Boil down the performing arts to their essence—strip away the buildings, the stages, the lights, all the peripherals—and they come down to this: an artist and an audience member, sharing creative work in the same room.
And when we can’t be in the same room? When we’re forced to be absent from each other? Where does the art go? How do you scratch that itch? Not just from the audience members’ side, but from the performers’ side?
If nothing else, the pandemic has driven home the point that art happens within the context of a community. If I can suggest one phrase that sums up our virtual, digital, masked-and-socially-distanced experience of art today, how about: “It’s not remotely the same.”
It’s the Ersatz Age, a time of substitutes and placeholders, of marking time. It’s non-alcoholic beer, margarine, and imitation ice milk. Give me a choice between hearing a livestream of the Berlin Philharmonic performing the Beethoven 9th on my computer, and hearing a half-drunk street musician banging out Girl from Ipanema on an accordion in person, all I can say is when she passes, each one she passes goes “aaah.”
Talk with a few of Orange County’s more prominent performing artists and you hear slightly different takes, but it’s all variations on a theme: we’re making the best of a bad situation, and we can’t wait to get back to the stage and practice our art in the way it was intended.
Turning the City into a Concert Hall
Benjamin Smolen, principal flute for the Pacific Symphony, has dealt with the closure of the concert halls by turning his entire city into a concert hall.
“A month into the social distancing quarantine thing we—‘we’ being ‘me’—I was feeling stir crazy,” he says. “I was working on my own projects, on compositions, but I missed playing with friends and colleagues. And even over Zoom there’s just not the same energy as having someone right there in front of you.
“I’d been having our principal violist and principal bassist over to have socially-distant brunches in backyard, and one week, I said ‘Would you be willing to bring instruments and we can read through some things?’ And it was one of those moments, where we didn’t realize how much we missed playing with each other until we were doing it. It was like ‘Oh my God, a piece of me has been missing.’
“The other part was once we went through a piece, there was a crowd of people outside the gate watching and they started clapping. There are people hungry to hear music. So we got together six musicians from the Symphony who all live in Long Beach, and started brainstorming how we could turn it into a safe neighborhood concert series. I contacted some friends with large front yards and started making arrangements and it was amazing, overwhelming. Word got around, we got requests to come to yards and neighborhoods, and now we have a month-long waiting list. We’ve been doing four shows a week since late April.”
The informal series, LB Block x Block, features violist Meredith Crawford, bassist Michael Franz, violinist Christine Frank, bass clarinetist Joshua Ranz, and English horn player Lelie Resnick. The repertoire is eclectic, the performances are in demand, and the response has been enthusiastically positive.
“We’ve been joking that we’re the busiest working musicians on the planet right now,” says Smolen. “It’s been so fun. We all love playing symphonic music and chamber music, but this is a license to explore our own quirky music tastes—klezmer, Scandinavian folk, Appalachian music, the Beatles, plus the Faure pavane and other classical stuff. It’s a mix of a lot of things that we’re all interested in. And we’ve ended up with this waiting list of people who want us to come to their neighborhood.
“We’re not charging anything, it’s for our own enjoyment and for others, but people kept trying to give us money. They wanted to make the experience bigger than the concert. So we began working with the Salastina music society, a chamber music ensemble that has a program called ‘Sounds Promising,’ a training program for young composers. And we decided to partner with them. After the murder of George Floyd, and the national conversation around race, we devised a scholarship to fully fund young composers of color to participate in the program. We announced the scholarship that weekend, and within a day we fully funded an entire year.”
Smolen is quick to point out that the freedom to create this ad hoc ensemble has been made possible because of the Pacific Symphony’s support for its musicians.
“Part of the reason we have the freedom to do this for free and raise this scholarship money is that the Pacific Symphony got a PPP loan and has worked with the musicians to pay us in some way through summer. That’s been a great catalyst. It was easy to take live performances for granted, easy to listen to Spotify, but the whole pandemic has reminded me how critical the musician-listener relationship is, and it’s heartening that the response has been 100% universally the same. It’s something people have missed and want.”
“It’s Horrible, Not Playing in Front of People”
Dennis Kim, the Symphony’s concertmaster, has also kept himself active, but not being in front of the symphony audiences is a struggle.
“It’s horrible, not playing in front of people,” he says. “Our whole life we’ve trained and practiced to communicate and perform for others, even one other—a teacher, a family member. So the idea of playing with no feedback, nothing coming across: I hope I never get used to it and I’m not used to it now. Everything we do is for others, none of this is for ourselves, it’s not to purely feel good for ourselves. The communication is vital, and I know everyone will be so grateful to be back onstage. The first time we’re back, all of us will be crying, just to be back together and with an audience.”
When that will be, however, no one knows.
“It’s not something that’s just affecting arts and music,” he says, “but the uncertainty for our field is killing us. We’re not sure when we’re starting up again, not sure how the virus will mutate, when we’ll be back indoors with live performances and an audience. But everyone understands we’re all in lockdown, not just us, so we can take comfort in that.
“We’re doing a lot online. I’ve done three projects with the Symphony, some solo stuff, some with family, the Beethoven 7th project, America the Beautiful, and I also initiated a gathering of concertmasters across the country, eight of us together performing.
“There’s been a lot of talk of how life will change, that going to the office won’t exist, that everything will be online. But in our case we have to go to the office, we have to perform together, we don’t work at Google or Amazon, it’s very different. But everyone is looking out for each other and hopefully we come back better and stronger when this is all over. Everyone is so uncertain how to come back, but I believe we’ll come back much more positive than negative.”
Jonesing to Perform Live
Another Orange County artist who can’t wait to get back in front of the footlights is Richard Doyle, one of the original members of South Coast Repertory theater. He had a busy 2020 planned, and while he’s still involved with a lot of projects, they’re all taking different shapes now.
“Besides making my wife sit on the couch with our two cats as I go through repertoire, I had a triple threat this year that was interrupted by COVID-19,” he says. “I was in a production of ‘Outside Mullingar,’ and we got to our fourth preview, when Governor Newsom issued the edict and we had to shut down the theater and I had to step away from that. I’m also the voice of the Pageant of the Masters; I narrate seven days a week, and that was canceled as well. And this year, I was tapped to step into the role of Scrooge for SCR’s annual production of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ And now that’s been cancelled.
“I do voiceovers, I’ve been a voice actor for about 30 years, so I continue to do that from my home studio — video games, animation, promos, things like that. And I can continue that, but I’ve got a tremendous jones for doing live work in front of an audience. That’s what I really miss. I’m a live-stage storyteller and there’s no replacements at this point.”
Doyle joined the troupe in the mid-1960s, and after military service in Vietnam, returned in 1971 and has never left. With that longevity and experience, few people have better insight into how the live experience of theater differs from TV or film, and what is missing from our lives right now.
“The audience loves to come together around the campfire and hear the stories about the day’s hunt and how it affects the tribe,” he says. “It’s an important part of our lives, and in the professional theater, we’re the continuation of that very necessary dialogue that goes on in the culture that helps us all work through the high mountains we need to climb as a country, people and culture.
“It enables people to deal with social and emotional problems at arm’s length, as they’re happening to someone else, and if you share feelings at a remove, we can talk about very uncomfortable things and the audience goes away armed with more information and talk about it on the way home. It helps guide people to resolutions they might not arrive at without theater. They go away with a new perspective, something they haven’t thought about. That’s the level of engagement a theater owes a community.”
As for the future? You might as well use a Magic 8-Ball. But the purpose of the theater and the meaning it brings to people’s lives remain the same.
“The plays we do at SCR are planned well in advance, and what they will be or how they will be presented is still up in the air,” Doyle says. “Who comes back, and what will they be looking for, how many we can entertain — there are limits on what we can do, but hopefully past the first of the year we’ll see some real daylight, open a 20-21 season, ease our way into it, hoping to convince our audience that it’s safe to come back.
“I want to add a great thank you to the Orange County theater-going audiences, and SCR subscribers in particular. They’ve given me a life in the theater, I’ve been able to stay in this community and they welcomed us, and they’ve been so supportive. I just want to tell them. ‘Please look forward to coming back, we want to see you back in the seats.’”
Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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