Post-Pandemic, the Return to Normal May Take Years
In the world of theater, a ghost light is placed at center stage after a show closes — a single bulb on a stand that dimly illuminates the boards until the next production moves in. Few images are more haunting, because the ghost light denotes the absence of what makes performance possible: People. No actors or singers. No musicians or dancers. No audience. Just emptiness.
A ghost light, actual or metaphorical, has been in place in Kansas City venues since March. But by late 2020, most organizations were trying to shake off the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and preparing to offer some version of live events in the coming months.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
Last spring the major players in the Kansas City arts community were having a very good year — until they weren’t.
The leading institutions were looking forward to spring performances, future season announcements and plans for the year ahead. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and a citywide lockdown in March. And everything changed.
The Lyric Opera cancelled spring productions. So did the Kansas City Ballet. The Kansas City Symphony cancelled concerts. The Nelson-Atkins Museum announced it was closing for three weeks but remained shuttered for six months. The sets for Kansas City Rep productions that never officially opened stood unused for six months on the stages of the Spencer Theatre and Copaken Stage. Folk Alliance International, based in Kansas City, quickly switched gears: The group’s annual conference expected to attract more than 3,000 musicians and other music professionals to the Westin Crown Center in February was off, but planning immediately began for a virtual conference.
Across the board, organizations large and small were forced to make painful decisions in the face of plummeting ticket revenue. There were layoffs and furloughs and salary cuts.
The bottom line: It’s going to be a long, hard slog before things return to “normal.” Indeed, when vaccine breakthroughs were announced in November, the COVID infection rates were soaring across the Midwest, including Missouri and Kansas. Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas issued a second mask mandate with no guarantee of universal compliance. In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson extended a state of emergency — but without a mask mandate. When vaccines become available, it will take time to reach a majority of the population.
“I see our emergence from this as not quick,” Deborah Sandler, executive director of the Lyric Opera Kansas City, said in early November. “Even talking to peers in my field, none of us are expecting a 100 percent return, even this year . . . People say, ‘Rely on the science.’ But we have two kinds of science. We have medical science as far as it’s known. But we also have audience science. And I just don’t see a return (soon) to what we saw in pre-COVID.”
Sandler isn’t alone.
“The news of the vaccine is great, but the (audiences) will be reticent at first, and I expect you will see us trying to experiment in how we can help people feel comfortable,” said Angela Gieras, executive director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre. “The recovery is a multi-year, multi-faceted process . . . I would expect that this will take years to ramp back up to where we were pre-COVID.”
Jeff Bentley, executive director of the Kansas City Ballet, said the initial impact of the shutdown in March ordered by Mayor Quinton Lucas was clear.
“When the mayor basically declared a stay-at-home order is when I understood, OK, this is something that’s happening, and we’re going to have to retool,” Bentley said.
But planning was difficult. Messages coming from the state and federal governments were unclear and sometimes contradictory.
“There was not a singular voice coming out of the government saying, ‘This is a dangerous thing,’” Bentley said.
But the ballet, like the other arts organizations, faced immediate challenges.
“Our dancers had seven weeks left on their contracts,” Bentley said. “All of our ticket revenue and tuition was gone . . . We were able to fulfill our dancers’ contracts, but in order to do that there were some layoffs, and some of them are not going to return. And there were a lot of furloughs, especially during that time when the unemployment was being subsidized by the government.”
The ballet was able to bring back a company of 30 dancers for the fiscal year that began July 1, but the length of the contract shrank from 35 weeks to 28.
“I think this thing (COVID) has a much longer life than any of us understands,” Bentley said. “Even if you get back onstage, you say, OK, even if we didn’t have social distancing imposed on us, audiences are not necessarily going to come back.”
The ballet had been in rehearsals for a sold-out holiday show at its facility on Pershing Road when it suddenly announced in the third week of November that the production had been canceled. “While we had strict protocols and limited seating planned . . . we ultimately felt it was more important for us to do everything we can to protect the health and safety of our patrons, staff and dancers,” an official statement read. “We value our community’s health and determined after much consideration that gathering was too great a risk with too great a potential cost.”
The opera found itself in a similar position. A planned live December performance of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” was cancelled, although a filmed version would be available for streaming.
Shifting Gears at the Symphony
The week of the mayor’s March lockdown order, the Kansas City Symphony was scheduled to perform with the Lyric Opera. That didn’t happen.
“So, the short-term impact was all live performances came to a screeching halt,” said Daniel Beckley, executive director of the symphony.
But after Labor Day, the orchestra began taking its Mobile Music Box — a portable stage that can accommodate a small chamber orchestra — into neighborhoods across the metropolitan area.
“We’ve done 112 performances since Labor Day,” he said. “We’ve reached 14,000 people . . . I think it has accelerated trends we were already facing. So, the idea of getting out of the concert hall and going into the communities was something we wanted to do anyway. But the pandemic got us to do it much more quickly.”
The week of our interview with Beckley, the symphony was planning a performance in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center — its first since the pandemic hit — but not for a live audience. It would be filmed for a digital release in January.
“We made an investment in a video-capture system that enabled us to record orchestra performances,” he explained.
Music Director Michael Stern, Beckley said, had a vision for the digital production that would include chats with musicians and backstage footage in addition to the actual performance. It will become available as part of the symphony’s subscription package in January.
Beckley said the incorporation of digital performances had been a long-range goal. The pandemic accelerated the plan. And it required extra fundraising.
“We see this as a long-term develop-ment tool,” Beckley said. “The Berlin Philharmonic has been a leader in this for a long time. It’s the future. I mean, imagine if the Chiefs didn’t broadcast their games.”
Despite the financial challenges, the symphony retained its 78-member orchestra. There have been no furloughs of musicians, who are making “pretty close to full salaries.” Beckley said it was essential to keep the orchestra as a cohesive unit.
“For the musician, our auditions are highly competitive,” he said. “When you get the job, you move here and basically devote your career to Kansas City. So, we feel a commitment to our musicians. They moved here for this one job. It’s important we do everything we can to maintain their salaries.”
A Digital Pivot
Julián Zugazagoitia’s description of watching COVID-19 spread in other parts of the world before reaching the U.S. brought to mind a seemingly calm ocean transformed into a tsunami.
“We knew there was an epidemic going globally and then, in very rapid succession, it came from China to Europe, and we were starting to look at Italy going into lockdown,” the Nelson-Atkins director/CEO said. “In rapid succession the country went into lockdown, and we closed our doors on March 14.”
The situation required hard decisions. Ultimately the museum laid off 36 employees, about 15 percent of the staff. And the budget was cut by 25 percent. But after six months with its doors locked, the Nelson reopened to the public in September — with firm limits on how many people can be in the museum at any given time.
“All civic leaders, we are trying to see the future and projecting a future,” he said. “Right now, we are operating at a safe capacity, and we are limiting the number of people who can come. Our mission is about bringing people and art together, and that is the reason . . . we had to put all the security measures.”
Viruses usually come in waves, Zugazagoitia said, “so I think we’ll be in this kind of uncertainty and flux for at least a year . . . It’s a year to year-and-a-half kind of thing. We are looking at the news, and we’re seeing, yes, there may be a vaccine, but it will take time to distribute.”
Like other arts organizations, the Nelson beefed up its digital presence by offering virtual celebrations of Juneteenth and Día de los Muertos. It also collaborated with the Lyric Opera for its “Opera in Eight Parts” digital presentation. Going forward, Zugazagoitia said he expected the museum to maintain an enhanced virtual presence even as attendance slowly returns to normal levels.
“We are starting to look a lot into this digital pivot,” he said. “I think we’ll be thinking of how to have a dual model for operating. For people who want to come and experience it live, they will be able to do it . . . (but) there is an abundance of (virtual) possibilities.”
In Zugazagoitia’s view, all the arts organizations are on a learning curve.
“It’s the spirit of Kansas City that’s reflected in all these cultural institutions,” he said. “Each and every one of these institutions is learning how to operate in the most difficult and strenuous circumstances.”
The move to virtual performances seemed like a natural — if expensive — choice. The Lyric Opera, for example, planned a live performance with distanced seating of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at the Richard J. Stern Opera Center near 17th and Holmes. It would also be made available as virtual performance.
“Our earned income, for all intents and purposes, is gone,” Sandler said. “We’ve turned into a production and filming company, and it’s very expensive to do a good job. And you can’t capture that in sales.”
A Future of Rebuilding
Stuart Carden, the Rep’s new artistic director, had put together a promising 2020-21 season. But the pandemic made the plan impossible to implement. So, he went back to the drawing board. In October he staged “Ghost Light,” an evening of music and ghost stories on the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins, which he said will become an annual event. And he made his film-directing debut for a re-imagined virtual version of “A Christmas Carol,” which patrons could access beginning in late November.
Streaming performances are nice — and will perhaps become a permanent feature for most of the arts organizations — but performing for in-person audiences is what everyone wants.
“None of us can fully predict what that timeline will be and to what degree the audiences will return,” Carden said. “My best projection is that we’re looking at a spring and summer of mostly outdoor experiences and digital theater experiences. As we look forward to the fall, we’ll begin scaling back up if things get under control in terms of the pandemic.”
Carden cited statistics compiled by the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), of which the Rep is a member, which indicated virtually every theater company will see a 40 percent reduction in their budgets.
“Many of us are going to come out of this year sustained, but in a place where we’re going to have to rebuild some, too,” he said.
Most important, Carden said, is the difference the Rep can make to the community that has come through an unprecedented national health crisis.
“We’re going to be part of helping this community heal on the other side of this,” he said.
Devon Carney, the ballet’s artistic director, said the cancelled holiday performance would have featured all-new choreography. And while filming and making material available online is a good way to boost awareness and attract new fans, it’s not what he or his peers really want to do.
“We’re not in that business,’’ he said. “Our business is live performance . . . We are a live, visceral experience that needs to be experienced live. Someday we will be back to doing what audience members enjoy, just being moved by what they see on stage.”
Yes, the ballet will invest in the technology to make virtual performances available to people via smartphones and iPads. But Carney dreams of the day he and the company can return to the Kauffman Center.
“We’re one of the last industries to come back,” he said. “Unlike sports, who have millions of dollars to create bubbles and do full seasons without a single person in the stadium, we’re a live performing arts industry.”