COVID-19 keeps curtains drawn for performing arts in Indy, artists remain hopeful for return

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INDIANAPOLIS – As some businesses slowly get back to work from coronavirus closures, other places like performing arts venues still have to wait a little longer. But coming back to the stage amid a pandemic poses its own set of challenges.

When you think about going to the theater you probably think about performers on stage telling a story with their bodies and their voices. But now, with guidelines in place for social distancing, wearing masks, and indoor capacity limits because of COVID-19 – seeing a performance in at a theater will most likely change.

Justin Sears-Watson is the artistic director for the Phoenix Rising Dance Company and the Phoenix Rising Dance Studio. They were in the middle of a really strong season when the pandemic hit.

“For a small grassroots organization like ours that really thrives off of doing a lot of outreach and education to get our name out there, it has been really tough,” said Sears-Watson.

The company has gone through some difficulties of students withdrawing from classes and moving their classes online via Zoom.

“We know there are art forms done through screen,” he explained. “But if you’re used to doing something that’s so physical, and now you’re forced to not be as physical with trying to teach students – it just presents another problem.”

Even when the studio is allowed to open back up with safety measures in place, Sears-Watson says they will continue to offer virtual classes for people who aren’t ready to return to in person instruction.

But there has also been the mental and emotional impact staying away from the studio has had on performers. As a dancer artist himself, Sears-Watson can attest to the difficulties.

“When you’re used to being with a group of people that you dance with quite often, as with in most companies, every day, they become your family, they become your rocks,” Sears-Watson said. “You learn to exist and co-exist in a flow with them because you’re always with them – it’s like a family. And you’re dancing with them, you’re doing something that is a very intimate and very physical…and so when that is kind of stripped away from your existence, it can not only be just upsetting but it can also be traumatic mentally, physically and emotionally.”

He and his team are working out ways his performers and students can get back to work safely once they are allowed to do so, making sure they have processes and procedures in place.

“The things that I think I’m most concerned about mainly my younger little ones,” he said. “So we’ve taped off our studio so that when they come in they have a square they go to. Parents won’t be allowed in the lobby, you’ll have to drop your student off, and you’ll have to come back pick them up.”

For the adult classes and for the dance company, it will be a little more challenging.

“It will affect the creative work,” Sears-Watson explained. “Because if you can’t have a dance where you’re partnering with someone because art should reflect human existence. It will be hard in a way that we will not be able to partner and be close to each other.”

However, he remains optimistic that there will be great performances that come from this time of isolation.

“Art has to reflect the times that we’re living in,” he said. “So if it means that we have to social distance or that is what’s suggested, then the work would reflect the times that we’re living in.”

The Phoenix Theatre is dealing with something similar. They were on the brink of what artistic director Bill Simmons was going to be their best fiscal year in recent history.

The curtain has been drawn at the theatre since March.

Like Sears-Watson, Simmons also teaches classes at the Phoenix that he’s had to move online, which has been difficult for himself and some of his students.

“Not that we haven’t grown and learned. but the theatre is about human beings,” he explained. “I don’t think digitally virtual programming is ever going to really replace the human interaction that you get between artists who are really doing their work and audiences who are there to absorb the story and to be with you emotionally.”

Simmons points out there are many who are emotionally worn out and not just from COVID-19.

“I think what’s happening the conversations around racism and systemic racism in this country, 400 years of oppression, I think these are all powerful things,” Simmons said. “I think we all need to all figure out how we all get better at this because we all have to share this country ultimately. And I want the Phoenix to be able to be a proactive part of that.”

Right now, the team there is working on a way to get back to performing but maybe not necessarily inside the theatre. But there is a worry that even when theaters get the “all clear” to come back, there won’t be much of an audience to return to.

“I just don’t know that there’s going to be a big market for the work right now,” he said. “The surveys we’ve been participating in through the Arts Council of Indianapolis – I’ve been privy to the results of some sister organizations surveys – that’s been one of the things I’ve been relying on right now is getting information from other artistic leadership. That’s a big concern is the survey are showing only about 30% of our regular patrons are ready to get back to our spaces.”

“Even if you take into account the social distancing rules that are being implemented – like we’re only allowed to have like 40 people in our main stage space,” Simmons goes on to say. “We don’t know that we could actually get 40 people to come to the theatre if only 30% of patrons are interested in coming. That would maybe be 25-30 people coming to see the show per performance.”

Simmons points out, surveys are showing patrons just aren’t eager to get back into the theatre.

“Right now, the surveys are not indicating that our patrons are eager to get back into the space. They want us to still be around, yes,” he said. “But as to are they willing to buy a ticket? We’re not even to 50% of surveys showing people ready to get back into spaces.”

Something else Simmons considers when thinking of returning to the theatre is how performances will look with new guidelines in place.

“Studies are showing, too, singing and acting and the particles that you spit out when you’re filling a space with your voice…you can’t help but expel moisture droplets,” Simmons explained. “In a small theatre space, particularly our Basile stage is a black box it’s 40×40, even if you socially distance, you can send particles through the entire space with the ventilation system and stuff. And then you think, well even if everyone is masked…those particles now are on the audience and on the stage manager up in the booth.”

Simmons goes on to say, “It’s just those kinds of things that I just really think we all ought to be really very thoughtful about how we go back to creating this work.”

While COVID-19 and the social unrest in the world has put a pause on the performing arts, Simmons and Sears-Watson both agree some amazing works of art will come from this time.

“I think there’s going to be this creation of work that allows us to be in person with one another, that keeps the artists safe and that the audiences are going to come and they’re going to buy into that reality,” said Simmons. “I think there’s work that playwrights are creating right now in their isolation that is going to adapt to the reality that we have now and that’s the work that we’re going to start to seeing over the next few years from theatre companies.”

They both also encourage their performers and staff to really re-frame what is happening in this moment and use it as a time to reflect.

“When you’re in a place where everyone is quarantined away from each other, I think that for that to happen before this kind of outcry from Black people and myself — it makes sense,” said Sears-Watson. “I hope that we can all take the time to listen to each other and hear each other and see each other. And just take a beat, a moment, a pause to just really find out what to do in our hearts that our right and that we can be true to human existence – just treat each other the best that we can – especially right now.”

“I know the moment we’re in now is so horrific, and it’s really hard, and I know it’s awful for many people for various reasons,” said Simmons. “I think we’re dealing with a lot of hard issues about the virus and about the social unrest and systemic racism and white privilege, and I think this all stuff we are reckoning with and 2020 is making us do that.”

Both say like the phoenix, the performing arts and the community in general will rise from the ashes and be better and stronger than ever.

Phoenix Rising Dance Studio is holding a 4-week dance camp in July. The Phoenix Rising Dance Company will perform in the virtual IndyPride Festival on June 21.

For more information on Phoenix Rising Dance Company and Studio, click here.

For more on the Phoenix Theatre, click here.

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