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Sarasota Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 2 weeks ago

Performing arts groups take their shows outside

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As COVID-19 continues to limit indoor performances, Sarasota's arts community is pursuing opportunities to play outdoors.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

As the  2020-21 season drew near, and it became clear challenges associated with COVID-19 were not going away, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe staff began devising a plan to still hold performances by moving beyond the confines of their traditional theater space.

The search for an outdoor venue for socially distanced shows produced a spot just outside the theater’s front door.

“We can’t have that many people anyhow,” Executive Director Julie Leach said, recounting the planning process. “We have this campus. Why don’t we just set up outdoor seating that would be safe?”

On Oct. 9, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe launched “Light Up The Night,” an open-air concert series with a stage in front of the theater and an audience seated in the parking lot. The performances were logistically taxing — theater staff had to roll equipment in and out before and after each performances, and inclement weather posed a threat — but warmly received, Leach said.

Henry Washington performs at the first installment in Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s "Light Up the Night" open-air concert series. Photo courtesy Sorcha Augustine.

Because it appears the coronavirus will render it impossible to safely hold a traditional season of performances, a community that prides itself on the arts is increasingly looking outdoors as a way to stay active while adhering to health guidelines. In addition to WBTT, organizations including the Sarasota Orchestra and Sarasota Opera have plotted a slate of outside shows as part of their strategy for the next several months.

More than half a year after COVID-19 began to reshape operations in the performing arts world, Leach said there is a difference in the demand for in-person shows as compared to prerecorded or online performances.

“The audience is so much more interested in doing things in person,” Leach said. “We just have to find a way to do that that’s safe.”

Public policy

As performing arts organizations explore outdoor opportunities, the city of Sarasota isn’t facilitating their search. In October, McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre Owner Les McCurdy contacted City Manager Tom Barwin with a proposal. The comedy club planned to resume operations in mid-November but wanted to provide an option for potential visitors who were uncomfortable with attending a show indoors.

Because the city had implemented temporary street closures on weekends to accommodate outdoor dining during the pandemic, McCurdy asked to close the small spur street in front of his business that leads from Ringling Boulevard to an alley. McCurdy said he wanted to try to use this space to put on socially distanced outdoor shows. He estimated the area could seat around 125 people, which he said would help  do enough business to justify reopening.

McCurdy said the closure could be an experiment, but he was optimistic.

“I believe we will find out within a couple of months if the outdoor shows are popular and something we need to do to provide our entertainment to as many of our citizens as possible in a way that is as safe as possible,” McCurdy wrote in the email.

City staff investigated McCurdy’s request and determined that because the city is not issuing permits for outdoor special events, it would not issue permits to accommodate outdoor performances either. The city did agree to close the spur street for the business’s reopening this weekend to give McCurdy’s patrons more space to distance as they wait to be seated, city spokesperson Jason Bartolone said.

In his initial reply to McCurdy, Barwin said he had attended a WBTT outdoor performance a few days earlier. He said the show was well organized and that attendees had a “great time” even though the show stopped on account of rain.

A new script

In addition to overhauling plans for the season, performing arts professionals have been forced to get a crash-course in staging outdoor shows that comply with health guidelines.

Sarasota Orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna said the process was challenging but guided by straightforward questions. As the organization plotted its “On the Road with SO” outdoor concert series — scheduled to begin in December with performances at sites including Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, The Ringling and Nathan Benderson Park — its production team relied heavily on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It was really starting with the very basics,” McKenna said. “We’d like to present outdoor concerts. What do we need to do to do that responsibly?”

Unlike WBTT, the orchestra will hold some small indoor performances. Different settings will accommodate different shows — the orchestra won’t include any wind or brass instruments indoors, but it believes it can safely feature those musicians outdoors.

McKenna said the orchestra is emphasizing flexibility. If COVID-19 cases trend downward, the organization might take a more ambitious approach in February and March. If the data takes a trend for the worse, plans will adjust accordingly.

After getting their temperatures taken on entry, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe patrons sat in distanced pods for the "Light Up The Night" performances. Photo courtesy Sorcha Augustine.

Whatever circumstances allow, McKenna said the orchestra believed it was important to find a means for engaging its audience.

“Our goal was to reimagine a season and still deliver the same standard of excellence, albeit in a different way,” McKenna said.

Arts professionals said the benefits of putting on the shows go beyond a diversion for patrons.

“The artists want to do their art,” Leach said. “A lot of them need the extra financial support that comes with putting on a show. Everybody’s been very appreciative of trying to do it.”

For now, the idea of insulating the arts from the effects of the coronavirus is unrealistic. WBTT cut the run of “Light Up The Night” short after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Addressing safety without shutting down will be a balancing act, and it’s important to operate with  caution, Leach said.

Still, if it’s possible to perform safely, Sarasota’s arts community is determined to find a way for the show to go on.

“People are anxious to feel normal,” Leach said. “They need that. That’s one of the benefits of the arts.”

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