its content for free and asking for voluntary contributions. It found, however, that it was getting an average of just $1 per viewer, which wasn’t sustainable. Now, Town Hall sells $5 tickets to the virtual events, asking those who can afford it to consider giving more, and giving it for free to youth age 22 and under. Ticket sales will likely comprise a smaller-than-normal portion of Town Hall’s revenue, as Harman estimates that grants and donors will cover 70 percent of the budget.

“Our donors have been extraordinary so far,” Harman says. “People aren’t feeling the pinch so far in their portfolios, but who knows how long that’s going to last. It’s the long term we are really worried about.” 

Harman and arts leaders across the region know that not every organization will survive the pandemic, particularly if it drags out beyond next spring. Yet many remain optimistic that the larger Seattle arts community will survive, as the public continues to need and desire art. An ArtsFund survey in 2018 found that 79 percent of King County residents say the arts benefit their personal well-being.

“What is a city without theater and art and music?” Scheppelmann says. “It is nothing. It is a desert.”

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