Our Renaissance is Pending

Louisiana performers and audiences got a taste of our own post-plague arts revival, but we aren’t there yet


Michael Alford

Regular readers may remember our story from September 2020 titled, “The Future for the Performing Arts in Louisiana,” which detailed the challenges faced by our region’s performing arts organizations during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. When, a few months ago, I pitched a follow-up to that story, I envisioned a very different piece than what follows. 

Just a few short weeks ago musicians, actors, and other artists were ecstatically—if cautiously—returning to their livelihoods on stage as the rest of us excitedly and loyally clamored back into venues as audience members. The mutual joy of performers and patrons coming back together—to connect, to share space, to share art—was palpable in each precious interaction. After a painfully long year and a half apart, isolated, distanced, or connected only through screens, Louisiana performers and audiences experienced a beautiful reunion; reaffirmed in our understanding that live music, theatre, and dance are integral to our culture, our way of life, and our happiness. I so looked forward to interviewing performers about the rush of returning to the stage after a long absence, and venue owners about their audiences’ renewed appreciation for live performance. 

Needless to say, things are different now. Instead of attending the plays and concerts marked on my calendar, I’m now writing from my own quarantine, as my COVID-positive (and vaccinated) musician partner isolates on the opposite side of the house after returning from tour. A mask mandate has been reinstated statewide, and New Orleans has implemented vaccine or negative test mandates for all indoor public spaces. Jazz Fest’s cancellation (yet again) felt like a harbinger of things to come, and other major annual festivals like Festival Acadiens et Creoles and French Quarter Fest have surely enough followed suit. At this point in time, perhaps the only thing that is certain for the performing arts is that they are needed, now more than ever. 

That’s not to say that artists and producers have not persevered despite the hurdles. Outdoor stages that allow for distanced audiences have popped up in unexpected places—Beauvoir Park in Baton Rouge, The Broadside in New Orleans, and even private porches like the Constantinople Stage in New Orleans have kept music playing and money in musicians’ pockets, albeit on a smaller scale than we’re used to. Several of the venues that closed and were up for sale this time last year—d.b.a. (which has now expanded to include the open air venue across the street, d.b.a at Palace Market), Gasa Gasa, and The Joy Theater—have since reopened. 

The Acadiana Center for the Arts James Devin Moncus Theater was originally designed with the intent of also functioning as a studio/recording space, and not being able to fill the three hundred-capacity house during the pandemic provided incentive to finally outfit it with the necessary equipment for recording and broadcasting virtual content. Even with those worthwhile investments—which provided an outlet for local artists to produce their own content, and for the AcA to produce Festivals Acadiens et Creoles and Festival International 2020 entirely virtually—the center still received special permission from the state to host a limited-attendance concert on December 10, 2020. “Because we just felt like we couldn’t let the calendar year end without doing something,” said Executive Director Sam Oliver. “If we knew that we could do it safely within every standard set out, then we were saying to ourselves, well, why don’t we do it? We’re here to serve an audience. We’re here to serve artists, and to be a connector, so if we’re going to be a live and in-person connector, let’s do it in whatever way makes sense.”

“Just like any actor, I would imagine, or any theatre maker, anyone to do with live performance of any medium, I was like ‘God, I miss it.’ I just missed that connectivity, that sense of coming together. Experiencing something with not just your fellow cast mates, but every crew member, every audience member, even the people working box office in front of house making this thing happen, that we can all share together.”

—Monica Harris

Many arts organizations made creative and impressively agile shifts to producing virtual content in 2020. Now, the same companies who successfully and enthusiastically embraced digitally broadcasting performances a year ago are acknowledging that their patrons and staff are thoroughly burnt out on these virtual productions. Opéra Louisiane is one of many organizations who proved their resiliency last year by producing online and virtual content. “However, nothing beats a live performance,” admits Leanne Clements, General Director of Opéra Louisiane.

As of press, Opéra Louisiane plans to hold its Summer Soirée in person on September 9, along with its Open Air Fair at the Baton Rouge downtown library on November 6, and a full in-person production of the Menotti holiday classic Amahl and the Night Visitors on December 18. They’re also producing another creative virtual performance on September 17 as part of the Ebb & Flow Festival, in collaboration with Marie Constantin and the Louisiana Stormwater Coalition: Capital Trash, a mini opera about Baton Rouge’s trash issue. “You may see a few virtual performances in the future from Opéra Louisiane, but we are focused on live and in person events in as safe and comfortable an environment as possible,” said Clements.

[Peruse this photo essay celebrating the dancers who went a year without in-person performance, from our September 2020 issue.]

Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, one of the longest-running local theatres in the country, also hopes to allow audiences a safe return in-person after last year’s virtual programming. “It's been invigorating to hear from people who have been coming for years, how excited they are that we're getting back on stage,” explained Production Manager James Lanius. “Everyone is over ‘digital theatre’ and just ready for some in-person performance.” 

Last year Le Petit successfully produced several cabaret-style shows online, including one featuring New Orleans favorite talent Leslie Castay in December. “We had an older patron who showed up at the theatre a few days before to buy a ticket. It took three of our staff to explain to him that he would not be able to watch the show in the theatre, and that he would have to watch it at home on his computer,” Lanius recalled. “He was heartbroken, and said ‘I just want to see Leslie sing, and cheer for her, and shake her hand after the show. I can’t do that on the computer.’ People are ready to get back in the theatre and remind ourselves why in-person performance is so important.”

This sentiment echoes. We used to say that theatre was the antithesis to the digital age—in the era of COVID, the digital realm of presentation has become a necessary, if somewhat resented, crutch to allow theatre (and live music, and dance) to continue at all. And as crutches go, virtual venues have allowed performances to continue and helped artists to get paid, so different as they may be, it’s hard to knock them. “We managed to make a lot of art in the last eighteen months, and we were able to pay artists, makers, and technicians a total of over $100,000 for their work onstage, on camera, and on tour,” Lanius said. “Our staff is smaller now than it was eighteen months ago, but we’re working towards getting back to pre-pandemic levels, and in the meantime we will still able to produce world-class theatre in the French Quarter.”

"It comes down to just the organic, visceral nature of performing live in front of people. It's an itch that needs to get scratched for a lot of us, whether you're doing it professionally, or just for the love of it. We realized during the pandemic, not being able to do that, that a lot of people need that in order to be happy. And I for sure am one of those people."

—George Gekas, The Revivalists

Moving forward, Le Petit hopes to open this fall with a full season of five plays, in addition to its Curtain Call Ball Gala. While last year’s gala and most programming were held online, the plan—as of press time—is for the full season to be in person. “At this point we are optimistic that we*ll be able to have those performances in person,” Lanius told me. Like all of the production leadership I spoke with, safety procedures are at the forefront of Lanius’s mind, with the hopes that their staunch implementation will allow audiences to continue to return. 

“We plan to produce as long as we can safely do so. Shutting down production is not an option for us unless we are mandated,” said Jenny Ballard, Managing Artistic Director of Theatre Baton Rouge. “We were planning on requiring masks for our audience members well before the mask mandate was reintroduced, and we’ll return to temperature checks at the door, as well as COVID protocol cleaning procedures.”

At the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge, Director of Marketing/Programming John Kaufman emphasized that communication among their staff, and safety for performers and audiences are ultimate takeaways from the last eighteen months. “We have been receiving constant praise about returning performances and appreciation from our patrons that we are still taking the precautions to keep everyone safe, both staff and patrons,” said Kaufman. 

[Find upcoming Manship events here in our regional calendar.]

Three of the Manship’s concerts last year pivoted to being produced at Beauvoir Park—an outdoor venue in Baton Rouge that started up during the height of the pandemic, which hosted shows for the Manship as well as Mid-City Ballroom, along with other musical acts. “We found a little opportunity to step in and put on concerts in a safe manner—outside, obviously, is the way to go,” said J. Hover, talent buyer and promoter for Beauvoir Park and Director of Entertainment at Red Stick Social, whose weekly Groovin’ on the Grass concert series has also kept live music going outdoors. “Really, for us, it was all about providing musicians a platform to do what they wanted to do.”

Even prior to New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s issuing the city-wide vaccine or negative test mandates for public buildings, some of the city’s most iconic and beloved music venues had already taken the initiative to issue such regulations. Tipitina’s, d.b.a., and Maple Leaf Bar were among the first. “We’re trying to remain open while still being responsible and protecting our patrons and staff and musicians,” said Stanton Moore, co-owner of Tipitina’s and drummer of Galactic. “I just think that everything that we can do is going to help … I would love to encourage people to do what we have to do, based off of facts, to get through this.”

[Read our article on Galactic's purchase of Tipitina's back in December 2018.]

Like many, Moore expressed frustration at the current situation. Earlier this summer he experienced, both as a musician and venue owner, the profound emotion of returning to the stage before an audience after the long hiatus, when he performed with David Torkanowsky and James Singleton for a small audience of around fifty—a sort of “soft reopening” show welcoming an audience of friends and family back to Tipitina’s for the first time since March of 2020. “It was an incredible experience, especially for me in the position that I'm in … to be a co-owner of Tip's and performing,” Moore remembered. “It was a really unique, but very special experience. I mean, I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.”

Monica R. Harris, a New Orleans-based actress, recalled a similar giddiness at returning to the stage at the Contemporary Arts Center as part of Rebecca Hollingsworth’s Artist Residency—especially because the CAC was the last place she had performed for an audience before the lockdowns in 2020. “I just felt so grateful to be back. It’s as if I had completed a circle,” Harris told me. “And yes, I have to wear a mask. And we have hand sanitizing stations, and extra masks. But God, I’m rehearsing again, and I’m getting to learn lines again, and I get to see people I haven’t seen in over a year—it just all kind of hit me at once in that moment.

[Find current exhibitions and upcoming performances scheduled at the Contemporary Arts Center in our regional arts calendar.]

“Just like any actor, I would imagine, or any theatre maker, anyone to do with live performance of any medium, I was like ‘God, I miss it.’ I just missed that connectivity, that sense of coming together,” said Harris. “Experiencing something with not just your fellow cast mates, but every crew member, every audience member, even the people working box office in front of house making this thing happen, that we can all share together.”

Harris, who played Luciana in the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane’s recent cut-short run of Comedy of Errors, said that the first rehearsal for the production felt like the first day of school. “I could barely contain how excited I was to just sit at a table with people and read a script together,” she said. “It was as if I got to step back into the timeline that was taken away so suddenly. I got to come right back, and I could feel everybody feeling that in the room. That was really special, and that's been carrying me through. When we get off the phone, I'm gonna go do my show and I'm going to be thankful every time I get to do it. It's made me acknowledge why I missed it and given me so much more gratitude.”

Surely enough, after performing one last show the night of our interview, the next day the Shakespeare Festival announced the cancellation of the remainder of its run. "This is a reminder of how quickly things can change sometimes, and we’ve got to make the most of the time we have because we don’t know how much that is,” Harris said the day before the cancellation was announced. “We've just got to make it all count. Every performance I do, I make it count, one hundred percent of the time.”

For George Gekas, bassist for The Revivalists, the COVID-mandated hiatus from performing for audiences was the longest period he’s gone without playing live since he started his career. Like many musicians, Gekas took several less-conventional, scaled-down outdoor or live-streamed gigs in the absence of traditional venues and crowds. Many professional musicians like Gekas would not necessarily play to such modestly-sized audiences under normal circumstances—of course, in the absence of normal circumstances, performers and audiences alike are having to adjust their expectations. “It comes down to just the organic, visceral nature of performing live in front of people. It’s an itch that needs to get scratched for a lot of us, whether you’re doing it professionally, or just for the love of it,” Gekas said. “We realized during the pandemic, not being able to do that, that a lot of people need that in order to be happy. And I for sure am one of those people.” 

As vital as the performing arts’ full-fledged return may be for personal fulfillment and happiness, the practical reality is that as long as COVID ravages our state, countless artists’ livelihoods remain in jeopardy. The Jazz & Heritage Music Relief Fund reopened for applications for aid this summer, while many other grant programs that provided aid last year have ceased. The Krewe of Red Beans, who provided New Orleans musicians with temporary jobs as drivers along with other other aid in 2020, is hosting Fest Fest: a series of crowd-funded, COVID-safe porch concerts to help supplement musicians’ lost income from yet another round of cancelled festivals.

[Read more about Fest Fest in this article from our Performing Arts issue.]

As the arts council for its region, the Acadiana Center for the Arts has put out more than $200,000 in small checks—what Oliver calls “makin’ groceries” checks—to more than four hundred artists in Acadiana. “Our hope is that it at least shows the artists who are here that they’re seen, and that they have somebody they can come to,” Oliver expressed. “We as an organization are committed to seeing them survive, and survive as the kind of creative makers and doers that we need to remain, frankly, a city and a region worth living in.”

If there is a positive to this situation, it’s that artists are experiencing deeper connections with each other and their art—a sense of care and compassion for one another is more tangible than ever. “The frame of mind is shifting when it comes to being more compassionate for the person, and not just building towards a product,” Harris said. “Even if we are working on this project, and we have a deadline, and we have these goals we have to meet, we can still take care of each other at the same time. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.” 

“I think as artists, the challenge of this time—but it’s also the gift of this time—is just being very present with yourself with your community, with your creativity. Because that’s the best gift we can give ourselves as artists,” said Claire Cook, Artistic Director of Basin Arts in Lafayette. “And then ultimately, that’s what contributes to the good stuff that gets out to the public.” If it wasn’t evident before, this tumultuous period has proven that presence, connection, and compassion are crucial to the arts, and to everything. 

Following the scourge of the bubonic plague in the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance was born. I wanted this story to be about Louisiana’s post-COVID renaissance, the beginnings of which were so tangible, full of hope and opportunity. It turns out we just aren’t there yet, but when we are—by God, we’ll be ready. In the meantime, for the sake of our pending renaissance, and for the sake of each other: stay safe. 

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