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A cautiously rising curtain

Local performing arts centers have announced their fall seasons. A year and a half later, the world of on-stage theater looks both different and the same.

By Erin Hunsader

Kelli Strickland, Executive and Artistic Director of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts said she gets several communications a day from people wanting to share their viewpoint about their theater should move forward in a world still wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts

When the “c-word” dropped its proverbial bomb on the world last year, performing arts centers went dark.

Live theater, an artform that has survived black death, cholera and disco suddenly had to exit stage left with no
direction as to when to return. Like an understudy in the wings, the art form sat waiting. And while the curtain is rising again for
regional performing arts centers’ 2021-22 season, it’s not without caution and questions.

Reminiscent of March 2020, the questions continue to flood in “on a daily basis,” Kelli Strickland, Executive and Artistic Director of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts said.

“I get several communications a day from people wanting to share their viewpoint– and it’s everyone,” Strickland said. “Not just the audience but artists, promoters, agencies. We’re getting it from all directions.”

Strickland said the Weidner Center is suffering the same side-effects most businesses continue to struggle with, such as staffing.

“All of the agencies that we deal with, even the big ones, are woefully understaffed and haven’t recovered yet,” Strickland said.

Beyond the staffing issues, she said another issue plaguing performing arts venues is the varying opinions on how to bring the audience back together.

“We want to create this joyous celebration of bringing an audience back but it’s really fraught,” Strickland said. “We have our first concert at the end of September. Maybe if you talk to me the morning after, I’ll say ‘oh it was all kinds of celebration and joy,’ but in between now and then it just feels like a lot of logistical challenges and trying to maintain relationships with people who
disagree with what we’re doing or wish we were doing it a different way, still we carry on,” Strickland said.

The show goes on

Maria Van Laanen, President and CEO at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton noted that finding a way to carry
on is what is crucial right now.

“We are still very much living in a pandemic,” Van Laanen said, “and I think what we’re realizing at this stage is we need to figure out how we can go on living while we are in this very tenuous situation, so caution is the name of the game, and continued flexibility.”

Strickland agreed with Van Laanen that flexibility was the mantra they adopted while navigating the unknown over the last 18 months.

“We joked,” Strickland said, “one day we (she and the staff) were learning how to be a surge testing site and dispose of hazardous material, and the next day we were video editors. … Then the whole receiving department got knocked out with COVID -19, so we were on the loading dock. … Our mantra was just to be of service to the community, whatever that looked like.”

Van Laanen said she found creative ways to stay connected with her staff over the course of the last 18 months. “We still had monthly virtual gettogethers, Van Laanen said. “We had some serious conversations but we had some fun along the way doing virtual game shows and stuff like that so we could stay connected.”

The way performing arts centers stay connected to their community and audience has changed, especially at the start of the Fall 2021 season as the pandemic remains a factor in their decision making.

“We have said since the beginning of this pandemic journey that our number one focus is doing everything to protect the health and safety of our team (staff, volunteers, the community, the performers) and anybody who walks through these doors,” Van Laanen said.

“How you do that has changed over the last 18 months and will continue to change. So, it’s recognizing that whatever is the most prudent decision today may look different two months or six months from now. And continuing to seek out the latest information because what you did the last time you came here may not be the thing that you’re doing next time you come.”

An in-person audience is a pillar to the artform of the theater and learning how to take live performances and try to share the experience with audiences via video production or in a virtual format is a whole other art-form Strickland said.

“The biggest difference in a video product versus a live performance is in a live performance the audience is the editor,” Strickland said. “They’re choosing what they look at and you have all these tools available to play with and help tell the story.”

Both venues recognized having to learn these skills has helped them develop an understanding for how to enhance the audience’s experience in ways they hadn’t before the pandemic. The virtual experience has also been useful in bringing educational programming to area schools.

“Most schools are working really hard to stay in person,” Van Laanen said, “but it’s possible that they will have students going in and out because of quarantines. By having (us) provide virtual content, it allows students to be reached wherever they are.”

‘The most responsible thing we can do’

While some things have changed, the hope is for the nature of live theater to remain the same. Van Laanen said this is possible but still requires those coming through the doors to take precautions.

“What we’re recognizing is that the nature of the business has not changed – it is live in person, side by side, to experience people singing and speaking in front of you, so what we need to do is we need to make sure everybody is masked,” Van Laanen said. “Of course, performers will not be wearing masks, but there is some separation from the performers to the audience. So, we are going to be requiring everybody who comes into the building to wear a mask.”

Maria Van Laanen, President and CEO at the
Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton,
said she leaned on science and research from
health officials in the making of the decision to
require audiences to wear masks indoors.

Photo courtesy of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center

And, just like the performers on stage, she noted the role the audience plays in making these experiences possible.

“We can get back to these amazing experiences and keep them happening if we each recognize that we play a role,” Van Laanen said,” not only in our own health but in taking care of those around us and not everybody has the ability to make the same choices. We need to think about the most vulnerable people in our community and choose to keep them safe.”

Van Laanen cited leaning on the science and research from health officials throughout her decision making, which has not come without its own quarrels.

“None of this unfortunately is without controversy,” Van Laanen said, “and all we can do is follow the science and the CDC regulations. … Sometimes those decisions may not be popular in the general public’s view but at the end of the day if we can turn and say, ‘these are the scientific facts, this is what is leading to our decision making,’ that’s the most responsible thing we can do,” Van Laanen said.

Both Van Laanen and Strickland know the one thing the arts does is bring hope, and they both hope for a future that is less fraught.

“I know for sure there will be interactions and moments that offset that (the challenges from the last year and a half),” Strickland said. “Because the truth is I have never had an experience where I sat in an audience and wasn’t moved by the courage and vulnerability of an artist getting up in front of you in person and sharing their gifts.”

Van Laanen said it is the hope the arts bring us that is needed now more than ever.

“Something that came crystal clear,” Van Laanen said, “and I heard it so many times as we were going through this, is the absolutely vital role the arts play in our overall humanity. It is an opportunity for us to process hard things. It’s a great way for us to heal from the pain that we’re feeling because it gives us a chance to look at it and embrace it and then, hopefully, move on.”

Erin Hunsader is an Arts and Entertainment Reporter for Green Bay City Pages. She can be reached via email at [email protected].

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