“The show must not go on.”
Synchronicity Theatre tweaked that old show-biz axiom about performers performing even if they have broken a leg or a tornado is about to rip through the front row. That saw, however, never met COVID-19.
A year after the virus caused the world to quarantine — for days that became weeks that became months — many arts entities are still trying to recover. Some remain shuttered. Some may never reopen.
Even as it embraced the idea that it shouldn’t perform unless strict safety measures were in play, Synchronicity barely missed a beat. Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre and Whitespace Gallery both scrambled their schedules but also returned with relative fleetness, if not ease.
Here’s how they managed through a historically challenging year, and some of the lessons they will carry forward.
Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre: “Constant Crisis Control”
Terminus’ John Welker doesn’t sugarcoat when discussing how the company sustained itself amid a year of coronavirus.
“We just felt we were in constant crisis control,” says the dancer and company director. The first part of the pandemic reminded the dancers all too well of the troupe’s hurried debut for the 2018-2019 season, again leaving them wondering if Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre would survive.
“A few months in, I think we reached a point where we had a little bit of perspective, where [we thought], ‘Wow, we’ve made it this far, let’s just take it another month, another week, another day,’” he says. “And just take that approach instead of trying to plan far in advance, which is the usual game. In so doing, you’re moving the goalpost closer to you. Then you have a teeny bit of control.”
Terminus wrapped performances of its Modern Myths program at Kennesaw State University Dance Theatre just as quarantine hit, then leapt into the virtual dance world with pay-for-view performances of its next two programs — world premieres of Ana Maria Lucaciu’s Long Ago and Only Once and Marley Was Dead, To Begin With. (ArtsATL.com called the latter, by choreographer Heath Gill and composer Jacob Ryan Smith, Atlanta’s best dance production of 2020.)
Not only did Terminus dancers keep dancing, they kept teaching, too. Terminus School of Modern Ballet went online shortly after the country shut down, then, once safety protocols were in place, returned to its Westside Cultural Arts Center studios for Summer Intensives. Welker called the school a “lifeboat” for the company, “financially and energetically.”
Terminus is a division of the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture & the Environment, which secured and managed two PPP loans for the dance company. Terminus also trimmed expenses and received various kinds of support from its advisory board, a committee of the Serenbe Institute Board of Directors. All of this, Welker says, helped the company “pivot and still pursue our mission.”
That mission — connecting people through the beauty, power and humanity of dance — would seem subject to expansion following not only the worst of the pandemic but also last year’s racial unrest and social justice protests in Atlanta and across the country. The company posted a potent video on its website in June that included the large-letter message on-screen, “Words are not enough. It is time for us to be the change,” conveying a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion to better represent metro Atlanta.
In February, Terminus and Dance Canvas announced the collaborative program CATALYST to train and support Black ballet dancers.
One of the past year’s lessons with implications for the future, Welker says, is that “arts for arts’ sake has limitations if you do not connect it to a wider purpose, and that’s our immediate community around us.”
Terminus remains in motion. The company last weekend held classes and performed in Hilton Head, South Carolina; a Terminus School showcase and company program will be part of Georgia Tech Arts’ Skyline Series on May 17–18. And the company is in preproduction for another dance film planned for late spring and plans a live production at Serenbe in early fall.
Welker says he’s cautiously optimistic about the future and skeptical about any notion of life returning to what passed for normal before the pandemic.
“I think there will be a new normal. But I don’t see [these circumstances] passing, right? It’s definitely left a stamp on everything else to come.”
Synchronicity Theatre: “A meaningful purpose”
Synchronicity Theatre’s Rachel May embraces a description for operating in the year of COVID-19 from one of the company’s artists: “It feels like we’re building the plane while we’re flying it.”
For producing artistic director May, who has deftly navigated less-than-friendly skies with Synchronicity’s staff and board, that’s a spot-on metaphor. “There has been a lot of brainstorming while we are implementing,” she says. “Those two things at the same time can be really hard.”
But with its “In the Theatre” and “On the Screen” viewing options, Synchronicity has done more to preserve the true theatergoing experience than most metro companies. It moved purposefully almost from the moment quarantine was imposed a year ago. Wayfinding, the next-to-last show of the 2019-20 season had to shutter halfway through its run, May was able to get it videotaped and offer it digitally.
The company’s staff and board then took a deep breath before considering what to do about 2020-21. There was little doubt that they’d opt to keep presenting in whatever form possible. “We honestly never really had a conversation about hibernating, closing down for however long,” May says.
Instead, the leaders asked two questions: “What does our audience need?” and “What do our artists need?”
They decided that even with a pandemic — and perhaps more accurately because of it — supporters needed what has been the company’s specialty since its founding in 1997: theater that uplifts the voices of women and girls, along with safe places to gather and have nuanced conversations that spark simple human connection. And at a time where theater talent across the city was being furloughed or without work, Synchronicity decided that these artists simply needed to keep making art and be paid as usual.
The company’s first initiative was three Zoom happy hours in which performers and non-performers alike read sections of plays by female writers, with each session organized around a theme.
Synchronicity then contracted with videographer Felipe Barral (whose credits include ArtsATL, The Atlanta Opera and Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre) so that all productions could be streamed.
Along with 17 other theaters, it partnered with Emory University’s Nell Hodgson School of Nursing, which developed a detailed safety-first reopening plan for the company’s Midtown playhouse.
When testing positivity rates are high in Atlanta, as they were during the winter spike, shows such as December’s A Year With Frog and Toad are offered On the Screen only. When In-the-Theatre performances are safe, there are changes to adjust to, including actors performing in clear face shields and HEPA air purifiers working around the room. Audiences have adjusted quickly, May says. With so many theaters limiting offerings to readings, Synchronicity attendees have appreciated the opportunity to experience live theater again. (The company’s family musical Mirandy and Brother Wind ends its in-person run Saturday and its virtual run Sunday.)
Audiences are a lot smaller, however, with capacity reduced from 140 to 20 for safety reasons.
May acknowledges that this model isn’t viable long-term. But the company, which also has lost concession and facility rental income, made a one-year virus plan that would include tapping reserves.
“We knew early on, in June and July, that the plan we were putting together was about service and putting artists to work, and it was about continuing to create art and making that accessible,” May says. “So we really focused on those mission goals and knew that we would have to structure our financials a different way.”
Synchronicity received one PPP loan and has applied for a second, even as it considers seeking a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant — from which a second PPP loan would then be deducted — that’s part of the American Rescue Plan Act. Understanding government aid regulations can be head-spinning. May joked that every day brings a different webinar offering new information.
Beyond managing through COVID-19, the company’s staff, board and artists have engaged in what May calls “difficult and intense” conversations inspired by last year’s social-justice protests.
“We’ve all had challenging moments like everyone,” she says. “But I think our commitment to working and serving has helped us all to feel like we have a meaningful purpose during this time. For me personally, it would be really hard if we were mostly treading water for a year.”
Whitespace: “It was just such a bizarre time”
With three exhibitions installed and ready for the next day’s opening earlier this month, Susan Bridges smiled warmly and welcomed a guest to join her at a cafe table outside her carriage-house-turned-art-gallery. In this leafy oasis tucked behind her Victorian home in Inman Park, carpenter bees hovered, and doves cooed from surrounding trees.
Her serenity clouded over as she recalled the anxious scene last March on the closing day of the Seana Reilly and Morgan Alexander exhibit Paper Kites Uncertain Sky. “Uncertain” was the operative word.
“Everybody knew something was going to happen because there were so many people who came that day, and who [lingered outside] here because it was kind of like, ‘We may not see each other again for a very long time,’” Bridges recalls. “It felt very tenuous. And how true that feeling was because, I mean, that’s exactly what happened.”
Whitespace, one of Atlanta’s most popular galleries, closed for six months. Safety was such a concern that Paper Kites remained in the gallery the entire time even though no one would see it.
“It was just the beginning of this no-man’s land,” Bridges says. “We were trying to figure things out. We didn’t have a blueprint. It was just such a bizarre time.”
She worried about being able to keep paying her assistant and the gallery’s social media contractor, and how long she could stay in business without being open. Then a few things started falling into place. Loyal clients, perhaps wanting new art to improve their nests or simply feeling charitable toward the gallery, got in touch to purchase works they’d seen months before. Several Whitespace artists completed large commissions that Bridges had arranged. A small PPP loan came through.
Whitespace also experimented with online-only exhibits and added a viewing room to its website. “Everything took twice as much time and twice as much effort,” Bridges says, because the gallery was closed. But she appreciates that going virtual allows her to reach Atlantans and many outside the city as well, and she plans to continue working on the idea that there’s more than one way to reach an audience in the post-virus era. (Eric Mack’s Of Stone and Stem continues through April 24.)
On a personal note, she discovered two important things. “I learned that I need to be around people. I’m like that old Barbara Streisand song, ‘People who need people . . .’ I need people! And also I really need to be around artists. I mean, I love artists. Their creative energy is like breathing.”
This won’t surprise those who know the personable gallerist as someone who unquestionably appreciates people and adores creatives, but she confesses surprise at her intensity of feeling.
“Yes, I knew these things,” Bridges says, “but I didn’t know it, if that makes sense.”
ALSO IN THIS SERIES: