Arts in Pittsburgh: Can the Show Go On?
The pandemic threatens arts groups' bottom lines, but not their creative spirit.
In June, 14-year-old Jordyn Walker stood on the stage of Alumni Theater Company in Homewood and performed her latest work: “Dear Black Child.”
“Dear Black Child,
You are the next one coming up in this world …
so we guide you to do what’s right.
We trust you to pick back up what we left behind.
A change is gonna come but not this time.
I know this is a long race but we can’t leave anyone behind.
I don’t want your last words to be ‘I can’t breathe’.
Listen to me.
You matter and don’t let no one take that from you.
Dear Black Child,
In the midst of a global pandemic, when arts organizations in Pittsburgh and beyond were forced to close for their own safety and the safety of their patrons, each company has had to find its own way back.
“We started our very slow and cautious comeback on June 1,” says Hallie Donner, executive director of the company for young Black artists that was founded 11 years ago with alumni of the Urban League Charter School.
A slow and cautious comeback meant first meeting with each company member and their parents to discuss new, stringent safety protocols.
Donner says having the kids rotate time in the theater, wear masks and practice rigid social distancing has been successful; they’ve seen no COVID-19 cases (but did close in November after the Allegheny County health director issued a stay-at-home advisory). The students have premiered new works, participated in a virtual event with Kelly Strayhorn Theater and are working on virtual shows for 2021.
“It was really different because [Alumni Theater Company] is really their home away from home, so all of that — coming in, making yourself a Hot Pocket, making yourself at home on the couch with your friend’s head on your shoulder — is on hold for now, which is tough,” Donner says.
“It was just an opportunity to say, here’s what we’re going to do, this is not forever. Remember that the artistic piece of this is really the heart of why we come here, so we really need to hang on to all of the good that that does for us, creating art together.”
Many of the spoken word pieces students put together during the quarantine were related to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“One of the kids said one time, ‘I wish I could write about something else, but it’s all I have in me right now,’” Donner says.
When Jordyn got on stage and read her piece, Donner realized, “Whatever risk we are taking to be here together, it’s worth it.”
LIFE WITHOUT A BOX OFFICE
For arts organizations, which feed off of the creativity and drive of those around them as well as the camaraderie and love of what they do, hardships caused by the pandemic were felt both financially and in their souls.
“I think the hardest thing for us is not just the things that were lost but just not being able to be in the studio with the dancers,” says Staycee Pearl, who owns PearlArts Studios and STAYCEE PEARL dance project & Soy Sos.
“The thing I love most about my job is being in the studio with the dancers and my husband (DJ Soy Sos aka Herman Pearl),” she says. “This Zoom rehearsal thing is for the birds. And I try to be a big girl about it and we do it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do. I’m ready to be back in the theater.”
But her troupe, like so many organizations, has found ways to perform and stay afloat. In July, they participated in the seven-hour, virtual “Hotline Ring,” a telethon-like collaboration between the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, 1Hood Media, BOOM Concepts, the Braddock Carnegie Library Association, Dreams of Hope, the Legacy Arts Project and PearlArts Studios.
“It was a way for all of us to share audiences and share resources,” Pearl says.
The ability to do virtual performances has been beneficial to the troupes’ morales, but it hasn’t begun to cover the financial hardships companies have seen this year. A Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council analysis of local arts earlier this year found that 84% of organizations had to cancel performances, classes and exhibitions and nearly 68 percent had to temporarily close their facilities due to COVID-19. In November, the Heinz Endowments announced it would sponsor a $5.75 million grant to be divided among 37 organizations, mostly for general operating support.
Quantum Theatre, known for its site-specific performances at venues around town, had to cancel its annual fundraiser, The Q Ball, in March, and postpone its season closer, “Chimerica.” Things came to a halt until two actors, Andrew and Lisa Velten Smith, had an idea.
“It started with them coming and saying, ‘Hey, we’re a couple, so at least we can be in the same space with each other, and maybe there’s more to that,’” says Karla Boos, Quantum’s founding and artistic director. “We loved the idea.”
Featuring seven co-habitating couples, “Love and Information” was streamed live in June from the actors’ homes with Quantum providing technical equipment.
Two more virtual performances have premiered since with a third planned for February. All were free.
“We’re pleased to have found some things that are exciting and interesting and completely unique to the challenge that was put in front of us,” Boos says, noting two of the plays had more than 2,500 people tune in and they had viewers from around the world. “Each went better than the last.”
But it can’t go on forever.
MAKING THE CUTS
“At this point, in the national conversation, maybe we must ask people to pay something, what they can perhaps, because the artists need to paid. Quantum needs to survive,” Boos says.
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has transitioned multiple programs into virtual offerings. Harris Theater is offering streaming of independent, international and documentary films with proceeds benefiting the theater. BNY Mellon presents JazzLive has morphed into JazzLive @Home, a free video series, and Liberty Magic has streamed a number of successful performances.
“It’s very, very exciting to see people looking at it in a different way, but we know … as terrific as staying in touch virtually is, it’s not a substitute for live, in-person performances,” says J. Kevin McMahon, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. “We are in the business of mass gatherings at the Trust and in the Cultural District.”
The Trust, which typically has around a $75 million annual budget, ended 2020 closer to $30 million.
“We’re ending this year with a huge, multimillion-dollar deficit,” McMahon says. “There is a lot to hope for, I’m optimistic by nature, but we’re struggling, maybe more so than other organizations because of how much real estate we operate, and those costs don’t go away.
“Next year, even with my optimism, we’re looking at a $17 million budget. We’re basically living off of contributions right now.”
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has made no secret of the struggles it’s faced since the shutdown in mid-March.
They began, as most organizations did, by canceling or postponing upcoming events and encouraging patrons who held tickets to hold on to them, exchange them or donate them.
But within a week, they were adapting.
“Over the coming days, we want to stay connected with you in the way that we know best: by making music,” Music Director Manfred Honeck said in a video posted to the symphony’s website. “Through our new initiative ‘Extraordinary Measures,’ measure by measure we will build a bridge musically to each of you, reaching out to you, wherever you are, with our collective sound, spirit and passion.”
“Extraordinary Measures” was made up of numerous video series, from “Bright Spots,” which featured musicians performing work and engaging with the audience, and “Friday Night Concerts,” a weekly concert from the PSO archives with insights from Honeck, who hosted the show.
“It’s been heartening to see the power of creativity, the power of resilience, the triumph of the human spirit,” says Mary Persin, the vice president of artistic planning at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Since then, the PSO has participated in Allegheny County Parks Summer Concert Series at Hartwood Acres, where members recorded their first live concert since the shutdown, hosted a virtual “Summer with the Symphony” series and performed live in City Theatre’s Drive-In Arts Fest.
For the latter, “we were on stage, and there was an audience piece,” Persin says. “It was a fantastic moment.”
Even with all of the success, there were losses.
In May, numerous staff members and musicians took pay cuts and all part-time staff was furloughed. In September, the symphony announced musicians had agreed to additional pay reductions, pay cuts for senior staff were to continue, and an additional 30 percent of full-time staff members saw their status change through reduced hours or furloughs, one layoff, and positions eliminated through attrition.
“… the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has had to cancel 115 concerts and events due to the pandemic, and it estimates that these cancellations will result in a $5.6 million shortfall in earned revenue,” a press release read.
NOT GIVING UP
Before COVID-19 cases began to rise again in November, some organizations were attempting to schedule in-person performance. Pittsburgh Opera sold out six limited-ticket shows for live, in-person audiences of “Così fan tutte” in October, with even the performers wearing masks, and was planning to proceed with “Soldier Songs” in December at its Strip District headquarters with socially distanced, limited-ticket shows. After the county’s stay-at-home advisory, the opera opted for a free livestream only of “Soldier Songs.”
Persin says the symphony was hoping to be back in Heinz Hall in early 2021, but by November they had canceled all indoor performances with live audiences through March.
In the meantime, she’s optimistic. For the symphony’s latest virtual series, “Front Row,” people from 16 countries tuned in for the first episode. “We’ve had many moments where we were on a world stage, but when we’re here in Heinz Hall … in many ways there’s opportunities for greater visibility than ever before.”
The Trust has begun scheduling for fall 2021, but not before.
“Everybody wants the same answer to the same question, ‘When do you think we might actually be back in person?’” McMahon says. “Back in the spring as we worked into summer, I sort of gave up at that point. As soon as I talked to someone, ‘Maybe we’ll get the Arts Fest going in June or the Children’s Festival or the CLO season’ … it’s just one thing after another.”
Quantum can host shows in large outdoor spaces, allowing for some flexibility in scheduling.
“No question we hope to lead the way back with outdoor performances, and that’s what we’re planning as early as May and June of 2021,” Boos says. “We hope that that’s not unrealistic.
“I’m the first one to say I’m all about the live experience, and I’m also the first to say it’s terrible to think of companies going under. But I hope that we’ll have sort of a new kind of commitment and a new kind of belief in the importance of the arts in our community that will be more inclusive.
“I hope that people will support the arts, maybe to a greater degree from having missed us all.”
Pearl says there’s lots to look forward to. Her troupe received a highly competitive National Dance Project Production Grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts and plans to open a world premiere at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in October 2021. In November, her company performed in the Arts Across America virtual event for The Kennedy Center. They’ve received funding from numerous Pittsburgh-area foundations as well.
The arts arena will change going forward, she says, but “I’ve determined it’s not going to be for the worse.”
“I think a time like this calls for us to create art and music more powerfully than ever before, and I think it’s needed more than ever before,” says Persin. “It gives hope, it gives inspiration, it gives a path forward, it gives consolation. It gives those feelings of togetherness.”