Community culture in the age of coronavirus

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 - 5:39pm

NOSELL

Sadhana Ramaseshadri

As you can probably tell from my byline, I’m The Daily’s community culture columnist. As I wrote in my application two years ago, my column focuses on “the intersection between history, culture and the performing arts.” I’ve spent the past two years analyzing performances I’ve attended in Ann Arbor and beyond. I’ve written about everything from “Mean Girls” to “Le Marteau sans Maître.”

But two weeks ago, the performing arts industry began to change. It began with late night shows taping without audiences and concerts being live-streamed from empty concert halls. The University made plans to limit concert attendance while continuing some School of Music, Theatre & Dance events.

By the following week, the entire industry was shut down. Broadway was dark, Coachella was postponed from April to October. The Metropolitan Opera canceled the remainder of its season and lost $60 million as a result. The University canceled all concerts and events of any size before locking the rehearsal and performance facilities under the governor’s order. 

As I sat in my childhood bedroom trying to write this column — the University having all but demanded that students leave campus — I struggled to write another column about recent performances and trends I noticed in the performing arts. It felt as though entire concert seasons, entire productions, had been canceled in a period of two short weeks.

At the beginning of March, I was excited for the premieres of three of my creative works. I was also excited for countless performances by and premieres from friends across the country that I planned on attending. At this point, one week from the end of March, every one of these performances has been canceled or postponed indefinitely.

I had plans to attend a summer music festival and intern with a professional performing arts organization. My internship has been canceled outright; the status of my summer festival remains uncertain. For those friends who are about to graduate, jobs in the performing arts industry are disappearing. 

Trying to write a column about the performing arts this week — trying to find anything, in essence, to take issue with or comment on — seemed disrespectful. The entire industry seems to be in free fall, the bottom not yet in sight. Any issues I might have with specific works or performance practices felt trivial.

It’s not as though we haven’t seen performers and performing arts organizations attempt to respond to this crisis. Hundreds of performing arts organizations have moved much of their creative work to the realm of online streaming. Audiences at home can watch performances by most major orchestras and operas free of charge. And more performers have taken to various online services to share their artistic work that I could possibly try to recount in one sentence.

Last week, I was touched to see Broadway star Laura Benanti share a tweet from MUSKET producer Alexandra Niforos about “The Wiz,” MUSKET’s canceled production of the semester. These rounds of cancelations have served as a great equalizer, relegating artists from high school to the professional world, at least for the time being, to social media.

And though these social media posts may be fun, the outlook for the entire community remains bleak. The Metropolitan Opera faced significant backlash recently after it sent fundraising emails to soloists it had just laid off. While the specifics of this case may seem hypocritical — as of now, the organization’s administrative staff continues to be paid while musicians and performers are not — the end result is the same: Everyone is struggling to stay afloat. This epidemic has, in the space of two weeks, dragged most of the performing arts community underwater.

I had my second Skype-based music lesson yesterday morning. My teacher asked me what music I’d written recently. I tried to be honest; I hadn’t been able to write anything. My teacher confessed they were having the same creative problem.

If there’s anything to be learned from this current situation — anything outside public policy, that is, as I’m sure we’re learning of more flaws in our economic power structures and elected government than we ever wished to know — it’s the fragility of the performing arts. It’s the magic of this experience, the physical and communal nature of an art form that most of us have always taken for granted.

As a means of trying to cope with this sudden shutdown, I’ve tried to imagine what it will be like to attend performances again. I’ve tried to imagine how creative artists might try to respond to this epidemic, how physicality and community, two aspects of the performing arts that we’ve always taken for granted, might suddenly be under question.

At some point in the future, we’ll need to accept that the performing arts landscape can never return to where it was on March 1, 2020. Thousands of productions are going to be canceled. Hundreds of performing arts organizations will no longer exist. I know this is true but I am still unwilling to accept it as fact.

There will eventually be a place and time in which we can enter a concert hall with others, sit in a crowded movie theater surrounded by hundreds of other people, all simultaneously sharing the experience of the performing arts. There will be a point in time when physical proximity and coexistence induce not fear but beauty.

But until then, I guess we’re relegated to social media postings from artists’ basements and archival recordings made free on various websites. We must imagine the performance experiences that we’ve suddenly been deprived of for the indefinite future. And we must hope the industry itself can recover — though the industry, my optimistic side tries to tell me, always has.