Sarasota arts organizations fought for a return to normalcy in a trying year
It was a trying year full of innovation, frustration and ultimately a return to performing for Sarasota's arts organizations.
| 9:50 a.m. December 28, 2021
Arts + Culture
It’s hard to put yourself back in the mindset of a year ago. And that’s natural even in the times you’d like to remember, let alone the years that you’d like to forget.
One year ago, before COVID-19 vaccines were readily available, performances were hard to find in Sarasota and beyond. The local and worldwide community of artists had to find new ways to connect to their audience, and they had to innovate just to flex their creative muscles.
Take Chorus of the Keys, for example. The local singing group had to resort to Zoom rehearsals last February, and that’s when they found an unexpected hurdle. The Zoom apparatus would only allow one person to speak at a time, so the group resorted to having one member lead off practice sessions and the remainder of the 20-plus singers mute themselves.
It wasn’t ideal, but Ken Rear, president of the group, said it was the best they could do.
“We're a group of a bunch of older guys but there's a lot of musical experience in this group,” Rear said in February. “I said, ‘We can't stop because if we do, we'll lose them.’”
And sure, that works for rehearsal. But would it work for performances?
The Sarasota Ballet, which thrives on the intimate connection with its audience, put on a series of digital performances during the pandemic. It wasn’t just as simple as setting up a video camera in an empty arena; every part of the performance had to change.
It wasn’t just the performers who had to alter the way they work. It was the lighting specialist and the choreographer who had to change in concert with the staff videographer.
Aaron Muhl, the lighting specialist tasked with making everything work, found that he had to simultaneously monitor both the live performances and the footage coming through the camera.
“The camera is very sensitive to some colors, and not so sensitive to others,” Muhl said in April. “I find that I'm saturating color for the camera as opposed to the live stage. It has to do with the balance between what's on stage and how it should look and what the camera actually picks up. Sometimes they're minimal changes. And sometimes they are extraordinarily drastic changes.”
Even when performances started back up again, the venues weren’t out of the woods.
Les McCurdy, the owner of McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre, shut down for months during the pandemic, and he said he had to spend thousands of dollars to improve the venue’s ventilation.
McCurdy’s briefly reopened at one point during the pandemic prior to its full reopening in June, but the decision to come back for good was clearly triggered by the changing times.
“We knew without vaccines that we weren’t getting numbers into the theater,” McCurdy said at the time. "We felt by mid-June that everyone who wants a vaccine has had one ... I wanted to open at a time where we're not going to distance.”
While some venues were figuring out a way to return, others were seeking new leadership.
The Sarasota Art Museum chose Virginia Shearer, the former director of education at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, to forge a path into the future. Shearer took over as executive director from Anne-Marie Russell, who had departed the museum for a position with Architecture Sarasota.
Shearer had managed the Atlanta museum’s education department and served on a six-member executive panel, and her presence in Sarasota indicated the start of a new era.
“She has built her excellent reputation as a leader in the museum field by developing a solid track record in creating experimental, collaborative and research-based platforms for engagement that will serve the Museum and our community well,’’ Ringling College president Dr. Larry Thompson said of Shearer shortly after her hiring.
The Sarasota Orchestra made a change of its own, importing renowned conductor Bramwell Tovey to be the sixth musical director in the organization’s 72-year history. Tovey signed on in August and replaced Anu Tali, who had held the position for six years before departing.
Tovey won a Grammy and a Juno Award during his 20 years conducting the Vancouver Symphony, and he previously spent time as a music director in Luxembourg.
“For me, music is a profound language that addresses humanity at a level that is beyond mere words,'' Tovey said when his hiring was announced. "To have been able to spend my career sharing music through the power of the modern symphony orchestra has been an extraordinary privilege.”
The Circus Arts Conservatory came back to the stage with its Summer Circus Spectacular at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and for some of the performers, it felt like a rebirth of their art. The 2020 Summer Circus Spectacular had been canceled, but the show went on in 2021.
The Valla-Bertini Family, a high unicycle act that travelled all over the country prior to the pandemic, found that the pandemic interrupted not just their act but also their lives.
“We’ve all been separate,” Kim Sue Valla said in July. “We’re used to living in an RV and working together, eating together, driving together. For me and my husband, we start to think we’re missing our kids' lives. My son is off at work in downtown Sarasota and normally I would homeschool my daughter (when on the road).”
The family spent two months practicing to make sure they were in shape for the big show, and as they got deeper and deeper into their craft, their passion re-emerged twice as strong.
“We haven’t performed together in two years,” Valla said. “We didn’t realize how much we missed it until now.”
And by September, the question wasn’t whether Sarasota organizations would return to full-scale performances; the question was about the best mix of protocols and procedures.
Many of the local venues banded together and decided that patrons would not be allowed into performances unless they could provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, as part of the Safe Arts Sarasota protocols.
It was a compact with the community. This is the safest way we can perform for you, the organizations seemed to be saying, and they explained their rationale in a written statement.
“Performing arts organizations have faced unprecedented challenges in this pandemic. Our sector has been unable to operate normally since March 2020,” the statement said.
“Since the arts community is a major economic driver for the Suncoast, our organizations are working collaboratively to ensure that our patrons can continue to safely experience the joy of live performances, and we can keep our artists and our staff employed. Our economic and creative vitality depends on providing the safest possible environment for everyone.''
As live performances resumed in earnest in the fall, the 2022 season has a packed schedule that looks more like normal than it has in two years.
One theme has emerged during the performers' return: They're ready.