Finally, the unplanned 18-month intermission for arts and culture in South Florida has drawn to a close. With season openings staggered throughout the fall, dancers and actors and musicians will share indoor theater spaces with audiences eager to become part of the communal thrill of a live performance. After a digital-ascendant 2000-2021 season, arts groups and cultural organizations have planned, revised and tweaked 2021-2022 lineups aimed at a return to normal — whatever “normal” may now mean.
Acknowledging the uncertainty that comes with COVID-19, Florida Grand Opera’s General Director and CEO Susan T. Danis says with a sigh, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the pool ...”
Yet artists and artistic leaders like Danis are optimists, ever ready to pivot, adjust and meet the moment. Even before President Joe Biden’s announcement of vaccine mandates, both Miami’s Arsht Center and Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center set regional safety standards by example, requiring masks and either a recent negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination for anyone attending a performance or working in their facilities.
Victoria Rogers, the Knight Foundation’s vice president of arts, isn’t certain how quickly audiences will feel comfortable returning to large performing arts venues, even with such extensive measures in place. But she believes that return is vital.
“Art for me is such a visceral experience. The intake of breath, the gasps, the laughs, the cheering ... and it goes on,” she says. “I’m a people person. When you can ask questions, see art, contemplate it, have debates — you learn so much more when you can physically experience it.”
The pandemic, tough as it was and continues to be, proved to be a period of introspection, adaptation and fresh modes of expression for artists and arts institutions alike. And in all likelihood, many of those shifts will endure.
Just a few of the innumerable lessons from the long intermission:
Artists and audiences don’t have to be in the same facility — or even in the same country — to make a meaningful connection.
Digital content can have stand-alone value, provide additional depth to an arts experience and be a way of reaching audiences unable or unwilling to experience a performance in person.
The connective power of the arts, the opportunity to look at the world through the lens of an artist and see ourselves in others who might seem quite different, enriches life in an irreplaceable way.
Acknowledging the arts and cultural institutions as key economic drivers — not just aesthetic add-ons to everyday life — every level of government, foundations, philanthropists and ticket holders-turned-donors pitched in to make sure the arts could survive huge pandemic losses.
For organizations large and small during the pandemic, necessity was the mother of invention — and reinvention.
For Ashlee Thomas — choreographer, dancer, actor, arts administrator and co-founder of MUCE (the Miami Urban Contemporary Experience) — remote work paired with outdoor gatherings at MUCE’s Little Haiti campus will continue.
Now in graduate studies in musical theater at New York University, Thomas is hoping to create an “arts highway” by establishing MUCE New York so that Black, Indigenous, People of Color artists there can show their work at the MUCE campus in Little Haiti and elsewhere in Miami, and Miami artists can have their work seen in New York.
Her advice to other arts activists: “Don’t wait around for adjustments you’re thinking about making until you have the time. Stay up on new technologies. Get to know unknown people. Expand yourself — don’t get stuck in your box. The younger generation is looking for things to do, so include them. It’s up to us. No one can do it for us.”
After the pandemic forced the early closing of Juggerknot Theatre’s successful, intimately immersive “Miami Motel Stories: North Beach,” founder and executive artistic director Tanya Bravo sought Knight Foundation funding to create “Miami Bus Stop Stories.” The collection of plays written by Haitian-American playwright France-Luce Benson will take Miami students on a virtual bus ride to such communities as Little Haiti, Coconut Grove and Liberty City, where they’ll interact with characters who illuminate different eras of each neighborhood’s history.
Bravo says Juggerknot will create more in-person immersive theater in the future, but she’s grateful for the evolution the pandemic allowed her company.
“We were always in process. We never said no because we worked in transitional buildings ... the past four to five years were like a boot camp,” she says. “I think we’ll become stronger and more multifaceted. Creativity comes from having time to breathe.”
Theater director Bari Newport went for a pandemic relocation. Nine years into leading Maine’s Penobscot Theatre Company, she took a new job as successor to the late Joseph Adler, producing artistic director of GableStage. After “trying and trying and trying to figure out how to lead, how not to feel dread and overwhelming despair, I had an epiphany. Instead of being in darkness and despair, I put all of my energies toward creation,” she says.
She also looked at how theater gets made.
To that end, Newport had a brainstorm when she got her first extended tour of GableStage’s home at the historic Biltmore Hotel. Why not utilize the hotel’s 23,000-square-foot pool, where Olympian and future “Tarzan” Johnny Weissmuller once trained and the movies’ swimming superstar Esther Williams performed, for a literally splashy season kickoff? “Splash!” happens Oct. 28, with a pool performance by Miami’s glam Aqualillies synchronized swimming troupe, a tribute to Adler and his era, and a look ahead to the GableStage future envisioned by Newport.
Part of that future, she hopes, involves changing the way theater gets made.
“The days of theater getting done in chaos and people working for peanuts are over. What if there are more resources? What if we imagine bigger so that theater becomes a more optimistic and hopeful endeavor?”
It won’t be an overnight shift. “We first need to believe that it is possible ourselves and [envision] a thriving theatrical ecosystem in our community...,” Newport said. “Then we need to tell our story, over and over. ... Then we need to find the people, the funders and stakeholders who say, ‘No more: We are going to have a thriving and just theatrical community, and I am going to give the boost that is needed to make that so.’
“It is possible. I just know it.”
Florida Grand Opera’s Danis and her colleagues found different but deeply satisfying ways to connect with opera lovers during the pandemic. With performing arts centers closed but her audience’s appetite for live performance unabated, she produced four American chamber operas and operatic concerts in a variety of socially distanced venues.
“People loved it. It let me do repertoire I couldn’t do in performing arts centers. It was very artistically fulfilling,” Danis says. “There’s a powerful emotional response from seeing opera in a smaller theater. ... I know the audience is craving that now. People can learn to love both grand and more intimate opera.”
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Although the return to the region’s beautiful theaters and striking concert halls was always the goal, several arts leaders figured out a way to safely bring artists and audiences together outdoors, taking advantage of the area’s balmy late fall-early winter weather.
The most inventive approach was Miami New Drama’s “Seven Deadly Sins,” a group of commissioned short plays that featured actors performing in storefronts and in a loading dock along Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, with small audiences sitting safely distanced outside.
Led by artistic director Michel Hausmann (who dreamed up the idea) and managing director Nicholas Richberg, the project ran from November 2020 to January 2021, giving three months of work to more than 100 people, becoming the largest Actors Equity-approved production in the country at the time. It also brought significant national attention to the Colony Theatre-based company, which is dedicated to telling the stories of a diverse South Florida.
“The pandemic gave us the opportunity to explore the broader meaning of theater. It definitely changed our DNA. We ventured into exploring the outer realms of what theater encompasses,” says Hausmann. “Since we were in the business of live storytelling, ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ made us fall in love again with the art form. At first we were frustrated, then we were freed.”
Similarly, Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez moved the company’s beloved annual production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” to the Downtown Doral Park, where the combination of live dancers, scenery, video, animation and Tchaikovsky’s glorious score drew avid outdoor socially distanced audiences.
For Lopez and her colleagues, the hiatus also provided time for a deep-dive reassessment of possibilities, including the ways in which digital collaborations between choreographers and filmmakers could expand the company’s audience.
“We understood that [our traditional performances were] in the moment. If you blink, you miss it. If you don’t come, you miss it,” she says. “The art form was almost like a dinosaur, so far behind. We took great pride in never changing. But you have to evolve.”
Lopez is continuing her reassessment of MCB and how ballet is presented. Should the company offer two different programs in a single weekend? Should it perform in the summer? How should works created for a proscenium space be filmed? The future will tell.
Broward Center President and CEO Kelley Shanley’s outdoor foray was the Back Lot Live series in the parking lot behind the Fort Lauderdale complex.
“The staff conceived it and executed it,” he says. “What I underestimated was how important it was to them. They’d been stuck on Zoom for so long. What we do is present live performances. You could see the joy on their faces, which is the joy of artists connecting with audiences. I hope we can carry that gratitude into what we do going forward.”
Arsht Center President and CEO Johann Zietsman’s team ventured outside the theater with virtual local content, neighborhood performances and shows presented outside on the center’s Thomson Plaza. One of those, Zoetic Stage’s improvisational “Zoetic Schmoetic,” is likely to become a permanent part of the company’s programming.
“How important physical gathering is,” Zietsman says. “That’s our core business: to breathe together, respond together. It’s vital to our well-being. We don’t just sell tickets. We’re part of the social fiber in an important way. We miss empathy, and isolation made it worse. The arts do teach empathy.”
With gathering in person largely off the table during the pandemic, the virtues and possibilities of connecting with audiences and enhancing programming through digital content became a key takeaway for a wide variety of arts and culture groups. Original work, filmed performances, virtual lectures and museum tours became digital pathways to audience experiences in music, dance, theater and visual arts for arts lovers far beyond South Florida.
“We live in a digital age. ... There’s not just one way to reach an audience and have an impact on it,” the Knight Foundation’s Rogers says. “Change is not easy. But having the ability to see beyond is crucial in the arts. ... You need to have a digital strategy and create hybrid events.”
Miami’s Nu Deco Ensemble pushed hybrid further than most, streaming live performances on a platform that allowed for audience comments and polls. Says Sam Hyken, CEO and co-artistic director, “We shifted away from producing concerts to producing [for] television. We didn’t want a camera just recording our concerts. We wanted a different experience that would be more rewarding and engaging.”
Nu Deco had invested in a digital strategist before the pandemic, and Hyken says that capturing every concert cinematically has led to myriad opportunities and demonstrable audience growth.
“This year, 80 percent of our audience was based outside of Florida, in over 35 countries,” he says. “We’ve grown our budget [to $1.5 million], our audience and our educational programming. We’ve had talk-backs and lessons. We’ve hired employees and kept our musicians working.”
At the Miami Beach-based New World Symphony, digital technologies have long been part of its repertoire. With its information-rich, wildly popular, free outdoor WALLCAST concerts on a 7,000-square-foot screen at its New World Center, the symphony was an early adopter; its 10-year-old Frank Gehry-designed building, in fact, contains 17 miles of fiber optic cable.
“When we shut down on March 12, 2020, within eight days we discovered that this digital world was beckoning us,” says President and CEO Howard Herring.
New World’s musician-fellows created a series of chamber concerts dubbed “Live from Our Living Room,” and at first, they played together from their individual living rooms (some in other countries); eventually they were able to perform together masked and distanced on the New World Center stage. Other chamber concerts were initiated by Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas and guest artists. In all, the orchestra streamed 77 “Living Room,” chamber concerts and archival concerts from March 2020 to May 2021.
“In an online setting, you have an even greater ability to contextualize,” Herring observes. “We are a laboratory for new ways that music is taught and experienced. ... We are intent on being with the public, and we’re going to step up streaming.”
IN THE MUSEUMS
The region’s major art museums were among the first cultural institutions to reopen to in-person visitors — the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), for example, welcomed art lovers back as of Nov. 1, 2020. The museum’s safety-first priority led to timed-entry ticketing, masking for staff and visitors, and the mapping of a specific route through the exhibitions. Yet digital experiences became and remain a key component of what PAMM offers.
“We thought about ways we can make digital a much bigger part of the audience experience, both inside and outside,” says PAMM Director Franklin Sirmans. “All of our programming has been drawing an international audience. ... We’re providing a space for art online, and that has extended recognition of the museum.”
Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator of the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, kept her staff working remotely until the museum reopened in September 2020. An online collections catalog, in the works since 2017, was launched, along with 360-degree virtual museum tours and other online initiatives.
“We found out that virtual resources were amazing,” Clearwater says. “Our series on Renaissance art drew viewers from around the world. We were no longer limited geographically. ... Our website saw a 75 percent increase in new visitors as well as an increase in duration of visits, and it became the No. 1 driver to visit the museum in person.”
The Arsht Center, the two-building facility that hugs Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast 13th and 14th streets in Miami, is operated by the nonprofit Adrienne Arsht Center Trust, though it is owned and partially supported by Miami-Dade County.
Home to performances of touring Broadway shows, the Miami City Ballet, the Florida Grand Opera, the New World Symphony, Zoetic Stage, City Theatre, Jazz Roots, the International Hispanic Theatre Festival — hundreds of performances annually in all — the crown jewel of Miami-Dade arts facilities lost an estimated $25 million in ticket revenue since March 2020.
Yet major government and private support during the pandemic, a complex and vital safety net, kept the performing arts center going. Such support was essential for artists themselves and for arts and culture organizations of all sizes.
The Arsht’s Suzette Espinosa Fuentes reports that the center received a $10 million Shuttered Venue Operators Grant; $2.18 million from the Paycheck Protection Program; $5.6 million from corporate sponsors, grant organizations, philanthropists and a gala fundraiser. Miami-Dade County contributed an additional $2.5 million beyond its annual support of Arsht operations, arts education and community engagement.
The county’s Department of Cultural Affairs, in fact, distributed more than $10 million in federally funded CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act grants to 280 arts and cultural organizations and 856 artist-entrepreneurs.
“This has been a real roller-coaster ride in dealing with the unpredictable,” says Michael Spring, the department’s director. “Arts groups were creative in staying engaged — moving to virtual platforms, then moving outside, then reopening indoors, beginning with museums and now theaters. It’s been gratifying to see the pent-up demand at lots of venues. ... Nothing can substitute for the excitement of an in-person performance.”
Like so many of her fellow South Florida artistic leaders, Miami City Ballet’s Lopez felt a darkness during the pandemic that was tough to shake, despite the opportunity for introspection, growth and devising new ways of making/sharing art. For all artists and arts-and-culture groups, lessons were learned — and absorbed.
Still, coming out of the darkness, returning to the warm glow of stage lights and art shared live is going to mean a season like no other.
“This feels like a season of joy, abandonment, freedom and uplift,” Lopez says. “It feels like liberation, a restart and a renaissance.”