Performing Arts

Performing arts companies in San Mateo County adapt to pandemic | Local News

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Optimistic performing arts companies and theaters, prohibited from entertaining live audiences under California’s reopening framework, have had to take performances online with many saying an in-person return may stall until early 2022. 

“The [performing arts] business obviously is not faring well but we are extremely optimistic about the future. Fortunately … we have a lot of great companies located in the Peninsula anxiously waiting to get going at the theater. That gives us a good indication that we’ll get out of this sooner than later,” said Ernie Schmidt, the general manager of Fox Theatre Property LLC. 

When the pandemic first struck the region, Schmidt, like many, prepared for a potential fall reopening but had to postpone events after the virus proved unrelenting. Sharing optimism for the future, he said the venue is undergoing substantial ventilation renovations as well as technical upgrades to safely host events in February 2021.  

“We’ve been trying to put positive messages on our marquee, in the heart of downtown, trying to find a way to get to the forefront of the community’s mind … to let people know we’re not going anywhere,” said Schmidt. 

Performing arts directors across the county share Schmidt’s optimism, including Alika and Max Koknar with the Dragon Theatre, Patricia Kristof Moy with Music at Kohl Mansion, Christine Leslie with the Peninsula Ballet Theater and Dan Demers with the Hillbarn Theatre. 

Understanding in-person performances are not likely to reconvene within the next year, companies have shifted to providing entertainment online. Recording performances has long been a practice for archiving shows but video has become one of the only ways to connect show goers with local performing groups now expected to compete internationally for a broader audience.  

At the Dragon Theatre, co-Artistic Directors Alika Spencer-Koknar and Max Koknar have beamed dramatic readings, dance and musical performances into audiences’ homes using the streaming platform Twitch. The married professional partners said navigating how to bring shows to life on a budget has been difficult, noting the importance of providing fair compensation to already underpaid performers. 

“We can’t ask folks who we’re not paying well enough to take risks and to take risks with other people. … That’s not an option right now,” said Max Koknar. 

Alika Spencer-Koknar and Max Koknar said they’ve noticed their audience become younger and more diverse, attributing the change to a digital learning curve. Acknowledging the shift, they said shows are intentionally aimed at addressing difficult subjects, particularly around race. 

“We want to be a place for everybody and to create a safe space for the community but not everything we do is for everyone in the community. The magic seems to happen when diverse communities intersect,” said Max Koknar, adding that the theater can be a place for mental health support and child care. 

Dancers Robert Lowman and Chloé Watson at Mori Point in Pacifica.

Silver lining

The Peninsula Ballet Theatre, under Executive Director Christine Leslie and Artistic Director Gregory Amato’s guidance, has used Peninsula landmarks as well as the Fox Theatre as backdrops for performances. They’ve also aimed to use art to highlight the challenges communities have faced. 

Their most recent five-part production, the Chrysalis Project, pays tribute to the physical and emotional distance experienced during shelter-in-place orders through solo and duet performances by often masked dancers. After success with video, Leslie said recordings may be carried into in-person productions.

“This was completely brand new for us and really did start because dancers said we have to dance and the art just got more and more interesting and important to them. They finally just started thinking of ways to make that more than just a personal and private thing to do,” said Leslie. “This time has been emotionally trying and intellectually challenging but the bottom line is our audiences deserved to have art and need art.”

Similarly, Kristof Moy, the executive director of Music at Kohl Mansion, said a survey showed their audience members were hesitant to return to in-person shows but sales for the first three virtual concerts of the season have done well. 

“Three weeks ago I would have been nervous. Now we’ve had three concerts and we found it fascinating and successful. In light of the fact that this is the situation where we are all in, we’re trying to make the most exciting programming we can,” said Kristof Moy, noting the company’s season normally pauses during the summer, leaving time to plan without taking as strong of a financial hit as other companies.

Music at Kohl Mansion is known for hosting internationally renowned chamber groups. Kristof Moy said that while chamber music is meant to be heard in person and indoors, sourcing performances from the comfort of the artist’s home or studio has provided a unique experience for the viewer. 

Audience appetite

The Hillbarn Theatre, under leadership of Executive Artistic Director Dan Demers, has continued to plan ahead despite continued uncertainties around the virus. Noting the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, Demers said the spike has had little effect on planning considering state restrictions have kept theaters closed in all tiers. Regardless, he feels confident audiences will return when permitted. 

“I think the ‘appetite’ for live theater is very much present. The arts are what heals the human spirit and I think the Bay Area community remains hungry for those experiences of empathy, joy and togetherness,” said Demers in an email.

Like the Dragon Theatre, programming at the Hillbarn has moved online using Twitch where audiences can access a live trivia night on Wednesdays. Launching Dec. 4, the company is also hosting its first online holiday concert as part of a Holiday Sustaining Belief Drive with a goal of raising $40,000.   

“The health and safety of our staff, patrons and community are paramount for us. So we continue to wait, listen, learn and do what we do best, be as creative as we can,” said Demers. 

Needed assistance

Beyond what savings the companies may have, they have had to rely on donations to sustain business. The size and number of donations have shrunk through the duration of the pandemic, but the directors shared appreciation for what assistance their organizations have received including from the San Mateo County Arts Commission. 

“The arts commission was the first to use the term ‘artists are second responders.’ We may not be firemen and EMTs but we are there to provide support, healing, distractions and joy,” said Kristof Moy. 

Diminished revenue has strained the companies but, until audiences can safely return to the theater, the directors said they intend to remain hopeful, assured artists will continue to create and audiences will be eager to watch. 

“Pessimists do not go into this line of work. It just doesn’t happen. We’re all hopeful and all actually pretty confident that we’re going to come out the other side of this,” said Leslie. “This is not what we wanted and I wouldn’t wish this on anybody ever but were going to make this work. We’re the little company that could.”

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