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The Arts from Afar: Pandemic inspired innovation in the arts world in 2020 | Covid-19

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The pandemic turned everything upside down in 2020, including some of the things we usually rely on to help us through dark times — like the arts.

When it became clear that the novel coronavirus was going to stick around for a while, arts leaders from Westerly to Mystic to Providence and in between began to look anew at the programs they had planned to present in 2020, most of which were canceled when pandemic protocols forced limits on large indoor gatherings.

Groups like the Chorus of Westerly, the United Theatre, the La Grua Center, the Granite Theatre, the Arts Café Mystic, Trinity Rep and the Gamm experimented with new ways to reach their audiences. They partnered with other organizations, and they turned to Zoom and YouTube and Soundscape and the great outdoors as they wrestled with how best to entertain and inspire their weary supporters starved for music, theatre, film and fun. Some jumped online and others used videography to livestream or record shows and performances, individually or stitched together.

In April, former Rhode Island Poet Laureate Lisa Starr put together a folksy, virtual poetry reading in her role as artistic director of the the Arts Café Mystic called “It Takes a Virtual Village.”

With Providence musician Kim Trusty playing during and after, readers recited poems of their choosing, one after the other, in a 60-minute montage that attracted hundreds of viewers and remains available on the café’s website.

Starr told the readers it was “a fun way to celebrate both National Poetry Month, each of you, and the wonderful and eclectic folks who comprise our audience.”

She said she wanted the video to “feel like a party … filled with music, poetry, and cabin fever.”

Later, when the weather warmed, the arts café was able to host small, socially distanced poetry readings outside on the patio of the Mystic Art Center.

The Chorus of Westerly, too, began to engage audiences using YouTube and the web, as did the United, Trinity, the Gamm and La Grua Center.

“The pandemic has certainly helped us find our way in the virtual world,” said Ryan Saunders, executive director of the chorus, which was forced to cancel all of its indoor concerts, along with its largest undertaking of the year — Summer Pops 2020.

Saunders said once they came to terms with the pandemic’s restrictions, they put YouTube and SoundCloud to good use. Saunders and Chorus Music Director Andrew Howell debuted a program called “Wednesday Lecture Series,” their much-awaited documentary, “Mostly Music: The Journey of the Chorus of Westerly,” had a virtual premiere, several children’s concerts were shared online and the holiday concert, “2020 Christmas Pops,” was shared on radio and online.

Thanks to the tracking abilities of virtual events, they even discovered they had fans as far-flung as New South Wales and Ho Chi Minh City, Saunders said.

Being online has other benefits too, he said, noting there have been more than 30,000 views of the Christmas Pops concert.

And thanks to the Westerly Land Trust, Saunders said, choristers were able to practice safely outside at Wahaneeta Preserve — one of the trust’s properties — during the warmer months.

“It was really, really, special,” Saunders said. “We found new ways.”

“It’s really amazing how inventive so many people in the arts sector have been during this difficult time,” said Lisa Utman Randall, executive director of Westerly’s United Theatre which has been able to continue with its transformation into a regional, multi-use center for the arts throughout the pandemic and create new programming as well.

The United created a podcast, a series called “Live From The United,” featuring interviews with guests like Jon Batiste, the pianist and bandleader who plays weeknights on CBS’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”; Torey Malatia, the CEO of The Public’s Radio; Ryan Saunders and Andrew Howell from The Chorus of Westerly; and the poet, Lisa Starr.

The United’s Artistic Director, Tony Nunes, created a series called “Cabin Fever Curation,” which shared some of the premiere virtual arts experiences from around the globe. The United will continue to offer arthouse films in their virtual screening room, established soon after the pandemic arrived.

During the summer months, the United joined forces with the Newport Folk Festival and the Knickerbocker Music Center to present a number of concerts — including an immensely popular event with the Providence-based alternative rock-folk band Deer Tick — at the Misquamicut Drive-in. These events, Randall said, “allowed people to get out of the house and experience film and music safely in community.”

Randall said they even made an exciting discovery during the dark days of the pandemic: a vintage 1920s mural on the part of the theater that once housed the Montgomery Ward building.

“It’s called ‘The Spirit of Progress,’ and depicts the goddess Diana, dressed in flowing robes, balancing on a globe, and holding a torch in her right hand and a caduceus in her left hand,” Randall said in an email earlier this week. 

“We thought it was so fitting forthe United Theatre complex and downtown Westerly,” she said.

At Stonington’s La Grua Center, executive director Lori Robishaw worked with renowned sound engineer Christopher Greenleaf, the curator of La Grua’s Music Matters series, to offer concerts on the center’s YouTube channel.

“When your mission is all about bringing people together, you have to pivot,” said Robishaw, noting that the center’s mission is “is to engage community through arts and culture.”

Greenleaf first arranged for guest musicians to come into the center alone, “record on one of our beautiful pianos,” Robishaw said, then he posts the concert at 5 p.m. on Saturdays, the usual time for the concerts.

“It helps keep a sense of community,” she said, “and it helps keep a presence.”

La Grua also started a speaker series and panel discussion focusing on racism, soon after the murder of George Floyd. At the same time, they presented an art exhibit, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, called “Stories of Resilience: Encountering Racism.”

“I was sad more people were unable to see it,” Robishaw said of the exhibit. “But the discussions were on Zoom and can still be seen.”

The gallery at La Grua remains open, Robishaw stressed, although the concerts will remain virtual for now.

Theater groups, meanwhile, took full advantage of the warm weather in the summer and fall and experimented with outdoor performances, like Westerly’s Stagedoor Theatre, which organized a memorable production of Edward Albee’s “The American Dream” in Wilcox Park in September. The Flock Theatre, too, took advantage of Wilcox Park and staged performances of Aristophanes’ comedy “The Birds” there in August. The Granite presented several Zoom performances, Trinity arranged for an online version of their annual version of “A Christmas Carol,” and the Gamm partnered with The Public’s Radio to present a radio version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The Wilbury Theatre, too, experimented with outdoor performances in conjunction with Waterfire Providence.

Eugene Celico of Pawcatuck, the founder and artistic director of Stagedoor Theatre, said he’s already working on an original play inspired by the pandemic with the working title, “Six Feet Apart but Closer than Ever.”

“Hopefully I will finish it by the summer (of 2021),” he said, “And I am hopeful we’ll be back in the park this summer. I am already booked for two weeks in August. The theater cannot stay dormant forever.”

Back at the chorus, Saunders said he has a surprise for people this week. This is the weekend that in years past — way, way pre-pandemic — would have been reserved for performances of “A Celebration of Twelfth Night,” he said. “Twelfth Night” was the much-loved wintertime tradition — held for more than 40 years —that involved hundreds of participants, delighted audiences, and added a festive close to the Christmas season.

“We’re having a special virtual festival,” he said. “Twelve Days of Twelfth Night” is on the chorus website now and will continue through Jan. 10. with a special something added each day.

“There will be lots of familiar faces,” Saunders said, “and we’ll end with a video montage of the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’ with a recording from Jim Lawson, who played Father Christmas for years.”

“It might be a while until we have a live concert,” Saunders said, “But things are at least pointing in the right direction.”

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