Thursday, 30 April 2020 12:27

Cultural Consequences

Written by  John Kissane
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Shelley Irwin in Grease. Shelley Irwin in Grease. Photo courtesy of the Circle Theatre

COVID-19 has affected all of our lives. At its farthest extreme, it has ended lives and devastated families. Compared against that, the shuttering of local arts and cultural organizations may seem less an impact, but it isn’t nothing; these organizations may not provide food or other life-sustaining services, yet without their presence, the life of communities is stunted and cities become places to live but not thrive.

On March 14, Circle Theatre posted on its website a message advising that, in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines advising against events that would bring together 50 or more people, it would be evaluating or canceling upcoming events. 

Initially, the hope was that only one event would have to be rescheduled. Noddea Skidmore, director of creative and audience development, remembers thinking, “Oh, wow, we are so lucky to only have to reschedule one event.” As the situation developed, it became clear that more drastic measures would need to be taken. American Graffiti In Concert, the season kickoff event, has been postponed; shows Disaster!, Moon Over Buffalo and Goldilocks and the Three Pigs will be moved to next year’s season. 

“It’s devastating not just to us but to our performers,” Skidmore said. More than 60 people had been slated to perform in those shows.

While it’s impossible to know when life will return to normal, it is possible to begin to determine the financial burdens COVID-19 will bring. Circle Theatre stands to lose $140,000 over three months, funds vital to its operating budget. Sets, costumes and props all come at a price.

As Circle is unable to stage in-person events now, it has transitioned to virtual ones. At least a dozen Circle Theatre Virtual Fundraising Events have been or will be streamed online, ranging from classic rock covers and other concerts to evenings led by Petty LuPone, a well-named drag queen.

Skidmore finds this heartening. “The fact that ... Our audiences can see familiar Circle faces on their laptops and screens — to hear them sing and tell beautiful stories in real time? We all need that right now.”

The shelter-in-place order prevents gathering as a group to rehearse; due to that and the vagaries of performance royalties, Circle is unable to stream full shows the way that Opera Grand Rapids was able to with Scalia/Ginsburg. The Virtual Fundraising Events allow them to maintain contact with the community. 

Just as the community needs Circle, the theater needs the community. You can head to Circle’s website for a list of ways people can help the group meet its financial needs, including through donation and purchasing merchandise. 

“Circle Theatre has been entertaining, enriching and educating West Michigan audiences for 68 years,” Skidmore said. “As long as our community continues to invest in us, we’re not going anywhere.”

Four miles away from Circle’s doors is the Grand Rapids Public Museum, an institution more than 165 years old. On March 14, it temporarily closed its doors. 

“This is typically a busy time for us,” said Kate Kocienski, vice president of marketing and PR. “People who had been getting cabin fever and were looking for something to do, we’d see a lot of them traditionally.”

The museum is now operating without the admission revenue it would normally see, along with sales from the cafe and gift shop, rental revenue, and proceeds from in-person fundraising events. Lost revenue means difficult decisions. At the time Kocienski and Revue spoke, all museum staff were still employed, but reductions of front-line and visitor services staff had begun to be discussed.

Like Circle Theatre, the GRPM provides an important cultural resource to Grand Rapids and its surrounding communities. “Right after closing, educational, curatorial and marketing teams sat together to determine how we could still meet that need,” Kocienski said. 

One way the museum has met those needs is through the creation of Virtual Discovery Kits, available through its website. An eight-page PDF, its Egypt kit provides a societal pyramid of that ancient country, lists facts about various gods, and gives insight into the lifecycle of the dung beetle and the mummification process. A hyperlink embedded within takes the reader to Egyptian artifacts from the museum’s collection, including one listed as Shabti: a small statue that would have been placed in a tomb to perform tasks in the afterlife for its dead master.

There are virtual scavenger hunts, astronomy activities and more, all accessible through posts on the GRPM Facebook page. Readers may be interested in a sturgeon live stream, accessible all day; the museum’s lights are turned off at night, so the fish can sleep.

“When any institution closes, you expect engagement to drop right off,” Kocienski said. “That didn’t happen.” Social media likes and shares, creation of online collections, and participation in the virtual scavenger hunts have all been healthy — a tribute to the museum’s continued relevance.

If there is a silver lining to the crisis, Kocienski said, it is this: “For virtual visitors, people are seeing the breadth and depth of what we can offer beyond our traditional offerings.” 

The audience is still there, even if only through their devices’ screens.

For More Information:

Circle Theatre

Grand Rapids Public Museum

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