On Wednesday, March 11, Houston’s Alley Theatre opened what would turn out to be its final pre-COVID-19 show—a new stage adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian political novel 1984 by playwright Michael Gene Sullivan. As the first contemporary play that the theater’s new artistic director Rob Melrose directed for the Alley, it marked a big moment for a company coming off a spate of recent upheaval.
That same evening, however, was a watershed moment in the emergence of the novel coronavirus in the United States: President Trump gave an Oval Office address in which he announced the U.S. was suspending travel from Europe; the National Basketball Association suspended its season; and actor Tom Hanks announced he’d contracted the virus while filming in Australia. The next day, March 12, the Alley shut its doors to the public, dropping the curtains on 1984’s run—initially scheduled through March 29—after just one night.
With no reopening in sight, the Alley temporarily laid off 75 percent of its staff eight days later. Sadly, the layoffs are par for the course in what’s shaping up to be a devastating first half of 2020 for cultural organizations in Texas that depend on live events and ticket sales to pay rent, salaries, and talent, as well as entertain audiences.
That economic pain will be impossible to mitigate entirely. Some small theater organizations may never recover. Still, a growing number of performing arts groups have begun, in the past few weeks, to push past the “to be or not to be” of canceling live events, instead nudging their programming into the virtual realm. The Alley was an early innovator—on March 15, Melrose took to a Facebook video to announce that he’d secured permission from his actors’ unions to produce a filmed version of his 1984 staging to be viewed online at a cost of $20, and for free for those who’d bought tickets to a canceled performance, through April 12. “I’m so proud of the actors, the designers, and the production staff that made this show,” Melrose said in the video, as news of lockdowns and delayed elections circulated around the country and the world. “And I think it’s a particularly relevant time to be doing George Orwell’s 1984.”
As we struggle to make sense of the ways Texas life has changed in just the past few weeks, we need the arts more than ever to guide, reflect, and stimulate our thinking. But it has never been more difficult for our local artists to reach their traditional audiences, not to mention make a living. Virtual programming, at the Alley and other arts organizations around the state, is an attempt, however haphazard, to maintain both that spark of connection and that lifeline of economic sustenance.
Other theaters around the state have taken similar approaches to archiving canceled plays. Dallas Theater Center, for instance, is offering a streamed version (with tickets priced on a sliding scale) of José Cruz González’s American Mariachi, which was originally scheduled to run from March 14 to April 5. The Austin Opera has announced plans to make a filmed version of its upcoming staged production of Franz Schubert song cycle Winter’s Journey available online, in addition to launching a web series called “Live From Indy Terrace” with live piano-and-vocal recitals every Friday at 3 p.m. featuring the likes of soprano Mela Dailey.
Elsewhere in Austin, the Vortex Theater, which specializes in quirky new productions, is putting on a clinic for other theaters wondering how to throw together fun, virtual, and occasionally interactive experiences at a moment’s notice. Thursday through Sunday nights through May 9, Vortex is providing nightly streamed entertainment on Facebook, plus yoga and meditation sessions on Wednesdays. All programming is free to watch, but donations are encouraged. Some of Vortex’s streamed content is prerecorded video of past shows, but much of it is new, live, and tailored to the medium. Offerings this past weekend included Ask Tia Chancla, an interactive Q&A with a character played by Eva McQuade, and Drunk Steel Magnolias, a booze-assisted re-creation from memory of the beloved 1989 film. (Think Comedy Central’s Drunk History, but with hammier Louisiana accents.) Eventually, Vortex hopes to also use its streams to debut new short plays.
“It gives our artists something to hold onto as they’ve seen all their current projects dry up for the immediate future,” explains Vortex managing director Melissa Vogt. “We’re also hoping that it brings us some new audience. Hopefully these virtual shows give folks a sense of community, as well as a way to put aside their worries for a short amount of time.”
Symphony orchestras and choral groups around the state are facing similar challenges and likewise heeding the call to go online. The Houston Symphony has built up the “Listen at Home” section of its website with new on-demand streaming of past performances normally available only via Sunday-night broadcasts on Houston Public Media. The organization has also been stepping up its social media game, posting charming videos like this one of horn player Robert Johnson practicing at home with his young children during social distancing. Another Houston group, the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, recently released a video of their musicians performing together over video chat (with each of them in their respective living rooms), in addition to their live-streamed performances and online seminars geared toward artists. And in late March, the Fort Worth Opera announced that it would be launching FWO Arts-In-Place, an online curriculum aimed at Texas music students whose studies ground to a halt after widespread coronavirus-related shutdowns.
Pushing shows into the virtual arena isn’t just a trend in the performing arts. The sudden cancellation of art gallery shows because of virus concerns has meant a serious loss of potential income for visual artists. Unfiltered San Antonio, a web platform for the visual arts in the city aimed particularly at featuring underrepresented and emerging artists, has stepped up by creating an online gallery of shows canceled by the COVID-19 social distancing regime. “We couldn’t stand by and watch all these incredible exhibition spaces temporarily close their doors and see the loss in revenue and exposure for artists,” Unfiltered cofounders Casie Lomeli and Deliasofia Zacarias wrote in an email to Texas Monthly. “Offering a digital alternative is the least we can do.”
It remains to be seen how much any of these virtual events and performances will be able to build real audiences to rival those that filled the shuttered theaters, galleries, and concert halls of pre-COVID-19 Texas. One might hazard a guess that the most successful virtual events of this new, strange, and hopefully short-lived era will be those most rooted in the style and attention span of digital media—in other words, what feels the most like other things you might find on YouTube, Instagram, or various streaming apps. Humor, interactivity, personality-driven content, and brevity might pay dividends, while some of the more sensuous aspects of live performance, like body chemistry between actors and spine-tingling richness of orchestral sound, may not work the same on our small screens and tinny speakers.
Regardless, it’s vitally important we Texans don’t neglect our practitioners of the old, in-person art forms sometimes called the “live arts” in this, their hour of great need. At some point we will be allowed to put away our phones, cancel our Zoom appointments, and go back to, well, living in the world. We’ll want our theaters, artists, and musicians to be there too. Our money and attention—whether it’s donations, virtual tickets, or even just clicks and emoji applause—is the currency that will help keep the arts alive until then.