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Rebuilding America: Fine arts groups take creative approach to addressing shutdown issues


Most organizations thinking outside the box for next year

Mike Easterling   | Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Adaptation seems to be the buzzword for almost every arts organization in the Four Corners these days. The COVID-19 shutdown has impacted them all to one degree or another, but most of them seem intent on surviving, even if they have to radically alter the way they do things.

The San Juan Symphony, for instance, had the end of its season disrupted when both of its April concerts were canceled. But it has wasted little time developing a plan for its next season, which traditionally begins in late September.

Executive director Kathy Myrick said much of the symphony's next season — which long ago had been planned and scheduled — will be conducted on a virtual basis employing a variety of approaches. The group usually performs shows in Farmington and Durango, Colorado.

"It's likely we'll have some event each month, but I don't know if any of them will be in person," she said, citing the possibility of her organization offering pay-per-view concerts and streaming lectures by music director Thomas Heuser.

On the bright side, Myrick said the symphony is in a stable financial position despite the shutdown. The cancellation of the two April concerts saved the organization $35,000, she said, and she is confident the group's annual fundraising drive will see a good response.

"We'll actually end the year in better financial shape than usual if our donors come through," she said. "If we raise our typical amount, we'll be fine."

On the other hand, Myrick said the symphony faces a significant challenge just in bringing together its several dozen members for rehearsals, much less performances. It would be virtually impossible to meet social distancing standards given the size and nature of the group, she said.

The League of American Orchestras has gone so far as to recommend that symphony directors place their brass musicians — for whom the emission of spittle is unavoidable – in a balcony "so they don't spray on everybody," Myrick said.

In any event, she said the symphony's performances next season are likely to be conducted on a scaled-down basis to minimize the chances of spreading the virus.

"We'll use Farmington musicians for Farmington events and Durango musicians for Durango events," she said.

Virginia Nickels-Hircock of Farmington's Caliente Community Chorus said the same occupational hazard applies to her performers. She said she has seen a report that indicates that singing in a group is one of the more dangerous activities that anyone can take part in under the current circumstances.

"We can stand in a very large room and distance from each other, but because of what we do — which is expel air and expel fluids through the mouth — it is tough to do that effectively," she said.

The usual precautions simply aren't practical for singers, she said.

"It's very hard to sing wearing a mask," Nickels-Hircock said.

The chorus has scheduled its next season with a Labor Day weekend start, but she is not optimistic it will unfold as planned, if at all. Unlike many other creative endeavors, Nickels-Hircock said cobbling together a virtual choral performance — with each vocalist recorded separately, then all the parts edited together and synchronized — isn't an option.

"I talked to a friend of mine who did that, and he said it took him over 14 hours for a three-minute song," she said. "I don't have the skills, and, frankly, I don't have the drive to do that."

Caliente's last show of the spring was canceled shortly before it was scheduled to take place. With rehearsals for the program complete, Nickels-Hircock said she and chorus cofounder Robyn Woodard discussed the possibility of scattering their singers at a broad distance from each other around a local church and videotaping their performance in an attempt to salvage the work that had been put in. But neither of them could muster any enthusiasm for that option without having an audience present to enjoy it.

"For both of us, we both said, 'No, no, no, that can't happen,' especially since the program's so full of life and vitality and color," Nickels-Hircock said.

Joey Herring, president of the board of Theater Ensemble Arts, a Farmington community theater organization, said her group's hands are largely tied until a clearer picture emerges of how long social distancing protocols will remain in place. And even though she understands many people are eager to enjoy live entertainment again, she has her doubts about how they will react when social distancing restrictions are relaxed or lifted.

"I'm not so sure people are going to feel comfortable going out to any gathering with any amount of people," she said.

Even a modest decrease in audience size brought about by social distancing restrictions or a lingering fear of the virus could have a significant impact on her company's finances, Herring said, since TEA relies so heavily on ticket sales.

"If we can't have enough audience members, then we can't pay for the show," she said.

Those concerns aside, Herring and other members of the company are focused on helping TEA maintain a presence on the local arts scene during the shutdown. Herring said board members had spent the past couple of years discussing how the company could have more of an online presence, and she said this situation has led them to get serious about that effort.

"We've been looking at some virtual performance ideas, and we'll spend the next six months working on those," she said.

Those plans may include a virtual performance of a Shakespeare play or other public domain properties that don't require the payment of performance and streaming fees. TEA members also are considering doing podcasts and are examining the feasibility of working with area stations to deliver some radio theater productions.

But live theater remains TEA's mission, and Herring said the company will resume its performances for a live audience as soon as it is safe to do so.

"I feel good TEA will sustain ourselves through this," she said. "We've got a really great group of people, and we'll find a way to keep doing what we love and find a way to help our audience have fun."

The local thespian troupe won't be alone in sitting out a long wait. The San Juan Symphony's Myrick said she expects it to be at least a year before her orchestra will be able to deliver a performance before a live audience again. She said concert halls are designed to be intimate venues, and many of the organization's season ticket base skews toward an older demographic, one that is more susceptible to the virus.

So her organization will proceed with great caution, Myrick said — but it will proceed.

"We'll keep the symphony going," she said. "It'll just be in a different format next season."

(Story continues below.)

Can't do this, can't do that

For the people who run Farmington's highest-profile performance venues, the COVID-19 shutdown has presented a double-edged sword. Not only are they unable to book and present nationally touring shows, they also have been unable to stage productions by their in-house performers.

Linann Easley, the director of the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College, said her planning for the future is at a standstill until social distancing restrictions are relaxed or eliminated. While she remains in touch via email with many of the agents she has built relationships with over the years, she said is taking a cautious approach to booking shows for the rest of the year.

"My take on the situation is, the state and the college have gifted me with limited resources, and I have a responsibility to use that money responsibly," she said.

"So I've been holding off on booking shows through the fall. I didn't want to book a lot of things and have to pay a bunch of acts deposits and then seen those tours fall through."

Easley said she is much more inclined to open her performing arts venues at an appropriate time to her student performers, as well as arts groups from the area and around the state.

"We're going to focus on us," she said. "We're going to focus on Farmington and allow our performing arts students to do the shows and concerts we didn't get to do this spring."

Randy West, the director of the Farmington Civic Center, has had to cancel several shows over the last two months, and the remainder of his schedule through the summer, which includes events at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater, is very much in doubt.

West serves on a governor's task force with the directors of several other performing arts theaters across the state. The group is charged with developing a consensus on the kind of operating rules that should be in place for those facilities when they are permitted to reopen and composing a list of suggested best practices. He expects the group's recommendations to be vetted by the governor's staff, then organized into an official state platform.

"New Mexico will have a definite set of rules to be compliant," he said.

The assumption of those facility directors, he said, is that, when they do open their doors again, they will see their building capacities lowered significantly so that social distancing standards can be maintained. West anticipates a slow and gradual return to normal business.

"Everybody says there are going to be caps (on crowd sizes)," he said. "It's not going to be like a light switch going on and off."

The challenge for West, and his associates around the state, will be to identify and book shows that are affordable, and marketable, under those reduced crowd size requirements.

"We can't sell the whole house anymore," he said, explaining that likely means he will be open to booking more local and regional entertainment rather than more expensive national acts.

"We are just going to have to be creative in how we rebuild our programming," West said.

National touring shows came to an immediate halt in the middle of March, he said, and they aren't likely to resume for quite some time even after most performing arts venues reopen. West is hopeful he could open the doors of his venues — which now include the downtown Totah Theater, which will be renovated this summer after it is deeded to the city from San Juan County — perhaps by early October, when a concert by Farmington native Chevel Shepherd is scheduled for the Civic Center.

As for the future of the fledgling Four Corners Musical Theatre Company, the new professional theater troupe West founded last year, the future is just as murky. The group had its performance of "Camelot" canceled in April, although its season-ending production of "Annie" slated to open in late July at the amphitheater remains on the schedule for now.

West said the company remains an essential part of his plan for establishing Farmington as an arts and entertainment destination, and he said the troupe — which features imported professional actors working with local amateurs — already has sunk some roots into the community.

"All the people from the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company who have already performed here, they all expressed to me if we can find a way to make this work in the future, they would do whatever they could to get back here," he said. "And I was really, really happy with the energy we were getting from the people in New Mexico and Farmington."

West believes there is a path forward for maintaining the kind of programming he introduced at the city's facilities in his first year on the job, even as the economic downturn is likely to result in a tightened city budget that would give West less funding with which to work.

"There's still a commitment on the city's part to doing both," he said of booking touring shows and continuing to operate the musical theater company.

He refuses to take a pessimistic view of the future and says flexibility will be a key part of making all the pieces of the puzzle fit again, even if that means managing some reduced expectations.

"I have always been a glass-half-full kind of guy to, say, a glass-half-empty kind of guy," he said. "Yes, I am hopeful we could turn things around. I think the trick will be, don't be so stuck with a particular concept that you don't do something."

Easley sees things playing out largely the same way at the facilities she oversees for the college, the Henderson Fine Arts Theatre and the Little Theatre, which is being renovated this summer and will be renamed the Connie Gotsch Theatre. Like her counterpart at the Civic Center, she preaches flexibility and a willingness to consider things from a different perspective as the trick to navigating the unprecedented challenges the shutdown has presented.

As is the case with many other folks in their business, she and West are exploring virtual alternatives to live performances, and Easley said she regularly reaches out to her patrons to let them know they haven't been forgotten.

"I just sent Facebook message to our film series folks," she said, referring to the monthly independent film series the college presents in the Little Theatre. "Even though we can't show films ourselves, we've been making recommendations about films they can see on Hulu, Netflix or Amazon Prime."

Given the number of student-related productions she hopes to schedule, Easley seems far more optimistic about the prospects for having a significant fall season than West is.

"We may have to be a little bit creative, but we can do that. If we have to try to do it all outside, we'll do so," she said, laughing and citing the desert environment as perhaps the perfect place to conduct show business in the midst of a pandemic. "That's the nature of this place."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com.