Arts Leaders Discuss The Upside To Lockdown

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Chicagoans who are fortunate enough to work from home must admit there have been some silver linings to living in lockdown. Families have shared more bonding time. Singletons who may otherwise feel pressure to socialize can now hang out at home with Netflix and without guilt. Plus, creative types can conquer any projects that have been put off in the past.

Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre used the pandemic as inspiration. Last summer, when several dance companies were rebroadcasting past works, Cerqua created new productions to reflect the times. Wilfredo Rivera’s “Identity City” focused on themes of isolation, while Rivera’s “Mood Swing” featured a series of duets between musicians and dancers reflecting the pandemic and social justice movement. Now, an evolved version of “Mood Swing” will highlight Cerqua’s 2021 season which includes virtual performances.

Indeed, when the Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation surveyed more than 60 of its arts grantees, it unearthed the benefits to virtual programming. The organization, which offers unrestricted grants to 175 small arts organizations in Chicago with budgets under $1 million, found the majority of arts groups were able to reach new, broader audiences via online events of 2020.

“We have done several productions where all artists involved are in a different country and time zone!” says Rebeca Alemán, founder and executive director of Water People Theater (WTP), an organization dedicated to expanding the boundaries of Latin theater.

“We have featured artists from Los Angeles to Argentina, performing on the same ‘stage’ at the same time,” continues Alemán. “It is humbling to see the Latino theater community’s commitment to take on challenges to continue transforming people through art and, by doing so, keeping live theater active.”

WPT engaged a global audience of more than 7,000 people who virtually attended its productions in 2020. This year, the company’s International Festival of Latino Theater begins March 19.

The online shift from in-person performances has also proved beneficial to 2nd Story, an organization that elevates storytellers to deliver literary-theatrical experiences. Over the course of the pandemic, 2nd Story’s virtual shows exceeded revenue goals and surpassed previous in-person programming as they reached audiences in 110 Illinois zip codes, 36 states, and seven countries.

“One of the things that has made these virtual events successful is that we are not trying to mask the medium, we are embracing Zoom for its reach and functionality,” explains Lauren Sivak, managing director of 2nd Story. “We cannot ignore the fact that virtual programming provides a certain level of accessibility that our in-person programming will never offer, especially now that we are in colder months. We will still see a demand for virtual programming even when things open back up.”

Fifth House Ensemble found similar success as it reimagined its annual Fresh Inc. Festival to accommodate virtual audiences. As a result, the event was its farthest-reaching festival to date with more than 5,300 participants.

This year, Fifth House will continue its Deep Listening sessions via Facebook Live to teach people how to listen in every dimension. “I have been really impressed by how meaningful Deep Listening has been,” notes Melissa Ngan, founder and CEO of Fifth House Ensemble.

“The opportunity to build individual mindfulness and well-being via people’s computer screens has really exceeded all of our expectations. It’s nice to see how something that we thought of as primarily an educational process is now infused throughout our educational, social, and performance work.”

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Image: Dancer Simone Stevens rehearsing; courtesy of Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre

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Ms. Arvia is an online columnist and critic; entertainment ghostwriter reaching nine million visitors per month; award-winning artist; grant-winning filmmaker; and Janet-of-all-trades. She’s interviewed SNL’s Cecily Strong and Julia Sweeney, the travel industry’s Rick Steves and Pauline Frommer, and directors Taylor Hackford and Laurie Anderson. Press releases on Chicago cultural events can be sent to reeljanet@live.com.