By JEFF CLEMETSON
On Sept. 1, theaters and music venues across the country lit their buildings red to draw attention to the plight of an industry that employs over 12 million people nationwide. Legislation to save performance venues — the Restart Act and the Save Our Stage Act — is stalled in Congress along with other pandemic relief aid bills. Concert venues and theaters were among the first businesses forced to shut down because of the pandemic and will most likely be the last allowed to open.
With performance spaces unable to open doors to patrons, local artists are exploring new ways to bring their craft to fans, while at the same time hoping to one day return to performing from lighted stages to audience-filled seats and dance floors.
All the world’s a stage
On Aug. 29, musicians from around the world participated in the seventh annual Play Music on the Porch Day. The event was originally conceived to bring people together from across racial, religious and political divides to share a moment together in harmony. This year’s event had even greater meaning as musicians put on porch concerts to also raise awareness of the challenges faced by the music industry.
One of the bands that part in the event was San Diego-based Enter The Blue Sky — a folk rock trio featuring singer/songwriter Sandé Lollis, viola player and singer Karen Childress-Evans and backing singer Tina Dee.
Although Enter The Blue Sky’s Play Music on the Porch Day performance was one of their most attended, according to Lollis, it was just one of the many concerts the group has put on from the garage of Lollis’ home at 7623 Flag Lake Street in San Carlos. Since early May, the band has put on a concert every two weeks, drawing fans and neighbors out to the street to hear their music play.
“It’s just nice to be on this regular schedule,” Lollis said.
The alt-weekly garage concert schedule replaces the band’s normal gigging schedule, which averaged six to 10 shows a month, Lollis added. The band performed regularly at places like Nate’s Garden Cafe, Wynola Pizza in Julian and the Pine Valley House in Mount Laguna. The band was also a fixture at large events like Art Walk, Adam’s Avenue Street Fair and was billed to play at this year’s San Diego County Fair.
The band members said they worry about what might happen to local music venues as the pandemic drags on keeps their doors closed. One venue they frequently play at — Space Bar in La Mesa — is being helped out by the musicians who played there regularly, a group of over 50 people who have made it a habit to buy coffee or lunch there at least once a week.
“We’re, as a community of musicians, trying to keep [it] alive,” Childress-Evans said. “We’ve got to have these places to go to when it’s safer.”
Since the pandemic began, many musicians have taken to the internet, performing online and asking for tips through PayPal or Venmo. Although some artists have found some success in that format, it is one that Enter The Blue Sky has largely avoided, preferring instead to put out a tip jar for people to offer up support during their garage concerts.
“I’ve done some of those online live open mics, but there’s really nothing like the actual live live,” Lollis said
Dee added, “There’s something real sterile for me playing the online open mics because I have to have that feedback from people. We’re having a conversation here. With Sandé’s words, which are amazing, this conversation has to be received. If you’re just singing to the wall there’s some sterility there.”
The band has found a happy medium by broadcasting their garage concerts on Facebook Live.
Beyond live streaming and garage concerts, the band members are hopeful some more socially-distant performance opportunities will arise.
Childress-Evans pointed to a gig her and husband have playing ‘30s and ‘40s music to seniors.
“When we go to the retirement homes, we can’t go in, but they come out on a balcony and [we] play from a patio,” she said, adding that the idea could be expanded to local casinos where hotel room balconies could overlook a performance stage. Concerts in parks could also return if families sat together and stayed socially distant from each other.
“The problem is not us,” Childress-Evans said. “The problem is the people that come to see us. They got to wear masks and they have to stay at appropriate distance.”
While waiting for more performance opportunities to come about, or for the restrictions on venues to be lifted, Enter The Blue Sky has stayed busy with its regular rehearsal schedule and has also finished up their first music video to the title track of their latest album “Wanderlust.”
And, of course, the group is playing their every-other-Wednesday concerts in San Carlos, which they said they plan on doing all the way through the mandatory shutdown of live events.
“Who knows?” Lollis added. “Maybe we’ll just keep doing them forever.”
The show will go on
In the middle of a pandemic where people are asked to stay socially distant from each other, it would seem improbable that a theater company could put on a full production. However, that is exactly what Rolando-based Moxie Theatre plans to do.
Opening Sept. 12 and running Thursdays through Sundays at 7 p.m., Moxie will offer online presentations of “The Niceties” by Eleanor Burgess, a play that focuses on two women at an Ivy League school and delves into the topic of racial justice.
“We thought, ‘We already planned to do this, this moment is ripe to have this discussion and we don’t want to do this just on a Zoom conference call. We want to make theater and what is the safest way we can do this,’” said Moxie Executive Artistic Director Jennifer Eve Thorn.
To pull off a full-production play safely, Thorn said they chose “The Niceties” because it was the safest to produce of all the plays in the season that was planned before the pandemic. There are only two actresses in the play and they were able to do much of their rehearsal on video chat. The simple set — a school office setting with books and a desk — was built over a much longer period of time to allow for social distancing.
When in person rehearsal was set to begin, the director, stage team, camera crew and actresses self-quarantined after being tested. Because members of the Moxie board of directors are filmmakers, the production was able to be filmed with very high quality, Thorn said.
“We’re attempting to capture what feels like live theater on film — so we’re not making a movie,” she added. “People watching will know it’s a play. It’s lit like a play. It moves and sounds like a play.”
Although the play is not presented like a movie, there is a movie that will come out about the production. Filmmaker John Brooks is also making a documentary companion piece about the “unique convergence of things happening with the production” — the attempt to do theater in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the play being about racial justice during a time of mass social unrest following the recent high-profile killings of unarmed Black men, Thorn said.
Although the companion documentary won’t be released right away, each night of the production, audiences will be invited to join in discussions with the cast or special guests.
“I will be live before every single performance welcoming the audience and talking about who they will meet after the performance that night,” Thorn said. “And every single night of the show, someone from the community — maybe a professor, an expert in themes in the play or perhaps the actors or the director — will give the audience a live post show interaction.”
These audience interactions are a regular feature of in-person Moxie performances and Thorn said keeping this tradition for the online presentation was especially important for this play because the subject matter “calls for discussion.”
“Normally you’d get to digest [a play performance] even in your car with whoever you came with on the way home,” she said. “But [online viewing] sort of just leaves you in the living room, if that’s where you’re watching from. and I think the play deserves some time to digest and talk about it and so audiences will get to do that after they watch.”
A lot is riding on “The Niceties” success — it being the first ticketed performance by Moxie since the start of the pandemic. But Thorn is confident it will do well, in part because Moxie very early on in the quarantine pivoted to producing plays on the Zoom video platform.
“As soon as we all know we were going to be home, my company, like so many companies, started video conferencing on Zoom. And it was only after a couple meetings that it became clear to me that it’s really theatrical, being on a video conference call. It’s hilarious,” she said. “We started reaching out to artists and playwrights we work with and asked them if we could pay them to keep writing new plays and performing them live and our audience response was pretty incredible.”
Thorn herself wrote the first Zoom-themed play for Moxie — a play titled “Safe Distance” about a company who had pivoted to a Zoom call, resulting in a confrontation between a bookkeeper and the CEO.
“And the bookkeeper waited until everyone was off the call to confront this CEO about a line item, about money going missing,” Thorn said. “And it played with the idea that because we were all just starting out on Zoom, we didn’t all understand that somebody could appear to leave the room when they shut their video down but their audio could still be there. So this character had somebody shut their video down and watch so she would have a witness to this conversation.”
Thorn said the response from audiences was “crazy.” Shows would have a preshow comedy routine on current events, and productions covered topics ranging from marriage therapy to online dating for seniors and even a murder mystery. The Zoom productions were about 20 minutes long and Moxie put out a new play every week for 10 weeks straight. Moxie put out the plays for free, asking for donations only, which brought in some money for the cash-starved theater and its artists.
After the production of “The Niceties” wraps up, Thorn said Moxie will return to producing more Zoom shows — a necessity to keep some income trickling in while the future of the theater remains threatened by the pandemic.
“I’m certainly concerned about the longevity of this,” she said of Moxie’s future. “We’ve managed to survive through this moment, but nobody knows how long this will go on and there’s been a 50% cut to arts funding in our city at this point. We’re not just closed, one of our largest sources of income has been cut in half and our donors are … stretched thin. They’re helping us and that’s why we’ve survived this long, but I know we can only ask so much of them.”
Thorn said the best way people can help the arts and artists is to make a conscience effort to consume art however they can.
“I do think Moxie will be able to survive this because our organization is small so I don’t have a big staff,” she said. “But also because we’ve been paying artists all along the way through this whole quarantine. I’ve been mailing out checks consistently. Maybe it’s not a lot, but our commitment at Moxie to pay artists right now while they’re not getting the income they need to survive is part of what’s lifting us up.”
To purchase tickets to “The Niceties,” visit www.moxietheatre.com.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.