Fresno-area groups struggle with uncertainty and financial hardships, but the will to survive is strong
Coronavirus, meet choral music.
It’s an ideal first date, at least for the virus. Consider the encounter from its (tiny) point of view: A large clump of tightly gathered human bodies, probably performing inside, each one featuring a warm, moist vocal apparatus spewing large quantities of respiratory droplets into the air. Big, deep, coordinated breaths. Lots of diligently enunciated words practically spit out for better articulation. Hot, close lights.
And a bonus! The demographics of an American community choral ensemble skew decidedly older, with many participants falling squarely into the age range of people most at risk for serious illness.
Anna Hamre, music director of the Fresno Master Chorale, marvels that during the coronavirus pandemic, singing together in an enclosed space can be considered as risky as extreme sports.
“Who knew we were doing one of the most dangerous activities available?” she says with a smile.
The arts are deeply impacted by the pandemic. And they are hurting:
• Orchestras and other instrumental ensembles, particularly those with wind players, are obvious candidates for spreading the virus. (Ever sat in a trombone section? It’s like a spittoon meets a wind tunnel.)
• Musical theater often crams dozens of actors onto a small stage, then makes them emote, bellow, shimmy, whisper and even kiss each other.
• Museums have it a little easier in terms of spreading out patrons, but people can get a lot closer than 6 feet to each other in crowded galleries.
• And when was the last time you saw social distancing in a dance performance?
Then, add the fact that this all happens in front of live audience members — squeezed into seats right next to each other, in interior spaces with common ventilation systems — and culture takes a huge hit in the Age of Coronavirus.
“I’m not sure that arts organizations are going to look the same on the other side of COVID-19,” says Stephen Wilson, executive director and CEO of the Fresno Philharmonic.
Guide to coverage
Written in 10 short chapters, this story offers an impressionistic snapshot of the challenges faced by local arts organizations. You can jump to the various chapters:
6. Zoom zoom
Accompanying this story
Part 2 of this series: Coping with COVID: updates on specific Fresno-area arts organizations
For this story — which is sometimes bleak, occasionally optimistic and often uncertain — I interviewed a dozen arts leaders in the greater Fresno area. Each of these leaders is a fighter. Each is nervous. Each is hatching multiple plans for his or her organization that can change from week to week. Each is making hard decisions about programming, fighting to save jobs, angling to retain donors and scrambling to understand arcane public health implications.
“I’ve spent a lot of time studying Bach cantatas, but what to do when there is a pandemic was never in the curriculum,” Hamre says. “The whole choir world is on a learning trajectory.”
After weeks of interviews and in-depth discussions, I’ve made this main story impressionistic in tone and jumbled in spirit, a right-brain approach that swirls and meanders. (For those seeking a more left-brain approach to the subject matter, I offer an accompanying article with more specifics about how various local arts groups are coping.) I wanted this piece to be messy. This crisis is messy. The arts can’t be wedged into a one-size-fits-all narrative.
“There are no for-sure answers,” says Judy Stene, executive director of Children’s Musical Theaterworks. “I feel like I’m living in the United States of Confusion.”
Plus, there are so many pandemic-related problems facing institutions and industries of all kinds — education, government, travel, healthcare — and so many people opining on ways to solve those problems, that it can be overwhelming to slog through the details.
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The remarkable thing, when talking to these local arts leaders, is realizing again how much fight they have in them.
The battles they’re waging are not the front lines of the pandemic, by any means. Let’s call them peripheral skirmishes. But if the arts are able to weather this crisis, its leaders need the same dedication and passion as our first responders.
“What gets us through this is memory,” says Dan Pessano, managing director of Good Company Players, a man whose folksy, gently astringent and convolutingly wise pronouncements have kept me entertained for decades. “We get through stuff,” he continues. “That’s who we are. This is stuff right now. You can spell it however you want, but it’s stuff. It is the memory of the people who taught us how to get through stuff — that gets us through stuff.”
NOW STREAMING: ARTS LEADERS PONDER WHAT THINGS WILL LOOK LIKE IN SIX MONTHS
On the June 2020 episode of “The Munro Review on CMAC,” I talked with leaders of Good Company Players, the Fresno Philharmonic, the Fresno Art Museum, Children’s Musical Theaterworks, the Selma Arts Center and Fresno Master Chorale. Will the arts survive?
There are checks.
Patrons of Good Company Players send them, along with notes of encouragement, Facebook messages, emails and letters. When the pandemic began and the theater closed — for the first time in 50 years — people fretted. Some actors tried to give back the small expense reimbursements at the end of a show’s run. (“Which we have refused, bless their hearts,” says Laurie Pessano, GCP’s creative director.) A loyal GCP supporter, Jim Irvine, started a GoFundMe campaign that has so far raised more than $21,000. It will be divided equally between GCP and Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.
Irvine has no qualms raising money for two businesses that are for-profit.
“The theaters will probably have to open to half capacity to meet state and local requirements,” he says. “Since they don’t make much profit on any show, even with a full house, they will undoubtedly lose money on shows until we get back to our real lives.”
Going to the theater isn’t the same thing as shopping for galvanized hex bolts, say, and casually throwing over the local hardware store for Prime shipping. Art is best live and in person.
So far, community support is holding steady for many arts groups, at least in the short term. Most patrons didn’t ask for refunds on canceled productions. Season-ticket holders have stayed loyal. Donations have remained steady.
“People are staying with us,” Wilson says of Fresno Philharmonic supporters. “They are anxiously waiting for the time when we can be back in performance with them live.”
Pessano is touched and embarrassed by the community support. Overwhelmed, really, by the GoFundMe drive. He sends me a text:
“I believe you know me well enough to understand my schizophrenia on this: so blown away by Jim ‘s love and caring; and so uncomfortable to ask for help.”
There are more checks, the kind that go to artists.
(Thanks, federal government.)
For those first few weeks after quarantine went into effect, when Fresno’s performing arts calendar crumbled — a few events at first, starting with the Fresno Master Chorale canceling its March 29 “Finding Refuge” concert, then the Fresno Philharmonic ditching its Proxima chamber music concert, and, finally, the whole schedule tumbling down in a two-day whoosh — there was a lot of scrambling. Wilson, with the orchestra, immersed himself in the intricacies of the Paycheck Protection Program. So did Michele Ellis Pracy, executive director and chief curator of the Fresno Art Museum.
The Pessanos, at GCP, embarked on the PPP bureaucratic journey, too, stewing at times about the uncertainty of it all.
Paperwork. Bank loan applications. No money available. Phase Two. More paperwork. Finally, the government comes through.
All three institutions benefitted. The orchestra is able to cover the payroll not only of its office staff but also its contracted musicians for the remaining concerts in the season.
“That’s a huge benefit to them,” Wilson says. “And, certainly, a number of orchestras in California have likewise been successful getting PPP funds. Because our musicians play for a number of different orchestras in the state, that’s been a great help, too.”
When GCP found out it had finally gotten PPP approval, Dan Pessano was happy enough to dance a jig.
Ellis Pracy was able to snag a PPP loan for the museum. She also benefited from a major bequest in January from the estate of Donald Gumz, which helped her stabilize the museum’s finances, which have been rocky. Still, she’s counting dollars.
A social-distance-friendly exhibition will tentatively open in late August. Ellis Pracy and her small staff, working from home, scrapped the 2020 schedule and bumped exhibitions that would come with rental fees or transportation expenses. Instead, the focus will be on a show that highlights women artists from the museum’s permanent collection — a cheaper option.
That will help, considering the revenue the museum lost during two months of quarantine. Postponing Trashique, the premier fundraiser, was a $63,000 loss. Other canceled events — field trips, an opening reception, Mother’s Day activities — was another $47,000.
Still, people have been understanding. All those tickets, tables and sponsorships pre-paid for Trashique?
“No one asked for their money back,” Ellis Pracy says. “Thank heaven. That’s one of the reasons why I’m secure. We could leave that money there.”
Still, she has a firm opening date planned, and she’s confident that with the right social-distancing practices, it will stick. (“We should be able to open seamlessly to the public in August,” she says.) The museum might revamp its logo to incorporate a mask in the design, though the staff still has to vote to approve.
“I’ve done a lot of reading about how all the arts are going to be impacted. I know that for theaters and for musical events, including choirs, it’s going to be much more difficult than for me.”
The goal: Give people confidence that the museum is doing everything it can for a safe experience, but also asking them to recognize that it can’t create zero risk for everybody. Pracy thinks she can do it.
Wilson recently told her: “For the first time, I envy you being a museum.”
He hopes to offer a live Fresno Philharmonic concert by February of 2021, if conditions allow.
Eight women. Eight feet apart.
In a backyard somewhere, singing.
Soli Deo Gloria, Fresno’s premier women’s choral ensemble, sends out a members-only newsletter titled Sister Snippets. It includes updates on what the women have been up to. (Lots of Zooming, probably.) But while it’s nice to stay connected, it doesn’t feel the same as actually being in the same room — or yard — making music together.
The voluntary outing by members of the ensemble will space eight singers eight feet apart, says artistic director Julie Carter.
“Just so we can experience the joy of singing again,” she says.
The eight women will break into four parts.
The next-door neighbors are in for a treat.
He is the man of many plans.
Andreas Werz knows one thing: There will be no fall season for the Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts series.
Anne-Marie McDermott, who made her Carnegie Hall debut as a solo pianist at age 12, was slated to open the season Sept. 8.
“No one is playing in September,” says Werz, artistic director of the series. “My dream is to start in January, but I’m thinking that maybe February is the earliest we can hope for something.”
A regular Keyboard season usually consists of eight subscription concerts plus several special add-on performances. That was Plan A, which is dead. Now Werz has moved on:
• Plan B: Start in February or March and add the missing fall concerts to the end of the lineup, extending the season into summer.
• Plan C: Start in February or March but offer a truncated season without trying to make up the missing fall concerts.
• Plan D: Cancel the season entirely and start again in fall 2021.
Werz’s various contingencies are common in the arts world these days. Who knows what the situation will be like in a month, much less six?
Stene, at Children’s Musical Theaterworks, empathizes.
“Starting March 14, we kept coming up with different plans. We’re now on Plan 5, and we’re hoping one will stick,” she says.
Still, Werz faces special considerations. The average age of a Keyboard patron is 75, he points out. Even though a solo piano recital is easier to present in a socially distant manner than an orchestral performance, almost the entire audience would be in a high-risk group.
“We can survive a really bad season, which this may be,” Werz says. “We have a little bit of a reserve, which we accumulated over the years. If we don’t do anything at all, we’ll be able to survive.”
On a Tuesday not long after quarantine goes into effect, Thomas Loewenheim is just another square on the screen. Remember those first, frantic weeks of quarantine when the world was a marvel for Zoom neophytes? Now the format feels so ubiquitous that even the humor-impaired don’t bother making “Brady Bunch” jokes.
Loewenheim’s face is surrounded by dozens of others belonging to the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra. Loewenheim would usually be on a podium. In regular times, between the university orchestra and the powerhouse Youth Orchestras of Fresno organization he oversees, it’s hard not to find him on a podium (or teaching his cello students). But on this day, he is playing Franz Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4. Schmidt was an Austro-Hungarian composer whose work came to be associated with and celebrated by the Nazi party during World War II even though he wasn’t a party member.
You can never know how history will relate to a political situation, as one never knows if they are on the “correct” side of history, he tells his students.
The discussion is powerful, even if it isn’t the same as making music.
“I still cannot wait to be in the same room with my students, as it is not the same to see them online, and I miss being with them and working with them tremendously,” he says.
Being on Zoom is an experience that can be weirdly both immersive and detached. It’s how I picture those floating-above-your-hospital-bed-heading-for-the-light testimonials you hear from patients who die on the operating table: You’re in the Zoom room, part of the action, but you’re also hovering above, watching yourself interact with other people (albeit without tubes down your throat).
The platform has been a boon for arts groups in the pandemic, if only as a way for members of those groups to stay in touch. The Fresno Master Chorale held a private Zoom session featuring Dan Forrest, composer of the choral mega-hits “Jubilate Deo” and “Requiem for the Living,” both loved by the choir members. (Think of it as the fan-club version of teenage girls fainting for the Beatles, except for people who can sing in Latin.)
It’s also a way for some artists to stay in shape, says Diane Mosier, artistic director of the Lively Arts Foundation, which is considering scheduling Diablo Ballet — originally planned for the fall — for late March 2021. “The dancers are restless!” she writes. “Lots of Zooming going on but it’s not the same.”
Other virtual experiences abound:
• The cast of “New Wrinkles” held a Zoom party on May 28, the night the 2020 production should have opened.
• Selma Arts Center has been offering “cast reunion” gatherings of previous shows and online classes in props design.
• At Fresno Music Academy & Arts (formerly The Voice Shop), owner Debi Ruud has been Zooming up a storm, offering individual voice lessons for students, while fellow instructors teach a variety of instruments and techniques. “We have about 300 clients currently studying online,” she says. After the pandemic, “We lost close to 150 students … ouch.”
• Soli Deo Gloria hosted Brigid Dejong, a vocal professor at Fresno State and Fresno Pacific University, to teach the singers the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) system.
• California Opera offers lessons and is holding rehearsals on Zoom even as its summer performance schedule remains on hold.
• The Fresno Philharmonic hosted a chamber-music performance of Robert Morris’ “Landscape Greeting,” a commissioned piece that would have premiered live at the Fresno Art Museum on March 12. The music was recorded separately by the individual musicians and edited into a synchronous performance.
In fact, a new theater company was born out of the pandemic: The Zounds! Bartadine Readers Society, the brainchild of thespians Renee Newlove and Jeremy Hitch, brings together actors from Fresno and beyond in thrice-weekly Zoom performances of Shakespeare plays. It works because the art form was specifically created for the medium. As I wrote in a feature piece, it’s amazing how much intensity and emotion can be conveyed through Zoom.
“There are moments that draw us to tears and moments that make us laugh until we cry,” Newlove says.
In most cases, however, Zoom can only go so far. Dan Pessano points to issues with the lag time of the medium and the difficulties in synchronizing performers, particularly in musical moments. What can be good enough for rehearsal isn’t usually acceptable for a performance.
“It’s a lesson in life: Don’t Zoom lightly,” he says. “Realize the ups and downs of Zoom. We’ve had some hugely funny moments in ‘The King and I’ rehearsals when people were supposed to be singing together.”
Sometimes, though, Zoom can be as beautiful as a rainbow.
Separated by time and miles, the four players still seem to move together. Chamber music is like that. It’s as if one musical mind has temporarily inhabited all four performers. They play as one.
One local virtual performance highlight was delivered by The Tower Quartet on “Fresno Famoso,” the real-time Facebook Live arts program I co-hosted for 10 weeks. (The weekly show is currently on hiatus.)
The song was an arrangement for string quartet of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The musicians played their parts separately, and the music came together in post-production. Heartfelt, sentimental, gorgeously played — it was the right performance at the right time.
Dan Pessano points to the moment as the best local arts digital moment he’s seen online.
“It was extraordinary,” he says.
Loewenheim, like almost all artists, is adaptable. He started a virtual cello class for his Fresno State students this summer that has mushroomed. which started just for my students at Fresno State. He then invited students from the Youth Orchestras and students who applied to FOOSA, the wildly successful international orchestra summer festival based at Fresno State that culminates with a concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. (It had to be canceled this year, of course.)
“We ended up with over 40 students registered for the class,” Loewenheim says. “We have listeners from Israel, Germany, Malaysia, Argentina, Columbia, and all over the US including Puerto Rico. The class became so popular that I was asked to give a similar class for a colleague in China, which we started last Friday with over 20 attending.”
All this is no surprise to Wilson, at the Fresno Philharmonic, who says the digital impact on classical music as a result of the pandemic is already monumental.
NOW STREAMING: THE ZOOM PERFORMANCE YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS
Each kid gets a space.
The demarcated zones are marked off with painters tape in socially distant increments. Each comes with a chair (which the participant gets to decorate) and a box with art supplies. All children wear masks (that are artistically decorated, of course) and have their temperatures taken at the curb after being dropped off by their parents.
The summer acting program at Children’s Musical Theaterworks, limited to just 10 students, is unlike anything the company has offered before.
What will the live version of the arts look like in the short term? That’s a good question. Right now, for most arts groups, that is the question.
“It would be tough to do a performance with a mask on,” says Juan Luis Guzmán of Selma Arts Center.
One idea being kicked around at the theater company: holding a production outside in Pioneer Village. The more we know about the coronavirus, the more we realize that it likes being inside.
Guzmán is slated to direct the last show on the Selma 2020 calendar, a production of “Zoot Suit.” He hopes the late November opening date can happen. If not, it — along with the rest of the postponed season — will be bumped to next year.
But the idea of taping off four out of every five seats in the Saroyan Theatre, say, sounds tough.
Fresno State’s theater department hopes to get fancy with its virtual theater alternatives, but it depends on approval all the way up to the state level.
“If we are given the face-to-face option, we are going to rehearse shows and then record them for streaming purposes,” says department chair J. Daniel Herring. “I hope to have final word this coming week … If we are not given permission for face-to-face rehearsals/recordings then we will be working on a completely virtual version for the Fall 2020 shows.”
Loewenheim, at Fresno State and the Youth Orchestras of Fresno, is preparing to teach classes online in the fall. The music department is still hoping it might be able to teach a small number of classes face to face, but probably limited to a smaller number of students.
“I am sure will also be determined based on the number of cases we will have in Fresno at the time of the beginning of the semester, and we are also waiting for some research papers that will be published about performing and its potential risks, he says. “As to performing synchronously on Zoom — that is still not possible. Because of the delay of the internet connection, it makes it impossible to play together online. We are all looking for other ways we can work online and perform together like making recordings, and other creative ways to work together.”
Museums and art galleries aren’t in as tough a shape when it comes to social distancing, as Pracy states, but it will still be a challenge. She’s planning on a one-way path through the galleries, 6-feet demarcations, hand sanitizer and, of course, masks.
“We’re hoping that the joy of being able to come back to the museum far outweighs the machinations we’re all going to have to implement,” she says.
Perhaps everything — the ensembles themselves, the audiences, the venues — will have to be smaller.
“What we’re doing this summer is very small-scale, but scaled down may be what we have to look at for the next year and a half, for everything we do,” Stene says. “It just could be that everything is going to be a mini-version of what it was.”
Wilson, at the Fresno Philharmonic, is thinking in those terms. He notes that many people love “big” productions with hundreds of musicians on stage and thousands in the audience, he notes. But small can work, too.
“What I expect is that as we move back into live performance, there are going to be evolutions,” he says. “The first concerts back might look very different than what they look like six months later.”
What will get us back to normal?
Probably a vaccine. Or a cure for COVID-19, the capricious disease caused by the virus.
In the choral world, lots of suggestions are being made: ultraviolet lighting, better ventilation, Plexiglas dividers between singers.
“I don’t think that’s going to make people feel safe,” says Hamre of the Fresno Master Chorale. “I really think knowing that there is treatment if you get it — that’s what’s going to make people feel safe.”
Carter, with Soli Deo Gloria, has thought a lot about the issue during the quarantine.
“Will an audience even want to come? Yes, you could put 6 feet between audience members, instruct them to wear a mask, not sing in the aisle, not greet them after the concert in the entryway. But would people come? Would it be a positive experience? I’m not so sure.”
Carter’s church recently took a survey, and 40% of the people responding said they were concerned about coming back soon, while 60% were either ready to return or close to ready. She senses that same division in her choirs.
“Some people want protections and others are more ready for risk,” she says. “But because I feel responsible for them, I don’t want to place them at risk.”
Plus, remember the part about singing being dangerous? An oft-cited study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined a two and a half hour choir practice attended by 61 persons in Skagit County, Washington, resulted in 32 confirmed and 20 secondary COVID-19 cases. Three patients were hospitalized, and two died.
Hamre takes those numbers seriously.
“A lot of our people, both concert goers and performers in this town, are in the susceptible age where it’s a little more dangerous. So they’re making some hard choices in life. I can’t tell you when we are performing again. I can tell you that we have a scenario written out that allows for a lot of flexibility. In the meantime, we have a lot of other things we are doing.”
Edna Garabedian, artistic director of California Opera, says it will take time.
“It will take lots of love, patience and understanding for our community to feel confident and comfortable once again,” she says.
The word “essential” has taken on a new meaning.
You stayed open if you are. You closed if you weren’t.
In every plan, every phase, every list that came out from the authorities, the arts have been at the tail-end of it all. Which, while understandable in many ways, can be demoralizing for those of us who live, breathe and revel in artistic expression.
As arts organizations move forward, there is the simple question of financial survival. In the simple act of staying alive, non-profit organizations — which rely on a combination of ticket revenues and donations — might be in a better place than for-profit entities, particularly theater and concert presenters that have to cover expenses by putting bottoms in seats.
“ ‘Hamilton’ doesn’t work at half full,” Wilson says.
A non-profit arts group has a special relationship with its audiences. If you feel safe, come; if you don’t there are other ways to support the organization.
“At the end of the day, the business model of symphony orchestras will be more like public media — those who are willing to donate are paying for it,” he says. “I think there is going to be evolution as we move through this in terms of what the business models and economics of a presentation are going to look like. The hope would be perhaps on the other side of this, we come out with an even more stable business model.”
But there is a stark economic reality here. In the economically challenging times certain to come, there will be a lot of competition for donor dollars. Stene notes that “the optics of keeping theater alive when people aren’t able to eat, are really bad.”
Will the arts survive? I ask each of my arts leaders that question, and they are all optimistic. Will all arts organizations survive? I don’t ask that question. No one would want to answer. But I do feel the underlying concern.
Still, there is at least one major impact of the pandemic. Arts lovers and patrons are making their voices heard. If it’s up to them, then, yes, the arts will survive.
Dan Pessano sums it up.
“It’s hard to go on if you don’t think you’re essential,” he says. “So much of us live on what we do as being essential. The way this stuff has gone, people on the outside have pretty much told us what they think is essential, and it isn’t us. We know we are. We know the arts are. We know the community knows that. They’ve said so.”