Arts and entertainment communities struggle to survive social distancing amid coronavirus pandemic
Whisperhawk, Michael Gross, Clearfield musician poses for a portrait in his home studio with daughters, Esri, 5, and Emerald, 3, on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.
Weber State University President Brad Mortensen plays a piano duet with Weber State alumni pianist Ling-Yu Lee during Mortensen's inauguration ceremony on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, in The Val A. Browning Center for the Performing Arts on campus.
This photo shows the Fine Arts Center in Brigham City after a remodeling job was completed last November.
Performances of the Utah Symphony are offered regularly by Onstage Ogden.
Mack Seiler rehearses for "You Bet Your Black Ass, Broadway" at the Good Company Theatre in Ogden on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019.
OGDEN — At one point in all of this coronavirus madness, there was actually talk of the newspaper listing all arts and entertainment events that have been postponed or canceled.
Frankly, it would be much easier to simply list the ones that haven’t.
Whatever effect the virus may or may not be having on the general public’s health, the damage to the arts and entertainment community has been nothing short of devastating. With state and local officials putting the kibosh on all gatherings over 10 people, that pretty much eliminates all events — except maybe a Milli Vanilli tribute band concert.
The collateral damage of this social distancing is being felt everywhere, from local performances to major Broadway musicals.
Michael Gross, of Clearfield, is a Native American singer-songwriter who records and performs under the name Whisperhawk. Just last month, Gross was making plans to release his second full-length album, “Broken Hearts Association,” with a March 27 in-store concert at Graywhale CD in Riverdale.
Then came coronavirus.
“I guess like anyone else, I’m just trying to stay indoors as much as possible,” Gross said by phone this week. “I don’t think anyone knows what to do, other than to stay away from others. But (live music) is definitely one of the industries that is getting hit hard.”
Although Gross still plans to release his album on Friday — available online through various streaming services and at whisperhawkmusic.com — the live concert has been canceled. It will be replaced with a live-streaming performance at noon that day on Gross’ Instagram page, @whisperhawkmusic.
“I’ve done live streams before, for the benefit of people who can’t or won’t go out,” Gross explained. “But that said, nothing can take the place of a live performance in the same room as the artist — there’s a different energy that you just can’t replicate in a live-stream.”
But such virtual concerts may be the wave of the foreseeable future. Indeed, national artists like John Legend, Keith Urban, Pink, Bono and John Mayer have replaced arena tours with intimate concerts from the confines of their home or studio.
The John Legend online concert was part of the World Health Organization’s new “Together at Home” concert series. Countless other artists are finding new ways to remotely connect with audiences — everything from a daily talk show on Instagram featuring Miley Cyrus, to a virtual reimagining of the annual Luck Reunion festival held in Willie Nelson’s backyard.
Jim Craig, director of the Val A. Browning Center at Weber State University in Ogden, acknowledged it’s a difficult time right now for those in the performing arts world.
“I know so many fellow stagehands, technicians, theater managers and performers — and they’re all kind of reeling right now, like ‘Now what?'” Craig said. “So many of these people make a living gig-to-gig.”
Craig manages five spaces at the Browning Center, including the massive Austad Auditorium, and the facility has canceled events all the way through May 30. The building is locked up tight, according to Craig, although they are allowing faculty members in to teach online classes.
“But they’re instructed to go straight to their office and do what they can there,” he said. “We’re isolating everything as much as possible.”
Up in Brigham City, Susan Neidert with the nonprofit Fine Arts Center says they’re dealing with the fallout from the virus, which has resulted in postponing or canceling all of their in-person events. Still, Neidert said they’re coping.
“Well, I still have some hair left, so I haven’t pulled it all out yet,” she joked.
The Fine Arts Center had been preparing to host its monthly “Music in the City” concert — a part of the statewide Excellence in the Community series — when COVID-19 hit big in the state. It’s affecting everything, according to Neidert.
“Weight Watchers have canceled their meetings (at the Fine Arts Center) for two weeks,” Neidert said. “Weight Watchers! They don’t cancel for anything.”
While the pandemic is hurting from a financial standpoint, Neidert said they’re not wasting this social distancing time.
“We’re repairing everything, cleaning the puppets in the museum, planning summer activities, things like that,” she said. “We’ll try to be creative in the coming weeks and get more things on the internet.”
At Onstage Ogden, which has been organizing Utah Symphony concerts, ballets and other performing arts events for more than 70 years, executive director Melissa Klein says the top priority is keeping staff and patrons “very safe.” But she says they’re also working hard to make sure they can reschedule those artists who had to cancel or postpone.
“On our end, there are so many people traveling in here, routing through several cities,” Klein said. “This is devastating for them, because tours that have been planned years in advance have to be disrupted.”
Klein said they’re doing what they can to fulfill contracts with artists, “so we don’t leave anyone high and dry.” But she admits it’s a “very complicated puzzle.”
Onstage Ogden has begun rescheduling concerts, spreading them out over the next year. Klein doesn’t anticipate any performances earlier than July, but she’s hoping they’re able to re-book events this summer in the July through September time frame, when things are a bit slower for the organization than the regular season.
As with small businesses, Klein said a lot of nonprofits and arts organizations are “very financially fragile.” She says donating tickets back to the organization for canceled shows would be appreciated, although she acknowledges that not everyone is in a position to be able to do that.
Tempting to continue
Alicia and Camille Washington, owners of Good Company Theatre in Ogden, have moved two upcoming spring shows, “Babel” and “Two Mile Hollow,” to the fall. There was brief talk about trying a live stream performance of “Babel” in the meantime; the Washingtons even went so far as to get approval for the streaming rights to “Babel.” But they quickly realized even a streaming performance would violate social distancing recommendations.
“With what we do here, the actors have to break these social distancing rules in order to act,” Camille Washington said. “And at this point it just doesn’t seem worth the risk. In order to do it properly, you have to have a lot of people in close proximity to each other, not just the actors, and right now it’s not worth it for us to make the attempt. You need stage managers, lighting board operators — it turns into more people than you think.”
The one upcoming show they are still hoping to pull off is “The Book of Merman,” about two Mormon missionaries knocking on the door of Ethel Merman, tentatively opening June 11.
Alicia Washington admits that it was tempting to try to continue their season, even as it was becoming increasingly obvious that wasn’t going to happen.
“Every performing artist is like, ‘The show must go on,'” she said. “And in all sincerity I kept that in the back of my mind. But ultimately, what led us to postpone is that we realized it wasn’t the strongest leadership choice. It would have been a selfish decision.”
Like others, Camille Washington encourages arts patrons to “think really hard” before asking for a refund on tickets to canceled shows, pointing out that if it’s an event put on by a nonprofit organization, such sacrifices can be tax-deductible.
“Especially for a small organization, and for musicians and soloists,” she said. “They depend on that income for a living. They’re pretty much living gig-to-gig.”
Excellence in the Community, a Salt Lake City-based organization that provides free concerts throughout the state — including a monthly concert at Peery’s Egyptian Theater — is tentatively planning a “video concert” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Jeff Whiteley, founder and managing director of Excellence in the Community, said they’re hoping to stream a concert of Broadway show tunes on the organization’s Facebook page. The concert would feature Melinda Kirigin-Voss and John Taylor Sargeant.
If the online concert doesn’t materialize, Whiteley said there are other ways to provide entertainment at this time.
“If it turns out that the issues are that no one can do anything but stay at home, we would invite musicians to send us their clips of music made in their homes, and we’ll put them on our Facebook page,” Whiteley said.
Whisperhawk’s Gross — who spent time in the locally famous bands The Brobecks, Let’s Become Actors and The Statuettes — says the current social distancing and quarantining isn’t much different from his last year of life.
“I’ve been holed up in my recording studio for the last year, writing and recording,” said Gross, who plans on releasing a second album toward the end of 2020.
Gross’ “Broken Hearts Association” was written in the aftermath of his mother’s “battle with cancer and ultimate death” last summer. The album addresses those difficult times, and Gross believes the album may be of help during the coronavirus pandemic.
“You can apply that to any difficult thing you’re going through,” he said. “Hard things, difficult things, are happening. But this sort of stuff happens to everybody, and you can get through it.”
While music fans won’t be able to see as many live concerts in the coming months, Gross does say there’s a silver lining in the COVID-19 outbreak. He believes we’re going to see a lot more album releases.
“A lot of people are holed up in their homes or apartments, and this forces them to be creative,” Gross said. “Especially for artists that usually tour this time of year, they don’t have a lot of time to sit down and write music. So you’re going to see a lot more music coming out in the near future because of that. Mostly because you can’t really do anything else, other than sit around writing and recording music.”
Whiteley, with Excellence in the Community, also believes the performing arts may emerge from this pandemic even stronger.
“In some oriental language with kanji characters, the character for ‘crisis’ is the same as the symbol for ‘opportunity,'” Whiteley said. “Whatever good can be got out of this nightmare, for Utah musicians, we hope to be able to facilitate that.”
Alicia Washington adds that it has been heartwarming to see the “miraculous things happening organically” in the midst of the coronavirus panic. Like, for instance, quarantined residents in Italy throwing open their windows and singing arias to one another.
“The beauty of art is that it will always live and find a way to pierce through these darkest hours,” she said.