Nonprofit art struggles to hold on through COVID-19

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Shelby - Utica News | Published July 27, 2020

 The Village Players of Birmingham have tried to make the best  of a crummy situation by posting Broadway titles with a quarantine  spin on its Woodward Avenue marquee.

The Village Players of Birmingham have tried to make the best of a crummy situation by posting Broadway titles with a quarantine spin on its Woodward Avenue marquee.

Photo provided by The Village Players of Birmingham

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BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD HILLS/BEVERLY HILLS — “This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job,” said the late author Toni Morrison.

While the famed novelist was speaking of political unrest when she said those famous words, the quote rings true today as people around the world continue to sit in isolation and uncertainty, white-knuckling their way through the COVID-19 pandemic.

It could be argued that art has never been more important to humanity, not only to lift spirits and entertain, but also to capture a unique moment in history. Unfortunately, as it has with many industries, the virus and resulting shutdown have had a negative impact on creative expression.

It’s been really tough going for Orchestra Sono. The symphony orchestra has been trying to build itself up for the past two years from the ashes of the defunct Birmingham Bloomfield Symphony Orchestra.

Launching a nonprofit is no easy feat under normal circumstances, but during a pandemic, Sono Music Director Andrew Neer said, keeping the orchestra running has been challenging, to say the least.

“We had to postpone our major concert until the spring, basically a year later,” Neer said. “Even when it’s safe, statistics are showing when the government or health professionals give the clear and say it’s OK to get back to normal, it’s going to be very slow. People won’t feel safe to get back out, and that’s a very big concern.”

For a concert orchestra, the chance of staying afloat without concerts is pretty minimal. To keep members engaged, the orchestra is planning to put out some online concert and live-streamed performances, thanks to some grants they’ve received from various art councils to do just that. In early September, Neer hopes to begin with a brass quintet performance, followed by maybe an oboe-piano combination and possibly a string concerto.

Updates and links to performances can be found on the orchestra’s website, orchestrasono.org.

“If we were a larger orchestra, there might be the possibility we could do some outdoor concerts. But we’re still very young. This is a rebounding organization, and we just can’t afford to do it quite yet,” Neer said.

That’s a shame, he said, because orchestras are truly meant to be experienced in person.

The same goes for live theater, said John Rutherford, the director of theater for Wylie E. Groves High School in Beverly Hills. When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer dismissed students from school back in mid-March, ultimately for the rest of the year, any chance of a spring theatrical production went out the window.

Rutherford said virtual learning options sated some of the students’ appetite to perform, but even he needed something more. So at 7:30 p.m. July 30 and 31, and Aug. 1, the Groves Performing Arts Company will pair with Barebones Theatre Productions to present a staged reading of “Alabama Story,” by local playwright Kenneth Jones.

The event will invite audiences out for an open-air performance experience — think Greek theater — with a metro Detroit twist. Donations will be accepted, but not required, so guests only need to bring their own blankets or chairs to sit on just outside the auditorium doors, as well as masks in accordance with the governor’s mandate.

Rutherford said he’s excited to present one of his personal favorite pieces of writing, which has plenty of local references, like Vernors soda, and is set in 1959 to tackle cultural topics still relevant today with the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.

“I did a few things that way in the spring, but it didn’t feel like live theater feels,” he said. “Theater is a very communication-based activity. Without the audience, there is something really missing. Theater is about the actors and the audience being together in that moment.”

So how do you recreate that moment of togetherness, but with adequate social distancing? Incorporate a summer staple.

“It felt so great to meet in person, even while socially distancing — I have a 6-foot pool noodle I use to indicate the distance. We bring our own chairs and we spread out, but we are together,” he explained. “We are creating characters and telling this really wonderful story. It feels like theater should feel.”

The Greek theater experience is nothing new for the thespians over at St. Dunstan’s Theater Guild of Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills. The nonprofit troupe is able to annually utilize the more than 100-year-old amphitheater on the Cranbrook Educational Community’s campus.

But not this year.

“We missed out on performing our June Greek show this year, which would have been ‘Xanadu,’” said Molly Dorset, the spokesperson for the guild. “The Greek show is typically where we recoup more than half of our funds for the year, so not being able to perform that show (and the spring show) really did hurt us financially.”

Just as COVID-19 swept the nation in March, St. Dunstan’s was just a week away from the opening of its spring comedy “Leading Ladies.” The sets are built and the costumes and props assembled, Dorset said, in hopes that the audience will be able to see the show at some point in the near future.

In the meantime, she said, St. Dunstan’s has been keeping supporters engaged with exclusive virtual social hours and live-streamed trivia nights with members of the guild and patrons, including questions on Broadway and general theater knowledge.

If you’re still itching for a bit of Greek flair, Dorset said the theater is offering free streaming of the guild’s 2016 performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was performed in the amphitheater. They hope to add some YouTube videos of original plays written and produced by local authors, which can be shared without violating copyright law.

Those links and further updates about the guild at are available stdunstanstheater.com.

YouTube will be home for many of the future productions for the Birmingham Village Players. They’ve created a channel on the site where they’re hoping to stream new content in the coming months, along with clips from previous shows they’ve staged at the historic playhouse.

The group has been shuttered by the virus, according to Village Players Board Member Kris Kelly, and operating costs have taken a hit without revenue from ticket sales or fundraisers.

But their spirits are still high, he added.

“We don’t want our members and patrons to forget us, so Village Players has been posting marquees that will, hopefully, put a smile on everyone’s face,” said Kelly in an email.     
Some of his favorites to make the marquee have been “Dear Evan Hand Sanitizer” and “Okla-Stay-At-Homa.”

The Village Players has also directed energy to its in-house writing guild, called Playwrights @ Work, which he said has been meeting virtually to create one-act plays that will be performed on Zoom this fall.

Among the first productions they hope to present, he said, will be a show penned by a longtime member of the Village Players, Barb Schmitt, who passed away last year.

Local art experiences should be embraced now more than ever, if you ask Annie VanGelderen, the president and CEO of the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center in Birmingham.

At the BBAC, that would typically mean classes and camps during the summertime. That’s been tough during the pandemic, though, so much of the center’s offerings have been moved online.

“Ultimately, the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center wants to continue to connect with all people of all ages to the visual arts despite the pandemic. To do that, we have developed new virtual programming to replace our children’s popular summer art camps,” said VanGelderen in an email. “Our goal has been to offer authentic quality arts experiences that mimic a number of the camps we routinely offer.” Some examples are programs in fashion design, fashion illustration, jewelry, clay, drawing and art exploration, for young children.

Materials for the online sessions can be picked up curbside at the BBAC, and every lesson is conducted in a closed Zoom meeting with interaction between the student and the instructor.

The BBAC is still offering several on-site workshops for adults, with limited occupancy. For families who want to get everyone off of the couch but still stay safe at home, the center has created Children’s Art Activity Kits. Each $15 kit has several projects inside, along with materials and step-by-step instructions. They change every few weeks.

The center’s annual Michigan Fine Arts Competition exhibition has been moved entirely online. Those who want to invest in a piece of artwork can make arrangements to see it in person.

It’s all part of operating in the world’s new normal.

“Being nimble is our plan for the upcoming weeks or months, but we continue to believe that the arts are a source for reflection, exploration and creates a more well-rounded community,” VanGelderen said.

To explore all those offerings, visit bbartcenter.org.

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