The Show Must Go On(line): Performing Arts in the Age of Coronavirus

With large gatherings off the table for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus pandemic, the arts industry has been hit incredibly hard. This is as true at the collegiate level as it is the professional, with concerts and shows cancelled, theatres closed, and rehearsals indefinitely postponed. However, the artistic community is nothing if not creative, and it's been remarkable to see the many innovative ways in which people have taken steps in accordance with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s exhortations to “rise up.” 

Getting Creative

Laura Sheaffer running Laura Sheaffer

Collegiate performing arts groups across the country and around the world are finding new ways to come together when miles apart, largely through adjusting to a virtual format. In April, the internationally celebrated St. Salvator’s Chapel Choir from the University of St. Andrews performed a full Easter Mass in eight-part harmony, with videos of each of the 23 members, filmed in his or her home, masterfully sewn together by skilled tech students to create the impression of a live choral performance. They've since continued to release such recordings in place of their usual weekly evensong, or an evening prayer service. In May, The New York Times praised Bard College arts students for their innovative production of Carol Churchill’s play “Mad Forrest,” performed as a creatively edited mixed-media Zoom live stream. Charlotte Perkins, a rising fourth year student at St. Andrews, is now the director of the group “Music But Everyone Is Quarantined,” a four-thousand member strong Facebook initiative to connect musicians from quarantine, assembling choirs and musical ensembles to create recorded performances. The group is comprised of students, amateurs, and professionals from all over the world. 

Even those actively taking performing arts courses have been able to continue their studies. Matthew Smith, chair of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University, had nothing but praise for his staff, explaining how “they are coming up with the most extraordinarily creative responses to this challenge...holding remote dance classes from students’ bedrooms and living rooms, from parks and backyards.” Moreover, he expressed his hope that students and professors alike will “find ways to turn social distancing into social togetherness across distance,” continuing to collaborate from afar.  

Going Digital

Coronavirus Unsplash

Of course, the best way to do this, as we are discovering, is to go digital.  Using platforms like Instagram and Facebook, stars have turned to social media as a means of connecting with fans and fellow performers alike, with live talk backs, Q&A sessions, and creative challenges sponsored by organizations like Backstage and Broadway World. Back in March, Broadway star Laura Benanti invited high schoolers whose spring shows were canceled due to the pandemic to post videos of themselves singing to Instagram tagging Benanti, who expressed her eagerness to be their audience.  

For students looking for classes, Dramaversity, an online learning platform for the dramatic arts, is a fabulous resource for classes and coaching sessions. Additionally, with the onset of the pandemic, institutions such as Broadway Evolved and the National Theatre Institute updated their summer program to a completely virtual format, providing students with masterclasses and workshops from Broadway favorites eager to share their love of the arts with the next generation, helping them continue to hone their craft even in lockdown.  

Words of Wisdom

Empty movie seats Photo by Felix Mooneeram on Unsplash

Professional performers are in much the same boat as college students, unsure when it will be safe for theatres to open but trying to stay connected to their craft in the meantime. Perhaps because of this, many have taken this opportunity to share their wisdom with aspiring artists. In a Broadway World competition these last few months, Broadway professionals have judged and given feedback to thousands of participating high school and college students on their musical theatre song performances. In a live-streamed concert with musical director Seth Rudetsky on July 12, 2020, eight-time-Tony-award-winning actress and singer Audra McDonald spoke directly to young performers, advising them to take every opportunity to share their talents, whether it is for their family in their living room or for nursing home residents over Facetime.

Broadway star Kate Baldwin echoes Ms. McDonald’s sentiments beautifully, telling Her Campus, “We will always find a way to tell stories. It is our common humanity - what links us to one another.” Ms. Baldwin also advises young performers to use this time as a research opportunity, to listen, learn, and grow, both as a performer and as a human being. “This is a time for storing your ideas, stories, techniques, and talents to draw on when theatre comes back,” she says. And as both actresses assure us, it will be back.

In many ways, the pandemic has made the arts even more accessible, with countless virtual concerts, nightly streamed recordings from the Met Opera, weekly releases from the National Theatre, cast reunions, talk backs, and Zoom interviews galore, all of which are invaluable in reminding us of the power of the arts even in times of darkness.  Of course, these virtual formats and creative workarounds are no substitute for what we miss the most: the thrill of sitting in a crowded theatre or standing on the stage ourselves.  When it comes to the magic of live theatre, there is simply no comparison.  But for those of us who miss performing, there are plenty of new and innovative ways to keep creating, and we are coming up with more every day. Meet your besties over Zoom and run a Fosse dance class; form a virtual string quartet with your irritatingly talented cousins; grab your favorite beverage and indulge in a silly virtual play reading with the cast of your would-be spring musical; or simply sit down and start writing that screenplay you’ve always had lurking at the back of your mind.  Think outside the black box!

After all, if history has its eyes on you, we might as well give them something to look at.