June 15, 2020 | By Julie Garisto
The Everchanging Imperatives of Tampa Bay Arts in 2020
Leaders and performers at Tampa Bay-based arts venues offer solutions, share challenges and ideas for healing in turbulent times
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Most of us haven’t experienced the widespread closure of arts venues during our lifetime. While we feel this loss on many levels, silver linings glimmer, reflected by the inspiration, perseverance and resourcefulness of the Tampa Bay arts community.
As live productions continue to remain on hold or resume with a complicated rubric of modifications, artists and performing arts venues are coming up with creative ways to connect while social distancing, raise funds and curate relevant content for the anticipated time when the curtains go back up.
Recently, Creative Pinellas reported on Straz Center for the Performing Arts Tampa Total Request Live series, which airs on the Straz Facebook page on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. and the premiere by Poetica and Dance Linkages of a socially-distant dance performance this past weekend. Another ride/drive-by performance is planned for Saturday, June 20 — an evening performance titled Reverberation, NightLite. Dancers will line up and perform from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., on 1st Avenue South, from 16th Street S to 13th Street S.
“We really do want it to be a series of events over the course of the summer,” choreographer Andee Scott says. “We plan for people to come out and experience live performance in a safe way and a respectful way — providing a new way to reconnect with our community.”
To learn more about what’s underway, CP asked a number of performing arts leaders how they are coping, messaging and redefining the dynamic between audience and performer in the wake of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests.
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Stageworks Artistic Director Karla Hartley just turned 50 and announced a major fundraiser on the night of her live online birthday celebration. The FB LIVE fundraiser was a success, and people can feel free to donate here.
Hartley says theaters don’t need to scramble to come up with content now but should focus on the needs of audiences once they reconvene in her theater. “What can we do in this moment to facilitate healing when this moment is over?”
Hartley expressed gratitude for season ticket holders who waived their refunds when performances were canceled due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Around 80 percent of Stageworks members donated the cost of their season tickets to help keep the theater running.
In the meantime, Stageworks is continuing classes for children and adult online and has offered fun video content from its recurring players.
Hartley posted the following on Stageworks’ website: “As an ally to communities of color, Stageworks Theatre and I, as its leader, stand with those who work toward Social Justice. We stand with those who peacefully protest against injustice. We stand with those who are angry as hell. My friends, we stand with you, we stand beside you and we stand ready to to work with you.”
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The recent surge of demonstrations for Black Lives Matter has weighed heavily on the mind of Jobsite Theater Artistic Director David Jenkins. Fellow company member and visual artist Spencer Meyers has compelling prints for sale with proceeds to benefit #BLM.
“The wake of this string of murders has me looking long and hard at how I can, as the head of an organization, be a better ally in centering marginalized voices when we can get back to work,” he says. “And I don’t want it to be lip-service through the release of a bunch of official statements. I want to show by doing. We have to do better.”
Jenkins laments the current status quo, but has made the most of this time to explore other avenues of artistic inspiration. “The most unnerving part is the lack of actual connection,” he laments.
To cope with the new normal, Jenkins and Jobsite are focusing on the kinds of offerings that do not attempt to replace what they do in the theater. Instead, they company will be presenting ancillary content such as videos of ensemble members sharing mementos and memories and behind-the-scenes stories, or solo actors speaking verse candidly or reciting verse.
What can we expect from Jobsite in the meantime? “We will continue both Socially-Distant Soliloquies and One From the Vaults through the closures and likely beyond since they work at any time,” Jenkins says. “At this point we will not likely add additional online programming but are instead looking to the ‘phase one’ so to speak of going back to operating in ‘meatspace.’ We know that we will not be able to do traditional sorts of plays or musicals inside of a theater for quite some time, but we are working with our partners at the Straz Center and several other regional arts and entertainment organizations on plans for what we can do while assuring the health and safety of both attendees and artists.”
Important update from Jenkins: “We’re very excited for an opportunity to collaborate with Stageworks Theatre and Rory Lawrence Productions as well as over two dozen other theaters across the country on the Juneteenth Justice Project! We hope that you’ll tune in Friday, June 19 (Juneteenth) for our reading of Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids by Vincent Terrell Durham, to be filmed on deck at Stageworks with the actors socially-distanced.
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“We have found many obstacles — and many creative solutions — when it comes to streaming any of our past performances,” shares Matthew McGee, Tampa Bay-based performer and freeFall Theatre’s marketing and outreach manager. “We are unable to stream past productions as we use actors that are represented by Actor’s Equity Association and an agreement on a streaming contract has not been reached as of yet. We also have to pay rights for those performances as well, making the process unaffordable for us.”
The St. Petersburg theater, which prides itself on quality contemporary plays, classics and musicals, has been ahead of the curve in its multimedia programming, documenting their process and sharing featurettes on YouTube over the past decade. Along with several other videos, freeFall’s Youtube page has a three-part look at the making of The Normal Heart directed by Leigh Simons as well as other insightful and entertaining glimpses of the freeFall process.
“We’ve had to get creative!” McGee effuses, crediting the leadership of artistic director Eric Davis, who came up with the idea to live-share the work of The National Theatre in London.
“The National Theatre has been presenting their past productions for free on YouTube since all theaters closed in mid-March. We have been sharing the National Theatre at Home links with our patrons and then also sharing with them Zoom login credentials in order to celebrate National Theatre Wednesdays at freeFall. The patrons get to participate in Zoom chats with Eric discussing the show the National Theatre made available online. It’s very popular! Our biggest Zoom event had 100 attendees.
“We may continue the National Theatre chats even after we’ve safely re-opened, McGee adds. “That weekly connection between Eric and our patrons has been invaluable for us. Some of our lectures and enrichment events will move online permanently.”
Summer plans for new online programming? “We are presenting a summer series of web shorts in June called Outside the Box, where we tell the stories of freeFall past productions through the eyes of the performers and designers. It’s also a great way to check in with actors and artisans as they’ve been hit very hard by Covid-19 closures.”
McGee stresses that freeFall is looking into providing online programming that adheres to Davis’s strict quality standards. The theater recently put out a recent video that is a love letter to its audiences.
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American Stage Associate Artistic Director Kristin Clippard says fostering a connection to audiences has been one of the primary things on the company’s mind throughout this time of social isolation.
“We asked ourselves, ‘how can we continue to engage our community artistically, provide learning pathways and inspire conversation?’ We have been experimenting with how to transition our in-person content to online platforms since March, and it has been both parts surprising and unnerving. With new technology comes a learning curve, and all the frustrations of learning how to use it.”
On the other hand, she says it has been delightful to explore how to make an online class engaging in unexpected ways, or how to stage an impactful story on the small screen.
“Our creative natures lend themselves to figuring out cool ways to connect through a Zoom lens. We aren’t making movies out of plays, we are doing something completely different. For example, by having characters address each other directly to the camera, the audience is brought into the action in an extremely engrossing way. I love seeing how an actor can get that up close and personal with a viewer in a live (but distant) performance.”
Clippard said that the pandemic has forced American Stage to rely less on the theater’s physical structure, and more on the company’s ingenuity.
“The great thing about offering performances and classes online is that people can join in from any location, so there is a broader reach,” she says. “Technology provides us ways to interact with audiences that we couldn’t in the past. This means we can reach people with accessibility challenges, including our more vulnerable populations. Access to our programs becomes possible for more people in Pinellas County and beyond the Tampa Bay region.”
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The best part of our current set of challenges, in Coralette Damme’s opinion, is a simple tech feature — the automatic archival of Facebook Live videos.
“With limited personnel and resources, The Studio@620 hasn’t always captured performances on video so it is great to begin building this new archive,” the marketing director says.
“One challenge is that we don’t always have someone on hand to respond in real time to people who are having trouble connecting or are commenting or asking questions during the live feed, and we hate for people to feel distanced during these events that are intended to bring us together.”
The Studio@620 is planning some outdoor public events as well as virtual art exhibits, she added. “And, of course, we will continue the live-stream poetry, music, staged readings and other events — we are hoping to be able to offer some limited seating or timed entry options later in the summer when it is safe to do so and people are more comfortable with the idea of encountering others indoors, but that is not something we’re rushing towards just yet.”
The Studio@620 celebrates their 16th birthday on Saturday, June 20 with a socially-distant kiting event at Lassing Park.
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Keep St. Pete Lit
Keep St. Pete Lit has fostered a community of artists who don’t often seek support – writers and readers.
Says director Maureen McDole: “Changing to an online model has brought with it a lot of learning curves. We are missing the in-person interaction and still are processing how to completely engage our audiences going forward. This definitely is a time that you need to be open to thinking outside the box.
“We recently started our weekly online series Typewriter Talks where we interview local writers. I know that series would never have come about if we hadn’t been social distancing.
“Our summer programming offers lots of online classes for kids and adults. We still have our monthly book club with The Studio@620, our monthly show True Stories, and we have a weekly Poetry Hour/Open Mic also with The Studio@620. Our kids classes with our community partners are still meeting online. We will not be doing in-person classes until we feel safe, especially as a small organization, to mitigate all the risks involved.”
Find out about all these programs at keepstpetelit.org.
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The Gasparilla International Film Festival
The Gasparilla International Film Festival doesn’t exactly fall under the purview of performing arts, but it does offer recognition to Bay area students and filmmakers.
Postponed back in March due to COVID-19, the organizers have turned to virtual options to present the fest entries this year. Together with the Tampa Film Institute, GIFF will be streaming their 6th annual High School Film Competition virtually on Twitch this Sunday, June 14, at 1 p.m. Award categories Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematographer will receive scholarships facilitated through the Hillsborough Education Foundation.