As arts groups return to live performance,
optimism and anxiety are part of the game
A special report for The Review by Donald Munro / May 11, 2021
Dan Pessano counted the days.
He had plenty of time on his hands during the pandemic to ponder how long his theater company had been dark, after all. Before our world sputtered to a stall, Pessano — the managing director of Good Company Players — was habitually busy. He was accustomed to a year-round blur of rehearsing, performing, directing and administrating. (Plus a few, precious minutes each day during baseball season for updates on his beloved Giants.) When his theater was shut down, however, Pessano found himself in limbo. He was bereft. Bored. Financially worried.
And he kept a running total of how many days it had been since live theater graced his stages.
His experience was mirrored this past year by many others in the local arts community. Musicians couldn’t play. Choristers couldn’t sing. Artists couldn’t exhibit. Dancers couldn’t dance. Worse, there was an overriding sense of dread as to what the future would bring. Would arts organizations, not known for being flush with cash even in good times, be able to stay afloat? Would donors and season-ticket holders ask for their money back? Would audiences ever return? What if no vaccine is developed? What if Zoom ends up ruling the world?
Dan Pessano, managing director of Good Company Players, is seen in silhouette as he sits behind the onscreen stage at Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater. Photos by The Munro Review
Pessano can stop counting. On this glorious Friday night a couple of weeks ago, backstage at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, there is a reason that he is so happy. In just a few moments, the curtain will rise. He is getting ready to walk onto the stage to face a live audience for the first time in 404 days.
The masked, socially distanced, vaccine-verified crowd is much smaller than usual — only about 50 theater-loving souls. They’re spread apart in that peculiar, semi-quarantined configuration to which we’ve grown accustomed in the past year: Household and related “pod” members sit close together while the rest of humanity is at greater-than-sneezing distance. It reminds me of the way that upscale, tony houses on big lots in grand neighborhoods end up standing far apart from each other, as if they’re too snooty to get closer.
But no matter how odd it is to see an audience in masks — and sitting far from each other, as if no one has showered for weeks — it is a wonderful moment. A new beginning. A declaration of the arts.
To capture a sense of this reopening momentum, I surveyed 26 arts organizations in the greater Fresno area. The specific responses, broken out by organization, can be accessed individually from within this story (either on the right rail or embedded below, depending on your device and browser.) The overall tone of the responses is hopeful. It’s a lot more fun to talk about orange and green COVID-19 tiers than red and purple. Still, arts groups are battle-weary and want to be as careful as they can while they ease back into normality.
That’s the case with Good Company on this night. The show, a musical revue titled “In the Meantime,” is modest in size. Along with Pessano as emcee, it features one singer — Jessica Sarkisian, a GCP veteran known for such roles as the mom in “A Christmas Story” and the title character in “The Drowsy Chaperone” — and a keyboard player, Terry Lewis, a face so familiar on the GCP stage that for many season-ticket subscribers, he feels like family. Starting off small, this show is a chance to for the company to ease back into performance after being dark so long. It’s all a prelude to May 20, when “Nunsense” — a show with just five performers — opens.
On opening night of Good Company Players' 'In the Meantime,' the players talk backstage: Pessano, left, Jessica Sarkisian and Terry Lewis. Their performance was the first at Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater in more than a year.
I happen to be backstage, too, because Pessano wanted me to be a part of this special moment on reopening night. He’s going to introduce me to the audience and include me in his emcee banter. We sit on stools a few feet behind the scrim, upon which a 47-minute video of highlight GCP moments is screened while patrons eat dinner. For the two of us, it’s like being close-up to a movie screen, only with the large images reversed. The final number in the video clip is from “Something Rotten!,” the lush and happy musical that last graced this stage before the pandemic shutdown.
Pessano stares intently at the moving images. For a moment he seems to lose himself in music and memory. This theater has been his life’s work. The past year was like a fire that crept right up to his property line and then smoldered, sometimes flaring up threateningly, at other times feeling reassuringly burned out. All he knows is that GCP came close to ruin. How appropriate it was, then, that “Something Rotten!” — a sloppy, wet kiss to the enduring appeal of musical theater — was the final pre-COVID title.
He points at the larger-than-life actors on the screen before him and whispers.
“If we’d been forced to close, that would have been a great note to end on,” he says.
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The pandemic percolated for a few months before the shutdown, but the big closure still felt abrupt for arts organizations.
“We contacted the participants and had them pick up their pieces requesting that they wear masks and not linger,” she writes in the survey. “It felt otherworldly, cold and sadly sterile.”
Few people were predicting at the start of the shutdown that it would last as long as it has.
Julie Carter, artistic director of Soli Deo Gloria, writes that she, like so many others, was optimistic.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, when we thought it would be just a short time, we held regular meetings on Zoom. We had lessons in IPA (international phonetic alphabet) which we planned to use to mark our music in a more specific fashion. Brigid de Jong, a voice professor who taught at Fresno Pacific University and Fresno State, gave several wonderful sessions for us and many of our group participated.”
SURVEY QUESTION: Do you have an upcoming public live event scheduled with a specific date?
Remember those first tense, but also sort of heady, weeks of the shutdown, when streets were empty, skies were clearer and Netflix felt like food from the gods? There was an intensity, a camaraderie, that brought us together. I joined up with some arts friends to start a temporary live performance show called “Fresno Famoso,” and for the 10 weeks it aired it felt as if we and the rest of the arts community was on a sacred mission. I often felt a “London Blitz” type of thing going on, all of us pulling together for the greater good.
I remember listening to the Fresno Master Chorale putting out a Zoom-chorus version of the Hallelujah Chorus and blubbering tears in front of my monitor, touched at the monumental effort to manually patch together those voices.
Yet intensity inevitably fades. And technology got better. (The Master Chorale’s Coro in Camera ensemble now uses software using new JackTrip technology that allows for singing together, says conductor Anna Hamre.) We went from Zoom Wow to Zoom Everything, with the commensurate loss of novelty and excitement. But it is easy to forget today, just a year later, how important for the arts it was to be able to stream into people’s homes. It was no substitute for live performance, granted, but it kept people connected.
What memory stands out most from the pandemic?
“The fact that the Department of Theatre and Dance produced 10 virtual events during the 2020-2021 academic year,” writes J. Daniel Herring, chair of the Fresno State Department of Theatre and Dance.
The Fresno Art Museum was one of the few arts institutions that got a chance to open its doors for a few weeks in October during the shutdown. But it was tantalizingly brief, coming in between waves of infection. Still, the museum also took advantage of technology to keep connected to its patrons and supporters.
It invested in digital programs and new computers during the closure.
SURVEY QUESTION: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most severe, how has your organization been impacted financially by the pandemic?
“We now have a digital Gallery Guide, a YouTube channel for the art lesson/teaching videos we have produced, and we communicate with a weekly newsletter every Wednesday at noon,” says Michele Ellis Pracy, executive director and chief curator. “We have learned to reach our public with virtual tools made possible because of the pandemic.”
The Fresno Philharmonic couldn’t do much during the fall except conduct online interviews with musicians. How could it? Wind instruments might as well be dedicated virus-dissemination devices. But soon after the first of the year, as COVID-19 testing — and then the vaccines themselves — starting becoming available, the orchestra developed protocols for filming live performance at Shaghoian Hall.
There were fewer musicians on the stage, and the four concerts that made up the season were shorter than normal. This wasn’t a way to hear big, ambitious symphonies. But the video production and sound was excellent, and some of the creative innovations — including a short animated segment to the final movement of Ibert’s “Divertissement,” and spectacular drone aerial photography accompanying Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 — took full advantage of the medium.
In many ways, the pandemic will have a lasting impact on live performance long after restrictions are lifted.
“The Digital Masterworks Series came off better than we could have hoped,” writes Stephen Wilson, executive director and CEO of the Fresno Philharmonic. “We expect to continue making digital production part of our programming mix post-pandemic.”
So does the Selma Arts Center, says board member Juan Luis Guzman.
“As we continue to navigate this new terrain, SAC fans can expect to see a hybrid of live and digital performances through the end of the year,” he says. “We can’t wait until we can be back inside of the Selma Arts Center at full capacity, but for now we are excited to have access to an outdoor space that we will be transforming into the SAC outdoor theatre.”
The big summer title “Head Over Heels” just announced its cast and opens July 15.
For complete survey responses from participating arts organizations, click below.
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A few days later, I am in another theater for the first time in more than a year. The Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium, home to Children’s Musical Theaterworks, has that slightly musty smell of an unused space.
Yet the warm, blazing stage lights, just turned on for the filming of a special edition of my monthly Community Media Access Collaborative show, seem to brush out some of the existential cobwebs.
From the front of the house, I can hear two young Matildas, Kate Breton and Hannah Williams, who share the title roles in CMT’s upcoming production, warming up their voices in a backstage dressing room. They’re singing loud enough to be heard from the last row. It’s comforting.
CMT boasts some of the Fresno area’s hardest working group of artists during the pandemic. Time and again, the company has gone as far as it safely could to continue providing live performance opportunities for its core constituency of children. For adult performers to lose a year of theater was sad; for child performers to lose one of their formative years — one of those chunks of time in which some make the leap from talented beginner to destined for greatness — is heartbreaking. That’s why CMT has gone to great lengths to keep live performance a viable option.
The person who has poured her soul into the endeavor is Julie Lucido, who directed last summer’s socially distant cabaret for CMT, performed for select audiences, and who has soldiered on through eight months of rehearsals for “Matilda: The Musical.” The show, designed to be performed masked and socially distanced, has had so many postponed opening dates during the pandemic that even some of its participants forget when it’s finally reaching the stage. (It’s June 11-20.)
Kate Breton, as Matilda, and Emily Swalef, as Miss Honey, perform a song from 'Matilda: The Musical' at Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium. CMAC producer Kyle Lowe captures the magic on video.
Lucido, a GCP and StageWorks Fresno veteran, is one of the founders of URHere, a new Fresno theater company, and also was instrumental in the private Backyard Readers Theatre Lab, a weekly play-reading group that kept performance opportunities for local actors during the pandemic. She’s also something of an expert on socially distanced rehearsals. She devised an intricate system of dividing her actors into pods based on age, musical number and the size of the rehearsal space. (I’ll be writing more about the lengthy “Matilda” rehearsal process as we get closer to the opening of the show.)
Juggling masked 75 performers (children and adults), two casts, more than a dozen major musical numbers and a whole bunch of pods has been a challenge for Lucido and her actors. I sit and watch the children and adults sing and dance. I get the sense that it was worth the effort. This show is finally going to come to fruition.
I can sense their excitement as they perform for me and for producer Kyle Lowe and the CMAC cameras. Technically, then, it’s an audience of two.
Which beats an audience of zero any day.
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One important fact emerges from my survey of arts organizations: If it hadn’t been for pandemic relief funds, the arts community in the greater Fresno area would have been decimated, at least in terms of its larger institutions.
I asked: “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being extremely important, how important was government assistance (grants, loans, other financial incentives) to keeping your arts organization alive during the pandemic?”
Wilson, of the Fresno Philharmonic, cheekily replied: “What, no 11?”
Similar sentiments come from the Sequoia Symphony Orchestra, based in Visalia.
“The Payroll Protection Program grant we received was everything to us when we had no other income last year,” writes Joshua Banda, executive director of the orchestra.
SURVEY QUESTION: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most difficult, how hard do you think it will be to convince audiences/visitors/supporters to return to your organization?
At the Fresno Art Museum, times would have been even tougher without government funding.
“Honestly, FAM might have closed without the Paycheck Protection Program grants and the Employee Retention Credit offered by the IRS,” Ellis Pracy writes. “We have had no fundraising abilities nor facility rental because we were mandated to be closed and crowds could not gather.”
Smaller arts organizations, especially ones without larger paid staffs, were not helped out as much by government programs, which were geared more toward keeping people employed, not necessarily furthering the arts.
That was the case with the Fresno Master Chorale. “Our overhead is extremely low, so we asked for no government assistance,” Hamre writes. “Our job was to keep our members engaged during the shutdown.”
At Spectrum Art Gallery, which plans to reopen on June 3, the government help was “not as helpful as we wished,” writes Ed Gillum, gallery president. The shutdown has been particularly hard on the cooperative photography gallery.
“It has been very disappointing to say the least,” Gillum adds. “It has been a financial disaster to say the most. We are non-profit and pay our rent and utilities from sales and donations. The annual fund-raising auction (which had to be canceled) had been a great source of income. We are extremely fortunate and very thankful for our landlord’s generosity in lowering our rent as much as he could.”
Ginny Burdick, who owns the Sense of Place gallery in Fresno, writes that six months of expenses and no revenue was a challenge.
SURVEY QUESTION: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most difficult, how hard do you think it will be to convince audiences/visitors/supporters to return to your organization?
“Since we have reopened it has been very slow. Hoping what you are doing will help to get people back out to galleries and buying art. Without in-person workshops, we lost $30K in revenue.”
Because the gallery doesn’t have employees, it did not qualify for PPP loans. But it did receive grants from the county and the Fresno Arts Council.
Those grants were a big help to the Tower Quartet, writes Lianna Elmore.
“That really helped all of our individual finances as we struggled to get any kind of work as musicians both individually and as an ensemble. That assistance allowed us to continue giving attention to our work as a quartet. And receiving those grants and donations just further proved to us that we have something positive to offer and it’s valued by the community. That has really driven us to stay motivated.”
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One week after making an appearance at opening night of Good Company’s “In the Meantime” cabaret, I’m back on stage for one more appearance. (Dan Pessano asked me to return, and he is persuasive.)
It tickles me that I am designated as The Man in the Chair, the character who narrates one of my all-time favorite shows, “The Drowsy Chaperone.” I get to watch the audience as well as the performers.
The lineup is different from last week. Emily Pessano and Ted Nunes are here for a set that will include some of Nunes’ original songs plus such favorites as “Mamma Mia” and “Hey, Jude.” (some sort of brief color goes here)
It’s just one week later, but it already feels like area’s overall arts atmosphere. The air feels brighter and warmer. A few days ago, I was invited to a piano recital given by private students of Andreas Werz, artistic director of the Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts series at Fresno State. (The series will open its season on Sept. 19 with piano superstar Garrick Ohlsson.) The recital was held at The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens and featured a bevy of bright young stars, including 15-year-old Aidan Purtell of Clovis, whose pounding virtuosity is already apparent. Again, to sit in the same room as the performer, to hear those chords ringing in real time, to experience those waves of sound pummeling through molecules I’m sharing with the musician, is a reverential experience that almost chokes me up.
At another incarnation of GCP's 'In the Meantime,' Emily Pessano and Ted Nunes do the performance honors, with Dan Pessano looking on.
There is much debate in the arts community over how long it will take audiences to return once things reopen. But here’s something to consider: Perhaps the absence of live performance for more than a year will make people realize how much they missed it. Perhaps the demand will increase.
The biggest challenge for arts organizations in Fresno remains what it has been for years, says K.C. Rutiaga, president of the CMT board of directors: Bringing attention to the arts, bringing access to the arts, and bringing funding to the arts.
“In some ways this pandemic has helped to bring funding that was not always available, but it remains imperative that we provide channels of access to those who don’t have it,” she writes. “For a community with such a large population, the majority have not experienced the joy that live entertainment and the arts bring.”
In talking with shell-shocked arts folks throughout the pandemic, one thing I’ve heard time and again is that loyal arts supporters stayed loyal. If a majority of the season-ticket holders of the Fresno Philharmonic had asked for refunds when performances were canceled, that could have been deadly. If donors to the art museum had withdrawn their support because the doors were closed, we very well could have lost the institution.
Masked audience members take in Good Company Players' 'In the Meantime' at Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater. The company opens a fully staged production of 'Nunsense' on May 20.
But that didn’t happen. Not at GCP, either. Season subscribers and others went above and beyond, not only eschewing refunds but contributing to a GoFundMe page for the company and Roger Rocka’s that to date has raised more than $45,000.
“The amount of support and sincere good wishes for our survival will be the most relevant memory we will have of the last year, except for the loss of key players in our history,” Pessano writes in the survey.
Backstage, as I wait to make my entrance, once again I watch him watching the backside of the greatest-hits video as it nears completion. Once again, Pessano seems to lose himself in the moment and in the memories. Over the course of 47 years — through hundreds of titles, thousands of shows and perhaps nearing tens of thousands of performers– the guiding principle has been a simple one: Live performance is everything.
The screen rises. Pessano smiles at the audience.
“Welcome back,” he says.
Donald Munro is publisher of The Munro Review, an independent arts website and community TV program dedicated to local arts coverage. He previously wrote for the Anchorage Times and the Fresno Bee. He is a graduate of Columbia University and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and proudly teaches in the Media, Communications and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno.
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