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Going viral: Covid and the St. Pete arts scene in 2020

Bill DeYoung



For Jobsite Theater, Giles Davis performed a "Madlib Sonnet" virtually in early April - the first example of digital theater, 2020-style.

The story of America in 2020 can’t be told without mentioning Covid-19 in the first sentence, in the first (masked) breath. And with regard to the arts, the novel coronavirus was downstage center, mugging and overacting and hogging the follow spot. An omnipresent hobgoblin, a devil in disguise. A scene-stealer.

The extent of the damage inflicted on the arts, on the very livelihoods of millions, can’t be calculated. Because the arts, which revolve around large gatherings and public performances, came to a complete standstill, jobs were lost, hearts were broken, businesses were shuttered and the color went out of the country’s cheeks.

It is, of course, still with us, and even though the arts learned to adapt, to peek out tenuously from behind the grey curtain, the end is still a ways off.

What was it like covering the arts scene in Tampa Bay in 2020? Well, there was Covid – and then there was everything else.

On March 11, a Wednesday, I attended a preview performance of Natalie Symons’ dark comedy The People Downstairs at American Stage in downtown St. Pete. Talk of the encroaching coronavirus was everywhere; even though the show went on, I had the eerie feeling we were all living on borrowed time. There was palpable tension in the air.

On that day, and again on March 12, across the bay Jobsite Theatre – part of the David A. Straz Center – was previewing the John Patrick Shanley drama Doubt: A Parable.

Both shows were to officially open that Friday, March 13.

The very day Florida officially canceled all public gatherings.

To recap, freeFall Theatre and Stageworks Theatre were between productions; the Palladium Theater had one of its most ambitious months planned; St. Petersburg Opera had a massive show just around the corner. As bars and restaurants closed their doors, musicians were thrown out of work and joined the theater people, the visual artists (no open galleries, no art walks, no sales) in the bread lines. Along with the regular restaurant and bar employees.

All the museums closed.

And Cher’s Amalie Arena concert was canceled!

Put on ice

The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, Floridian Social Club, The Factory St. Pete and the immersive art experience Fairgrounds were all to have thrown open their doors in 2020. The Dali Museum was gearing up for a $39 million expansion.

We’re still waiting.

A virtual world

Pivoting to virtual programming was no one’s idea of a satisfying alternative to public gatherings and performances, but since it was the ONLY alternative, both nonprofits and for-profits dusted off that video-editing software, and learned how to operate Zoom and similar programs, and got to work on crisis management, which included keeping their names out there in front of the public, and hoping the donations kept coming in. Some of it was awkward, and some was brilliant. Here are a few of the first examples:

Jobsite’s ‘Madlib’ gives Shakespeare a virtual nod and wink

How does he do it? Daniel Black on those Florida Orchestra videos

American Stage goes virtual, reimagining summer programming

Arts news: A virtual opening at the Tully-Levine Gallery, MIZE and more

The Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg created a number of innovative videos to keep erstwhile visitors engaged.

Choreographers Andee Scott and Amanda Sieradski came up with a novel way to bring interpretive dance to those who weren’t allowed inside any traditional performance space.

Here at the St. Pete Catalyst, we did our own to-virtual pivot with The Catalyst Sessions, a 30-minute arts interview program streamed five days every week via Facebook, then archived on our website and on YouTube. Between March and October we logged 140 half hours, candid conversations with folks from every corner of the Tampa Bay arts community (and a few that went beyond, just to shake things up). The idea was to keep everyone connected, as we each hunkered down in our own isolation.

Where are we now?

As the number of Covid cases decreased, the Palladium led the charge in putting on socially-distanced live shows. That was in early October; by mid-November, the numbers had gone up again and all remaining concerts were canceled. The Florida Orchestra now plays to a 25-percent capacity (around 500 people) Mahaffey Theater. St. Pete Opera pioneered “popera” (outdoor concerts on a moveable stage) and will soon host its first “return” show inside the socially-distanced Opera Central building.

Jobsite moved to a larger Straz Center venue, to allow more space between patrons, and is presenting plays for low-capacity audiences (in fact, Doubt: A Parable will finally get its time in the spotlight during January). 

Beginning with Letters to Kamala in late October, American Stage re-entered from stage left with fully digital productions presented both live (online) and pre-recorded for later streaming; the company plans a “limited” return to live performance with February’s Satchmo at the Waldorf. And The People Downstairs is back on the schedule.

At freeFall, there have been two “drive-in” shows (War of the Worlds and A Christmas Carol: In Concert); plans for any sort of return to the actual theater space have not been announced.

Tampa Repertory Theatre, Innovocative Theatre and Lab Theatre Project (all Tampa-based) put on all-virtual productions.

As of this writing, all the major museums are open for business again, with greatly limited capacities.

What else is there to say? There exists no crystal ball to tell us when things will be “normal” again.

Bob Andelman

Farewell, and thanks

This year, we said goodbye to author, journalist and podcaster Bob Andelman (Feb. 25); C. David Frankel, the founder and artistic director of Tampa Repertory Theatre (March 5); legendary singer/songwriter (and part-time Gulfport resident) John Prine (April 7); bay area musical theater queen Ann Hodges (Sept. 1); vocal artist Sam Hall, who sang with Opera Tampa and the St. Petersburg Opera Company (Nov. 7); and famed dancer/choreographer Ann Reinking, founder and longtime artistic director of Tampa’s Broadway Theatre Project (Dec. 12).

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    December 30, 2020at7:02 pm

    Bravo St Pete & Tampa !!! .. you met the challenge & then some …. 👏❗️❗️

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