Area artistic directors celebrate their return to live performance in the real world.
Art is a form of love, and also addiction. Artists need to connect with viewers and audiences. Painters and writers can live by faith and delayed gratification. For performing artists, the connection is direct. It happens in the moment when the show goes on or the music plays. But this breed of artist has recently gone through a severe audience withdrawal. The pandemic pulled the plug on live performance for more than a year. Just this fall have shows returned in earnest, or look more like a pre-pandemic existence, anyway. We spoke to five area artistic directors about what that means to them. Our focus is on how it feels, not how they did it. Here’s what they had to say.
Bramwell Tovey is Sarasota Orchestra’s music director designate. On Oct. 30, he conducted “Tovey: The Adventure Begins,” a live concert at Sarasota Opera House. He describes it as an adventure indeed.
“The classical music community initially underestimated the pandemic. Like many at the time, we’d anticipated four weeks of interruption — and it turned out to be 18 months. We entered a brave new world where our principal audience was now online. Orchestras worldwide were forced to adapt. We made do with small ensembles and learned how to film our concerts for streaming video. But as good as it may get, a virtual concert is no substitute for the real thing.
"In all my travels, I’ve never met a single actor or musician who preferred the online version. They all missed being in the moment with an audience in the same room. I certainly did. And it’s hard to describe the feelings of liberation I had when I finally reconnected with an audience.
"For me, the return to live performance was ecstatic. This happened last July, before I came to Sarasota Orchestra. I conducted the New York Philharmonic in a partly covered venue in Vail, Colorado. After two years of pretty much nothing, it was quite extraordinary. I recently conducted Sarasota Orchestra in 'The Adventure Begins' at the Sarasota Opera House. It was my first concert for Sarasota Orchestra since the pandemic began and in my new role as music director. It’s a big hall — and I’m happy to say we had a capacity audience that felt both thrilled and safe.”
Rebecca Hopkins is Florida Studio Theatre’s managing director. After a long hiatus, the March 24 opening of “Vintage Pop” marked FST’s first live show. She recalls how much that meant to her. And still does.
“I have no words to express the utter and complete joy I felt the first night FST reopened after being closed for an entire year. It was a feeling I don’t think anyone who was there that night will ever forget — from the staff, to the artists, to the audience. And that feeling has stayed with us through the spring and summer.
"The last seven months have been exciting, challenging, frustrating … and I’m still filled with expectation and hope for the future. We all went through something collectively — not just here at FST, but the country and the world. This universal experience has given us all a new awareness of the importance of theater. We share stories of humanity that bring different communities together. That magic was robbed from all of us for a year.
"Whether you actually work in the theater or go to the theater, there’s a new reverence for how important it is to gather together and tell stories. There’s no art without artists and no art without an audience. What sets the theater apart from other mediums is that we put both in the same room and see what happens. It’s the real-time interaction between the artist and the audience that truly constitutes our art. If FST has stayed strong over the last year and a half, it’s thanks to a foundation of four decades of work in the community and four decades of trust. Our audience was there for us when we needed them. We’re so thrilled to be back on stage and look forward to the next four decades, whatever the challenges may be.”
Leymis Bolaños Wilmott is Sarasota Contemporary Dance’s artistic director. SCD returned to live performance in April 2020. They came back in full force with “Voices: Rising Choreographers” this October. Wilmott describes it as “a peak experience.”
“Sarasota Contemporary Dance wasn’t entirely exiled from the real world in 2020 — but we were still very limited. Returning to the Cook Theatre for our 'Voices: Rising Choreographers' in October and performing for a decent-sized audience was a peak experience for all of us. It really felt like a homecoming — the Cook is such an intimate space, and there’s something familiar and magical about it. I think our dancers conveyed a sense of hope and possibility to our audience. This whole show was about the future — it put a spotlight on tomorrow’s dance makers and professional dancers. Jessica Obiedzinski and Sea Lee were our choreographers — they’re both SCB company members. We also had a piece by Justice Rodriguez, a choreographer based in Miami. Their dances conveyed a sense of limitless potential — and I think that was deeply intentional. I think this show ignited hope in the audience. It was very cathartic for all of us, and also a lot of fun.”
Iain Webb is the director of Sarasota Ballet. In his stellar ballet career, he’s been both a dancer and an artistic director. He knows what it’s like to walk in a dancer’s shoes. As a result, Webb is all the more proud of the company’s return to the real world with its “New World” performance on Oct. 22.
“The pandemic hit the dance world particularly hard. A dancer’s body is their instrument. An actor like Roddy McDowall might begin their career as a child prodigy at age 10 and continue well into his 70s. But a dancer has only a few short years to maintain their instrument.
"Dancers are athletes — and it’s tremendously difficult staying fit in isolation. The wrong kick might cause a disaster in a small apartment. But thanks to our amazing, generous supporters, we’re one of the few ballet companies who paid our dancers throughout their downtime — and also fully covered their medical insurance. Our dancers also stayed in touch with our audience with a steady stream of online video clips.
"When the isolation finally ended, we did all we could to build their confidence. Our company knew they could come back together safely. Even so, the transition to studio rehearsals was tough — especially with everyone wearing a mask. But once rehearsals resumed, I was in awe. Despite their weeks of isolation, our dancers were still at an amazing level.
"Actually performing for a live audience was another hurdle. It takes a lot for anybody to go on stage and perform — and they had to get used to that again. But they all did — and overcame any lingering stage fright. Our 'New World' program marked our return to the stage. It featured Martha Graham’s choreography of Aaron Copland’s 'Appalachian Spring' and a world premiere of 'Sonatina' by Ricardo Graziano, our resident choreographer. It was a blend of the old and new, and the love from our audience was flowing brightly. Our dancers came through with flying colors, and I have so much respect for what they accomplished. It’s good to be back!”
Anne Morrison is SaraSolo Productions’ artistic director. She says the company sharpened its virtual reality skills during the months of social distancing. On Oct. 14, they returned to actual reality for their 2021 FallFest. According to Morrison, that was much more fun.
“Our exile from live performance was scary. But because we celebrate solo theater artists, we had an easier time than large-cast theater companies. Switching to streaming video required many creative leaps, and that taught us many wonderful skills that we’ve taken back to live theater. It still wasn’t an ideal experience.
"For solo theater artists, the audience is your scene partner. You play off their reactions, and that really shapes your performance. There’s nothing like it. It felt weird performing for the single eye of a camera. Going back to a live audience felt wonderful.
"We performed to a smaller house in a pop-up theater space. That was a great experience for our artists. All four were premiering new shows. Paula Broadwater did her new cabaret set, and the experience was invaluable to her. She’s accustomed to performing in theater spaces with all the bells and whistles. Her pop-up performance at SaraSolo proved that she could scale it back for an intimate cabaret space, like 54 Below in New York City, and still make it work.
"As I said, our SaraSolo FallFest audience was smaller and socially distanced. A few of our fans are still scared of live theater. Fortunately, we’ve been able to film the FallFest shows. Starting in November, we’ll stream them for those who couldn’t be there. That’s one of the skills we learned during lockdown, and it’ll really help us broaden our audience.”
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.