On the Saturday evening before Father’s Day, residents of Morrisville will be treated to a performance that’s part rock show, part Rose Parade.
Vermont guitarist Chad Hollister will be on a flatbed truck, playing for residents watching from their lawns and porches as the truck goes by. The show presented by the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center represents the gradual reawakening of the Vermont arts community, which all but shuttered in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold and artists were driven inside their homes to give livestream performances.
Slowly and carefully, artists and arts organizations are beginning to roll out events you can see in person rather than just online. From drive-by musicians to driveway Shakespeare to bands playing socially-distanced-if-not-fully-legal sets in parking lots, artists continue to find their place in a COVID-19 world.
Arts world faces ‘existential crisis’
The reality is that it will be a long time before the arts-and-entertainment world returns to a hint of pre-pandemic normalcy. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., held a livestream meeting Wednesday with more than a dozen Vermont arts presenters to discuss what they’re up against.
Alex Crothers, co-founder of the Higher Ground music venue in South Burlington, called this moment “an existential crisis” for arts presenters. Venues where crowds gather were the first to shut down and will be the last to reopen once the pandemic passes, Crothers noted.
Jody Fried, executive director of Catamount Arts in the Northeast Kingdom, cited estimates that two-thirds of arts-and-entertainment providers won’t survive without serious economic help should the pandemic last beyond six months.
“I certainly am terrified that we’re going to become part of that two-thirds statistic that Jody mentioned,” Jonathan Potter, executive director of Latchis Arts that oversees the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro, said at Wednesday’s meeting.
“Without relief,” said PJ McHenry, owner of the ArtsRiot music venue/restaurant in Burlington, “a small club like ArtsRiot is not going to exist after this.” Disappearing arts-and-entertainment venues would hit Vermont’s economy; according to the Vermont Arts Council, the creative sector provides more than 40,000 jobs in the state, accounting for 9.3% of all employment in Vermont.
The state is loosening restrictions on public gatherings, announcing Friday that libraries, galleries, museums, theaters and other indoor arts, culture and entertainment organizations can open with limits including up to 25% of approved fire-safety occupancy. Crothers said, however, it costs as much to present an under-capacity show as it does a full-capacity show.
“Our venues are very expensive to operate,” he said, “so operating at 50% isn’t really a strategy for reopening.”
So in the meantime — as arts venues try to stay afloat, artists aim to stay vital and aficionados thirst for the creativity that feeds their souls — presenters are thinking outside the black box to find ways to bring the arts to the people until the people can return to the arts.
The Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center can’t invite concertgoers to its 420-seat theater at Stowe Mountain Resort, so the organization is starting its “Drive-by Concert Series” with Hollister’s performance June 20. The organization is working on similar shows for June 27 in Waterbury Center and later in Hyde Park and Johnson.
Spruce Peak presented weekly online performances for a couple of months but stopped in late May. “It’s time to try something new,” said Hope Sullivan, executive director of the performing arts center.
The fuel company Bourne Energy is donating the flatbed truck, a driver and a generator for musicians to use during the concert series. Sullivan is working to raise money to pay Hollister and fund a livestream for fans who don’t live near the drive-by concert routes.
Morrisville leaders are working on ways to make sure crowds don’t descend upon the route that’s meant to cater to local residents. The logistics pose new challenges.
“What is the appropriate slow roll-by?” of the truck, Sullivan asked. “Does it circle multiple times? These are just crazy questions.”
‘A Shakespeare telegram’
Sarah Mell took part in the virtual board meeting where the Vermont Shakespeare Festival decided to cancel its outdoor performances of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” planned for this summer.
“I was just kind of sitting with it all and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to show up on someone’s front lawn and spout off a Shakespeare monologue?’” said Mell, of Winooski, who has performed in the festival’s productions of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Taming of the Shrew.”
At the next meeting, Mell suggested a “Shakespeare telegram,” where performers set up outside someone’s house to recite The Bard’s words. That grew into “Shakespeare To You,” a sort of bard-on-the-run performance.
“Theater doesn’t end just because we’re asked to be safe and respectful of each other in terms of distance,” Mell said.
The Vermont Shakespeare Festival’s “Shakespeare To You” lets fans choose from an online catalog of a dozen Shakespearean works performers will recite outside people’s homes. The festival rolled out the concept just before Memorial Day, and Mell said requests have come in for birthdays, anniversaries and Father’s Day. (Performances, also offered online, are free with donations welcome.)
The works listed on the website range from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy to Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” love sonnet. The quick performances might be special for those viewing them but also mean a lot to performers, Mell said, even if the actors aren’t always super-familiar with the words they’re reciting.
“If you have the script in your hand it’s not the end of the world,” Mell said. “The point of this is connection and keeping The Bard alive as we stay distanced.”
That connection is important, according to Spruce Peak’s Sullivan.
“When times are difficult, many people turn to the arts for solace, for strength, for inspiration,” Sullivan said. “Having it virtual works for a few folks, but there’s nothing like the power of seeing a live performer. It absolutely seems critical that we figure out a way to keep it part of the fabric of everyday life.”
In-person music, dance, visual art
Venues that serve food, such as the Double E in Essex and Moogs Joint in Johnson, have started presenting socially-distanced musical performances with socially-distanced meals. Synergy Dance in Jericho is offering 45-minute driveway dance classes.
Visual artists are getting into the act, too. Bestselling author Eve O. Schaub and artist/photographer Stephen Shaub are offering drive-by viewings of “monumental scale artworks with handwritten text” near their southern Vermont home in Pawlet.
Musicians not yet comfortable with the idea of crowds are at least getting together for backyard performances with band mates. “I haven’t not played music for this long since I was 15,” said bass player Alex Budney, 38, who performs with acts including the Seth Yacovone Band.
He got together with members of another of his bands, Al’s Pals, in his yard in Fayston for a recent livestream concert that brings more dynamism than the often-subdued solo performances many musicians are giving online. The audience, Budney said, consisted of wives and girlfriends of the band members as well as some who stopped briefly while driving by to listen from their cars.
Bill Mullins’ band Barbacoa took live performance one step further May 23 in Burlington. The surf-rocking foursome stood well apart from each other while playing a pop-up set in a parking lot in the Old North End while audience members danced or sat a respectful distance from each other.
The show was not, technically, legal, yet in the true rebellious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Burlington police — respectfully, according to Mullins — shut the set down after about 45 minutes because Barbacoa lacked city permits to play amplified music.
Still, the performance accomplished what the guitarist set out to do at a time so many people are missing connections through the arts. “It’s just a positive experience to be able to communicate and reach out to people with music,” according to Mullins.
He’s already imagining more pop-up shows. “I’m looking into doing it the next time,” Mullins said, “and trying to have it a little bit more above board.”
Contact Brent Hallenbeck at 660-1844 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.
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