By Angela Seals, Cultural Office
“When things began to shut down so quickly,” remembers Caitlin Lowans of Theatreworks, “the opposing feelings followed so closely on each other’s heels: the excitement of a final dress rehearsal, slammed immediately by the disappointment of a closing night – with no ritual, no opportunity for closure – and always the question: how to support artists?”
During the pandemic, 99% of producing and presenting organizations across the United States cancelled events, for a loss of 557 million tickets. By this past July, total financial losses to the nation’s arts nonprofits alone was estimated to be $17.97 billion, according to the most recent research by Americans for the Arts.
Performance arts have been among the hardest hit across the nation and locally, but they have also demonstrated rugged innovation, resilience, and generosity. Local theater groups have gone virtual in a variety of ways, moved outdoors, become mobile, or reimagined performances entirely.
Virtually producing theater was a new challenge for many. During Arts Month last year, a Virtual Theater Showcase featured 8 local companies collaborating for a free production broadcast live on Facebook and YouTube.
Springs Ensemble Theater took a different approach by professionally filming productions and then selling tickets to watch the performance online. It pushed the theater company into new territory verging on filmmaking.
“We were able to bring our offerings to people in the safety of their homes, which was amazing, but the challenge is that theater is a communal art. There is a euphoria and comradeship that happens when you get to share that time, space, air, and moment with someone,” says Sarah Sheppard Shaver, who co-produced two of SET’s entirely-virtual productions.
Counterweight Theater Lab and THEATREdART, on the other hand, kept their audiences in person by redesigning performances for a single family at a time. Ticket holders move along city streets in their own timeslots, encountering actors in character on the sidewalk to personally experience each scene.
This format requires flexibility and improvisation, according to Counterweight’s Artistic Director, Ethan Everhart. “For an actor … if you have to step out of the way because someone is riding a bike or someone is walking a dog, those are things that are now getting acknowledged in the scene.”
THEATREdART’s “Ghosts of Old Manitou” performances, featuring 14 local actors in a walking tour format, are happening now in Manitou Springs through October 29.
Outdoor performances have been widely embraced across the local theater scene. The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College’s City as a Venue program took the arts outside this summer to neighborhoods throughout the community for over 50 camps, events, and performances. Along the way, they engaged over 5,000 community members and employed over 50 regional creatives.
“This inaugural year surpassed all our expectations,” says Idris Goodwin, Executive Director of the Fine Arts Center. “We’re proud of what we were able to accomplish through the monthslong program – we visited new parts of town, made new friends, all the while dreaming about how to grow on what we started as we start planning for City as a Venue in 2022.”
Like the Fine Arts Center, most local theater artists and patrons are looking forward to keeping the best innovations from the last year and a half while returning to live performance in a traditional setting. Local performances being offered this October in a variety of formats are listed at ArtsOctober.com, including Theatreworks’ production of “Witch,” running through Oct. 10.
“Being back is full of joy, yet also uncertainty,” Lowans acknowledges. “We’re not quite in the moment of big bear hugs, are we? But it can also be wondrous to start gently and appreciate each moment as we grow back together.”
NOTE: This article was originally published in the 2021 Cultural Office Guide to Arts Month, crafted in partnership with the Colorado Springs Gazette and published as an insert in the paper on Oct. 3, 2021. See the digital copy in its entirety at https://issuu.com/springsgazette/docs/cultural_office_guide_to_arts_month_2021