Since its first show opened in 1750, Broadway has survived it all — the 1918 Spanish flu, labor strikes, two world wars, terrorist attacks and a pair of New York City-wide blackouts.
And if theater professionals have anything to do with it, an international pandemic will soon be added to that list.
For the longest time since the American Revolutionary War — which closed the storied stages for 23 years in 1775 — Broadway has gone dark indefinitely, with some producers saying they don’t anticipate a reopening until 2021, or when social distancing no longer exists. Theater, and the arts in general, are meant to be a communal experience, a sector dominated by interpersonal connections, gathering in large groups and, for the talent themselves, tight quarters backstage — making performances of any kind risky.Over the last three months, the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced industry leaders from the upper echelons of Broadway to its sister communities in the Hamptons to grapple with the future of the arts scene — a cornerstone of the East End’s identity as a cultural hub. Innovative solutions could potentially engage audiences in a fresh, new ways, while concessions such as moving outdoors and reducing capacity will ultimately come at a cost, one that some institutions may not survive.
Last week, the Express News Group explored this murky future during “The Show Must Go On: The Arts in the Time of Lockdown,” a virtual Express Sessions forum designed to be an exchange of ideas and concerns among a panel of local experts. They leveled with the group of 70 Zoom attendees, addressing the current state of culture during COVID-19 and the hurdles it will face, while bolstering hope for the future.
“I’m gonna quote John Dewey,” said Andrea Grover, executive director of Guild Hall in East Hampton. “He said, in this paraphrase, that all great ideas come from an audacity of imagination. And what this moment calls for is a complete rebuilding of our institutional operations and the way that we work with artists and community. I see this as full of potential. Every day is an improvisation, and who’s better at improvisation than artists?”
COVID-19, And the Fallout
When New York found itself as the COVID-19 epicenter, it wasn’t long before the pandemic made its way out to the East End, forcing not only cultural organizations to shut down and abruptly move online, but also the individual artists who consider them home.
Many turned to social media as an outlet, spreading art, comedy, theater and music through their communities, and beyond, to uplift and stay creative themselves. But that has only gotten them so far, according to singer-songwriter Inda Eaton, whose concert on March 7 at Bay Street Theater was the last live performance at the Sag Harbor venue.
“We’re pretty depressed as musicians right now,” she said. “We, the musicians, are a bit disorganized. So much of the music that fuels the town, they’re coming through festivals and we’re doing our touring work. That’s not happening. Flat out, this kind of music on the internet is not connecting so well. That’s just the truth. I’d like to tell you that we want to be innovators, but it doesn’t feel connected.”
It also doesn’t feel as respected as in-person concerts, explained attendee and fellow musician Judy Carmichael. In the wake of online piracy, and ubiquitous music streaming, she fears the further devaluing of her craft the longer the virus ticks on. An hour before the Zoom meeting, a performing arts center had reached out to her, asking the Grammy-nominated pianist and vocalist to perform a 40-minute concert for $150.
She balked at the offer — especially considering she had never worked with the facility before.
“They didn’t think that was wrong. They said, ‘Just something casual.’ I can’t tell you how profoundly offensive this is,” she said, adding, “Artists are in really bad shape, because not only don’t we have any money, but we’re not able to do what we do — and I don’t mean this in a narcissistic, ‘I have to perform.’ We’re racehorses! We’re ready to get out there and do our thing, and we can’t do it. So we’re all very vulnerable.”
Similar emotions have infiltrated the leadership behind the East End arts institutions as they begin to comprehend the economic fallout of the pandemic, as well as the impact on the local talent left in the dust, said Tracy Mitchell, executive director of Bay Street Theater.
“We exist because of artists. Period, end of story,” she said. “And even those of us that are arts administrators, there’s not much fun going on right now, and we’re depressed, as well. I’m trying to figure out, how do we keep our artists employed, our staffs employed? It’s the pressure, while not having the joys right now of the true art — the music that we get to hear on our stage, Inda was the last one there — and these relationships that we have with people. And it’s not the same online.”
With the arts currently grouped into the final phase of New York State’s reopening plan, it won’t mean much to Ms. Mitchell or Bay Street’s audiences if, still, only 10 or less people are allowed to gather at a time — or if social distancing policies are still in place, which would require her to slash the 299-seat theater to 80.
“The truth of the matter is, the Actors’ Equity Union that handles stage actors is not even beginning discussions for negotiations for stage actors until at least September. They recognize there is no safe way for actors to work closely together,” Ms. Mitchell said. “If anyone’s been behind a stage, you know most of the time it’s very, very tight quarters. So those kinds of things, like full plays, are probably not going to happen for a while. As we know, Broadway has already said 2021 at the earliest. And we do not have outdoor space that we own, unlike some of our fellow executive directors here.”
As an alternative, Ms. Mitchell is considering staging events in patrons’ backyards, or perhaps piggybacking on The Sag Harbor Cinema’s upcoming drive-in movie at Havens Beach on June 21, following a successful screening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at Coopers Beach in Southampton that drew out 115 cars, hosted by the Southampton Arts Center.
But these two isolated events are not a replacement for a full season of summer programming for either institution, not to mention the now-canceled benefits that help keep every arts organization afloat for the rest of the year.
“There’s no doubt that the East End organizations have taken a financial hit. I don’t think anybody can doubt that,” said Chris Siefert, interim director of The Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. “One, we need a different approach to philanthropy and a different approach to fundraising. A lot of that, to me, will be dictated around how the economy comes out of this.”
With some cushion provided by the Paycheck Protection Program — “It may have been a lifesaver for many of us,” Mr. Siefert said — this moment in time could present a chance for the institutions to reevaluate their role on the East End, according to Kate Mueth, founder and artistic director of The Neo-Political Cowgirls.
“I feel like this whole event is just one big creation of art for humanity. We’re becoming ourselves,” she said. “We’re becoming into an opportunity of what is it we really want to be? What do we want to become? Who have I been as an organization, as a family, as a community? How can we rebuild from this massive experience of opportunity in front of us? Which means beginning again. We have a lot of rebuilding to do. What is it going to look like?”
What Does It Mean to Gather Anymore?
When considering the future of the arts on the East End, Stephen Hamilton couldn’t help but share a theater story.
Almost two decades ago, he was seated at the directorial helm of Ira Lewis’s “Gross Points,” a light-hearted comedy set to make its world premiere the following night — September 12, 2001.
“Our big decision at the time was, ‘Do we do this show or not? In the face of such horror, how can we present this very silly comedy?’” he recalled. “Well, we decided to do it. We opened on the 12th, and we had one of the most successful runs at Bay Street that we’d had to that date.”
In the midst of one of the country’s darkest hours, the show sold out its entire run, providing a refuge for laughter, pain and coming together. The arts united them, Mr. Hamilton said, as they connected through the aftermath of tragedy.
“The only thing I could glean from that is that people were desperate to gather together,” he said, now as acting director of The Sag Harbor Cinema. “People were desperate to be in the same room together again. And that doesn’t go away. That will not go away.”
Throughout history, the arts have transcended place, language and time, providing a universal outlet when words cannot be found, when feelings are difficult to process. It has the power to uplift, and the power to heal.
“Guild Hall was founded in 1931 during the Depression. It was exactly meant to be an antidote to troubled times,” Ms. Grover said. “I think we are the glue that holds the community together and nourishes the roots of our society.”
Ms. Eaton has been missing it, to put it lightly. When musician Nancy Atlas invited her to play during a live-streamed, socially distanced concert at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, she burst into joyful tears.
“There will be nobody there, but I’ll hear a band play and I get to sing for a couple songs. And I start crying like a kid,” she said. “You don’t realize just how screwed up it is. We’re trying to keep it all together for our own children, but goddamn, I’m 50 years old and I got invited to hear a live band tonight, and I started bawling.”
While there is no substitution for gathering together in a space and experiencing the arts, the shift to digital has proven to be a silver lining, according to Julienne Penza-Boone, executive director of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. A songwriting group, which now meets on Zoom, has drawn participants from near and far — New York City residents at home in their apartments to burgeoning musicians in Florida.
“We invested in some camera equipment and streaming capabilities,” she said, “so that even when this is over and it’s passed and we’re able to welcome people back in the theater, how can we use technology to expand our reach?”
While the Southampton Arts Center has penciled in a July 25 opening date, its executive director, Tom Dunn, and artistic director, Amy Kirwin, immediately pivoted to digital by compiling a 100-piece virtual exhibition that is currently on view on YouTube.
“There’s a lot of talk about virtual and in person,” Mr. Dunn said. “I don’t think it’s a question of either-or. I think it’s ‘and,’ obviously. I think we all need to take this moment and not move away from virtual, because it does expand, as Julienne noted, our reach so significantly.”
Just before the Parrish Art Museum closed, installers had just finished hanging thousands of works for the annual “Student Exhibition,” a 60-year tradition cut short after just one week. In an unprecedented move, the exhibition is now available online and via a video tour, as are a series of online programs that are reaching unexpected audiences.
“We’ve had guests on some of our programs from overseas and across the country that we would never be able to connect with,” Mr. Siefert said. “And so we know that there is going to be a future where that stays, there is going to be a hybrid.”
The Bumpy Road to Recovery
As the Southampton Arts Center prepares to announce its summer exhibition, which will be a direct response from artists to the pandemic, Mr. Dunn is currently making a case to local government to allow the center to reopen in phase two of New York State’s plan, which includes retail. Phase two was scheduled to begin on June 10.
“We feel confident that we can actually put ourselves in a place similar to a small gallery on a Main Street, or a small retail store, where we can create an experience to reopen our doors and get people back into our galleries,” he said. “We’re working hard to make that happen, it could be as early as next week. We’re awaiting word on that presently.”
On some level, focus has temporarily shifted away from COVID-19 and toward the widespread protests inflaming the nation. The East End is not exempt from the uproar, and the call for the end to police brutality and racism in the United States.
As for the latter point, the arts world has faced its own reckoning, after research in 2018 found that less than 3 percent of acquisitions over the past decade by 30 prominent museums had been of work by black artists.
“We’re on fire,” Ms. Mueth said, noting that every member on the panel was white. “And it is the arts’ obligation, I feel — not everybody agrees, and that’s okay — it is our obligation to tend to our world and our society, and how are we going to do that?”
Digressing from the COVID-19 discussion, Mr. Siefert took a moment to address the “larger, more systemic elephant in the room.”
“Museums and organizations, we really have significant obligations in these times,” he said. “Our role is to protect culture. We hold the culture in public trust. We provide platforms for artists and we advocate for art and artists, and yes, we all know art encourages reflection and individually, collectively, but more important, art and artists question society. They challenge deep-rooted practices and all art has a politic, and that is what we must be focused on if we’re gonna have any real change.”
In collaboration with Bonnie Cannon, the executive director of the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreational Center, Guild Hall has recently planned to amplify black voices and leaders through a program of pre-recorded talks on race and equality, Mr. Grover said. When the galleries do reopen, they will be home to a museum benefit called “All For The Hall,” an exhibition featuring work by Cindy Sherman, Joel Mesler, Wade Guyton, Tony Oursler, Robert Longo and more — available both online and off.
“In terms of being relevant to the community, we always look to artists because they are natural-born innovators,” Ms. Grover said, “and that is really what our summer season is really gonna look like.
For the Parrish Art Museum, Mr. Siefert imagines a combination of outdoor exhibitions, musical performances, films and conversations before allowing visitors into the galleries, taking an opportunity to utilize the Water Mill grounds in a new way.
“When we define ‘open,’ this is a whole new world,” Mr. Siefert said. “Eventually, we will be fully open in the tradition that everyone thinks of when they think of the Parrish Art Museum. I just invite the audience to be open minded about what we mean when we say we are opening.”
In the meantime, the organizations are inspiring one another, working more closely than ever before through the Hamptons Art Network, which is comprised of 19 organizations. This month, the coalition will announce a support fund for artists, Ms. Grover said, following four weeks of intensive fundraising.
“Even though our theaters are all dark, we are all illuminated because we’re all engaged creatively, working so diligently and we feel such a deep responsibility to our patrons and our communities to keep going,” Ms. Penza-Boone said. “So I think people can put a lot of faith in that.”
They can also remind themselves of the long arts legacy on not only the East End, but throughout history, Ms. Mitchell said — and the local community that intensely values them.
“From my perspective, I know that theater has been around for over 3,000 years, if not longer, and it’s here to stay. It’s not going anywhere,” she said. “This a pause in our being able to be face to face with one another and side by side, but whether that side by side stays at 6 feet, or whatever it’s gonna be, theater will be here — and Bay Street will be here. I have no concerns about that.”
“Art and artists, we connect people across time and space, in place, and it’s gonna continue. We’re gonna carry on,” Mr. Siefert added. “We have core values of making social belonging important. As Tracy put it, art and museums and theater and performance, it’s been here forever and it will continue on — stronger and more interesting and exciting than ever.”