In a season of darkened theaters and homebound audiences, Columbus' arts groups are struggling to survive—and looking for new ways to thrive.

On a Friday afternoon in late July, the performers of Shadowbox Live are onstage inside their Brewery District theater, along with two camera operators. Singers are spaced 6 feet apart—when there’s a question, Shadowbox COO Katy Psenicka runs up to measure with her “social distancing stick”—and dressed in Sgt. Pepper-inspired costumes, plus masks. The troupe is getting ready to perform a song from “Legends from Liverpool,” the Beatles tribute show that opened Jan. 30 but closed a month ahead of schedule due to the citywide lockdown.

The seating in the theater, where in normal times, up to 300 patrons drink and dine while watching performances, has been altered. There’s one-way directional signage on the floor, and the tables are spaced widely—the theater now seats a max of 94—and separated by clear plastic dividers custom-made from boat vinyl. Executive director Stacie Boord calls the boothlike spaces “COVID cabanas.” The ticketing process, menu and program have all been digitized for touch-free transactions. But theaters in Ohio are not yet permitted to reopen, and on this day, save for Psenicka, Boord and a few other staffers, the tables are empty—as they have been since March. This performance is for the cameras only.

“Video rolling?” calls Boord. “And … ‘Obla Di,’ take one!” The keyboardist bangs out the familiar opening chords, and the stage comes alive as Summit Starr, mask off for her solo, claps her hands and launches into the song. Although the other performers sing and dance without leaving their carefully-spaced positions, it doesn’t take long for a viewer to stop noticing the unusually distanced staging.

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Today’s taping is for a virtual fundraiser, but Boord says the group has worked out a plan for performing live safely—fewer people on stage, less dancing than usual and some of the backup vocals delivered from backstage—but they are also prepared to pivot to an all-online, pay-per-view performance model this fall if Gov. Mike DeWine does not lift the ban on theaters. “It’s like we’re hip hop dancers and somebody told us we have to dance ‘The Nutcracker,’” she says, while expressing confidence that her versatile team of “metaperformers”—at Shadowbox, troupe members not only sing and dance but also wait tables, work in the kitchen and staff the front of the house—is up to the challenge. Still, she’s impatient. “Strip clubs are open, for God’s sake. Gyms are open. Movie theaters are open. We’re frustrated. Just tell us what we have to do!”

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“We’re the forgotten industry,” says Angela Meleca, executive director of Ohio Citizens for the Arts, a statewide lobbying group. Meleca, a former journalist and Columbus gallery owner, had only been in her job at OCA six months when the pandemic hit, but quickly emerged as a passionate advocate. First, she participated in the successful effort to have unemployment benefits extended by the federal government to cover contract and gig workers, which include so many musicians, actors and other performers. This summer, she worked with arts colleagues to hammer out and propose reopening plans for museums, which the governor green-lighted, leading to the reopening of the Columbus Museum of Art (although at press time, its Pizzuti Collection was still closed). A plan for theaters, however, wasn’t successful.

Meleca thinks DeWine’s reopening plan, which has also permitted the return of indoor shopping, drinking and dining as well as weddings with up to 300 guests in a bid to save jobs and prevent the state’s economy from a free fall, neglects the role of the arts as an economic driver. In 2018, a study by her organization found that the creative economy in Ohio—broadly defined to include industries like publishing and web design as well as the performing arts—generated $41 billion of economic activity in 2017, supporting 289,321 jobs. In the Columbus area, the economic impact is $9 billion.

And while some elements of that creative economy continue to function under lockdown, the darkening of stages, she says, has been catastrophic. CAPA and its equivalents in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Toledo, she says, have canceled more than 1,200 performances since March at a loss of $20 million—and that doesn’t even begin to count the smaller groups like Shadowbox, or the domino effect for other businesses. People attending live performances spend on average an additional $31 per person on parking, food and other amenities.

“People think, ‘Oh, theater. That’s nice. It’s just an extra.’ But these are jobs, these are people,” she says. “We contribute so much to the economic vitality, and we have so many cultural destinations in the state that are being decimated. It’s really hard to sit and watch.”

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In a series of interviews in late July, a few local arts leaders were still holding out hope of salvaging some kind of a fall season; others were not so optimistic. They expressed a range of emotions, from sadness to uncertainty to frustration to resolve, as they described efforts to create plans A, B and C for an unpredictable fall. Many were proud to report that, thanks in part to funding from the federal Payroll Protection Plan, they managed to pay performers for canceled performances, in whole or in part, and expressed gratitude to patrons who declined to ask for ticket refunds for scrapped shows. They also expressed a shared fear that if theaters are dark for too long, audiences will begin to forget about them.

At the same time, some said the pause in performing has given them time to develop strategies for resuming safely in a world where contagion may be a threat for months or years to come, and to focus on projects too often relegated to the back burner. Yet others pointed to innovative responses to the coronavirus crisis and the summer’s racial unrest, such as the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s recruiting of businesses to pay artists for protest art to cover windows following this summer’s demonstrations, and the King Arts Complex’s HeART of Protest initiative, a collaborative effort to create 46 arts events over the period between Juneteenth and the election, representing the 46 years of George Floyd’s life.

But there’s no question the economic impact for arts groups of what could now be two seasons of lost ticket revenue has been brutal, and nowhere more than at CAPA, where 90 percent of the budget is revenue earned through ticket sales, rentals and concessions at Columbus’ four biggest theaters, plus several other venues. CAPA laid off all of its part-time staff as soon as the theaters closed, and 40 percent of the full-time staff were laid off during the summer. Remaining staff have taken pay cuts or are working reduced hours, says president and CEO Chad Whittington. And more cuts could be in the offing, as reopening, when it comes, is likely to be slow. “The second hurdle is getting people comfortable coming back to the theaters, and that’s going to take some time,” Whittington says. “It’s going to be a process.”

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The blossoming of video and livestreamed events, from home-based concerts to gallery talks to the Short North’s virtual Gallery Hop, has helped arts groups remain connected to the community. And in some cases, it has leveled the playing field and presented opportunities for individual artists to increase their reach. DJ Krate Digga initiated a series of livestreamed dance parties this spring after his club dates and other gigs vanished. “Whether you’re Jazzy Jeff or the DJ from around the corner,” he says, “if we’re all pushing into the streaming space at the same time, jockeying for local fans or just getting our name out into spaces that none of us have been in, we all have a level of parity.”

While most such content has been offered free, Tom Katzenmeyer, CEO of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, says evidence is emerging that people are willing to pay at least a nominal fee for online content. Fans bought $18,000 worth of tickets (priced at $15) for Short North Stage’s virtual production of “John and Jen” in July; the group will repeat the experiment with “With Pigs Fly” in September, a musical revue starring Nina West.

For BalletMet, it’s the teaching program that is keeping alive its connection to the community. Because its studios are large, BalletMet was able to conduct its summer intensive training sessions with careful cleaning and distancing protocols, and at the time of our interview, artistic director Edwaard Liang said he was planning to open the dance academy Sept. 8. “This has been such a challenging time for families and students that we are really happy to facilitate just a little bit of normalcy, which is so needed,” he says.

Performance, however, with the physical contact it requires, is another story. The organization furloughed 80 dancers and staff at the end of April. Liang—who also saw the cancellation of 10 of his choreographed works around the world last spring—spent much of the summer negotiating conditions for resuming performances with the dancers’ union and waiting for news on the reopening of theaters while developing possible scenarios for the fall. The only thing Liang could say for sure was that he was excited to present videos of two of the company’s past performances that have been lifted from the archive and edited for viewing.

ProMusica CEO Janet Chen says that early in the summer, her staff developed a “beautiful” plan for going forward with the usual free outdoor summer concerts at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, with reduced audience size and circles painted on the grass for social distancing, but scrapped the plan when cases began rising in early July. At press time, the plan was to do a series of small-ensemble concerts in suburban parks stretching from late August until mid September. Chen still felt it might be possible to perform this fall if theaters reopened. “If I’m looking for silver linings, we’re kind of built for this kind of crisis,” she says. “At the most, our core is 37 musicians, so for us to do potentially half a season or three concerts in which we can only have 20 to 25 musicians on stage, taking into consideration socially distancing for safety of musicians, there’s a whole lot of repertoire and really great programming that we can do.”

Opera Columbus was challenged not only by the closure of theaters but the danger of singing, shown to be a virus-spreading activity. The company originally rescheduled its interrupted spring season for this fall but has abandoned that option and announced a 2020–21 season scheduled to begin in January with a concert by singer Ryan Speedo Green, who will tell the story of his journey from juvenile prison to the Metropolitan Opera in song and spoken word, and continue with performances of “La Boheme” in February at 400 West Rich and “Don Giovanni” at the end of April at the Southern.

“We could talk about the bad for days, but there is a lot of good that has come out of this halt in performances, because it’s given us time to rethink and progress,” says CEO Peggy Kriha Dye, who will continue her project of diversifying opera’s fan base by holding two low-cost, socially distanced fundraisers this fall. (The group’s 2020 gala, scheduled for March 11, was scotched at the last minute.) The staff, she says, is using some of its downtime, as well, to plan innovative digital components to infuse in future performances—for instance, outfitting performers with bodycams and livestreaming the footage.

Columbus Symphony Orchestra executive director Denise Rehg also was eager to talk about silver linings. The COVID cancellations coincided with the beginning of a change in mission for the CSO. Where once the organization was focused on achieving the highest standard of musical excellence, its board of directors voted in January to adopt a new mission: to inspire and build strong community through music. COVID-19, she says, “sort of put the strategic plan on steroids.” During the spring, symphony members made 85 instructional videos that the group will make available to schools, and through the spring and summer, gave 15 small ensemble outdoor performances at nursing homes throughout the area. When we spoke, Rehg could not yet announce plans for the fall, but she suggested the symphony was ready to pivot quickly to a more community-based season.

“When there’s things that disrupt our lives,” Rehg says, “symphonies have been in the front so frequently, being part of the healing process coming out of it. We intend to be there, and we intend to do that.”

BalletMet’s Liang offered a similar sentiment. “We’re hoping that we can safely come back because not only can we offer jobs, but we’re in service for the community. … Things are tough right now, and I really believe that it’s super important to be able to keep our humanity in such a strange, strange time. Not only in COVID, but also what’s happening with our culture and race relations in our community and the nation. We would really like to come back.” 

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