A brave new season, coming to a screen near you

Behind the scenes: How did these three Philly arts-makers pivot to digital?

6 minute read
Well-ventilated players: the Philadelphia Orchestra is recording performances at the Mann. (Photo by Jeff Fusco.)
Well-ventilated players: the Philadelphia Orchestra is recording performances at the Mann. (Photo by Jeff Fusco.)

As the fall arts season loomed on my 2020 calendar, I steeled myself for a winter of darkened theaters. Then the announcements rolled in. Organizations large and small were proving that the old adage “the show must go on” did not make an exception for pandemics.

When I contacted some of the creative teams behind those announcements, they all talked of a deep commitment to the community. Jeremy Rothman, vice president for artistic planning at the Philadelphia Orchestra, focused on the audience: “People need music, people need arts; they need that distraction. They needed inspiration and an outlet.” According to Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts executive and artistic director Christopher Gruits, “We’re really committed to bringing artists through this pandemic, even if it is in this smaller format.”

A determination to bring joy propelled Jennifer Childs, cofounder and producing artistic director of 1812 Productions, into the new season: “It’s still the question: even if we can’t be in the theater, how do we promote joy? And how do we create that feeling of community with our audience.”

The great pivot

Rothman recalled a March 12 Philadelphia Orchestra concert featuring Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies: “We played in front of an empty audience and streamed it out that night.” Annenberg had to shut its doors in the midst of GlassFest, a series highlighting the music of Philip Glass. But almost immediately, companies made the pivot to digital content. The orchestra produced panel discussions and, Rothman said, they dug into the archives. “We started to unearth all kinds of fantastic performances that hadn’t been seen or heard for years, and in some cases even decades.”

Childs produced a web series, I Put On Pants for This, with her husband, actor Scott Greer, another local theater favorite. They offered a master class in comedy over their dining room table.

The Annenberg blog offered videos through the summer, but Gruits worried that too much, available too easily, makes it hard for audiences to connect the way they do in the theater.

Repertoire turned upside down

By mid-summer, painstakingly created schedules for the new season went onto the scrapheap. So we won’t be hearing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, with chorus and computers dreaming of cathedrals, but we did get the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony set to Refik Anadol’s digital dreamscapes in the orchestra’s October Sight/Sound/Symphony performance.

The orchestra already had a commitment to diverse voices. Composer-in-Residence Gabriela Lena Frank’s music is prominent in the new programming, and the orchestra drew on the connections its had made. “I can pick up the phone to Valerie Coleman and say to her, ‘Valerie, we need a piece of music that speaks to now. And we need it in two weeks,'" Rothman said. "And she said, ‘I can’t wait. I’ll get to work tonight.’”

An empty theater means new opportunities for the artists, as Pam Tanowitz Dance discovered. (Photo courtesy of the Annenberg.)
An empty theater means new opportunities for the artists, as Pam Tanowitz Dance discovered. (Photo courtesy of the Annenberg.)

Rothman said that Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin wanted to bring the orchestra together even if that meant smaller ensembles. The Mann Music Center, the orchestra's summer home, offered a large outdoor stage set in Fairmount Park, so the venue offered plenty of fresh air for virus-beating ventilation.

We will have to get used to seeing the musicians in masks, and we won’t be getting the massive set pieces this year. But we will hear new works, along with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring in its original 13-instrument arrangement and some 19th-century masterpieces suitable for a smaller ensemble.

The orchestra is prerecording its concerts at the Mann and its smaller free community performances to preserve the integrity of the sound. Leaders are wary of the pitfalls of an oversaturated market online, however, and the concerts will be available on a schedule that mirrors a regular season.

The Annenberg meets Philly’s advantage

At the Annenberg, Gruits was determined to bring the ephemeral nature of live performance to this digital moment. He had three theaters and a four-camera HD setup to work with, but he also had a particular challenge. Annenberg’s niche is touring companies—national and international artists presented on a slate that includes just a few local companies. In the middle of a pandemic, nobody has been traveling.

Without an audience, Annenberg’s Zellerbach and Harold Prince theaters gave them plenty of room for social distancing and the camera setup gave them scope for innovation, so once the team had their safety protocols in place, Gruits looked for performers who could travel easily by car. “That’s an advantage of Philadelphia,” he said. “We are close to a lot of big urban areas with a lot of artists.”

An empty theater means new opportunities for the artists, as Pam Tanowitz Dance discovered. (Photo courtesy of the Annenberg.)
An empty theater means new opportunities for the artists, as Pam Tanowitz Dance discovered. (Photo courtesy of the Annenberg.)

Tap-dancer Caleb Teicher, performing with beatboxer Chris Celiz, made innovative use of the camera setup to focus on his tapping feet, and Pam Tanowitz Dance moved out among the empty seats. Going forward, we’ll see local companies PHILADANCO! and Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers getting COVID-creative, and lots of jazz. Meg Bragle will be singing early music with Richard Stone on lute.

Block-party vibes

You might think that a comedy theater would have a hard time finding joy in a pandemic. Harder doing it remotely—as Childs told me, Zoom is the place where “comedy goes to die.” But 1812 has been finding humor in politics for the past 15 years, so they can find the funny in pretty much anything. They open the season with Patsy’s Block Party. “It’s the Patsy character that I play from South Philly,” Childs said. Patsy is a plainspoken, Iggles-loving, stoop-sitting vision in a pink sweatshirt.

Childs planned to livestream the performance, with costar Bryan Anthony Wilson, from their studio. “We put together a safety plan,” she said, but at the last minute, with COVID cases surging once more in Phlly, Actor’s Equity (the performer’s union) rescinded the show’s permissions. The company had to completely rewrite, so they decided to lean into the situation.

“What would Patsy and Bryan do if this happened to them? Let’s write from the reality that he’s in Cherry Hill and the reality that I’m here,” Childs said. To bring the block-party vibe, Childs taped a number of interviews with people in the community, like Terrill Haigler (@_yafavtrashman on Instagram, with almost 22,000 followers), who raises money for proper PPE for sanitation workers. A different segment will run each night as part of the live performance.

Image description: A daytime large-scale photo from the inside of a roofed outdoor amphitheater with hundreds of seats, all of them empty. The tiny figures of orchestra musicians are spread across the stage.

Image description: A photo taken from the stage of a large auditorium, facing the audience, which is empty. It’s very dark, except for lights on two dancers, one in the foreground on the stage and one in the audience.

Image description: A photo of a woman seen in profile sitting on a folding chair, facing a laptop, ring-light, and microphone on a small desk. She’s wearing a pink baseball cap and pink sweatshirt, gray pants, and slipper-socks.

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