COVID-19: Arts and cultural organizations react
By GWEN OREL
Ari Laura Kreith did not cry when she decided to postpone Luna Stage’s next two productions.
“Hooray for Ladyland!/Gay History for Straight People,” written and performed by Will Nolan, was supposed to open last week.
“Shruti Gupta Can Totally Deal,” by J.Stephen Brantley, which had been scheduled to open in April, would have been the largest production Luna has ever mounted, with nine actors.
What brought tears to her eyes was when, after she posted the announcement on Facebook, an actor donated $25 to the organization.
People are pulling together to help one another out.
“We’re all doing our best,” said Kreith, a Montclair resident. She has also seen actors having to post their Venmo on Facebook because every source of income — from waiting tables to performing to walking dogs — has vanished.
What only last week was an “abundance of caution” is now the new reality, especially for the arts: restaurants, movie theaters, anyplace where a gathering of more than 50 people might be is closed. That hits arts gatherings hard.
Gov. Murphy announced statewide travel restrictions daily after 8 p.m.
Montclair Film Festival, Montclair Literary Festival, Outpost in the Burbs, Studio Montclair Inc., Studio Playhouse, the Montclair Art Museum, the Montclair Public Library, Bowtie Cinemas, the Wellmont, Montclair Orchestra, The Write Group: all postponed events and, if they had them, closed their buildings.
Many Montclair arts and cultural groups canceled their upcoming programs early. Some who had at first thought they could stay open came to change their minds.
All the arts organizations agree that everyone has been gracious about postponements. Nobody has complained.
A word of caution: check with any venue or cultural event before heading out. With churches and synagogues closing, events taking place will be the exception. Assume everything is postponed or canceled until you verify it is not.
The first signals that Montclair, an arts town, was about to be an arts-at-home town, were the postponements last week of the Montclair Literary Festival and the Montclair Film Festival.
Sicceed2gether’s Montclair Literary Festival was to host Colum McCann last Thursday, March 12; that was canceled the day prior. The festival itself, which would have run March 25-29, has been tentatively rescheduled for September.
Literary Festival co-director and Succeed2gether program director Jacqueline Mroz said that canceling the MLF was just what they felt they had to do.
“We do not want to make Montclair the center for coronavirus,” Mroz said. “We’re rescheduling all of the ticketed events. We were going to try to go forward, but people were uncomfortable. We all felt it was the prudent thing to do. Everyone will have a lot of time to read now, Everyone’s going to be home.”
When Mroz spoke to Montclair Local last week, she said she went to meet a friend at a coffee shop and no one was there. MLF will not take a huge hit financially, as the authors are unpaid, and come to speak in order to promote their books.
But rescheduling is a nightmare.
“We had put together such an amazing festival. I feel like this was our best festival yet. Every time I had to write to an author to tell them we were postponing, it was like somebody stabbing me in the heart,” Mroz said. “It’s disappointing, but what can you do? Other people are dealing with things a lot scarier.”
All of the artists have been supportive and said she made the right choice. Authors who had been scheduled to come to Montclair included Paul Krugman, Madeline Miller and Mo
Authors will try to come in the fall, if they can, Mroz said.
Bob Feinberg and Tom Hall of Montclair Film first only canceled MF’s senior programming at first. But by midweek, they had decided to postpone the entire film festival, which had been scheduled for May 1-10. No new date has been announced. (The Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place the week before the MFF, has been postponed as well.)
Postponing was the right thing to do, said Feinberg, Montclair Film’s CEO and founder, especially given how many people the festival brings to town. Last year, MFF brought in about 30,000 people.
“Many of our patrons are older,” Feinberg added. Fortunately, as with the Literary Festival, Montclair Film had not gone too deeply into expenditures for the festival yet: it was just about to ramp up. Though Hall, the festival’s artistic director, begins planning the festival as soon as the previous one ends, MFF had not yet spent a lot of money hiring staff or printing brochures.
“The timing for this is going to not only spare the potentiality that we’d be adding to the public health crisis, but will also spare our nonprofit organization significant financial risk,” Feinberg said.
Billboards can be made without dates, Hall said.
“The goal is to have a festival date announced as soon as there is an all-clear,” Hall said. “Everything is ready to go. We’re locked and loaded. This is a pause button, not a stop button.” And with the travel ban, Hall said, “We’re a small inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. Nobody is worried about moving the festival down the road a little bit.”
Like Luna Stage, Montclair Film canceled its festival before Montclair was in the throes of the virus. A film festival in San Jose had already opened and in the middle of it, had to postpone its second half to August.
“They set a date, but I don’t know how you select a date not knowing what’s going to happen and for how long,” Hall said.
When he spoke to Montclair Local last Wednesday, March 4, Montclair Public Library director Peter Coyl said that while senior programs were canceled, the library would remain open.
By Friday, March 13, that was no longer true. The library is now completely closed. The drop-off is closed.
The Wellmont at first issued a statement that their shows would continue. By Saturday night, that also was no longer true. Both The Çhieftains at NJPAC and Eileen Ivers at SOPAC had canceled their concerts after last week’s paper went to press.
As of this Monday, Montclair schools are closed and all the performances (and after-school activities in general) postponed or canceled.
Some of the cancellations are devastating to the students who have worked so hard to ready their performances.
Elizabeth Uva’s daughter Emma, 16, was “too miserable to talk” about the cancellation of Montclair High’s School of Visual and Performing Arts dance concert. The show, which is by audition, had included 51 students, and had been in rehearsal since October.
The students were told last week, during technical rehearsals, that the show, which should have performed March 13, 14, and 15, was off.
“She called me up crying from the school. All the work they've all put in. She felt bad for the seniors. It was their last big blow-out show.
“The show had included 12 different numbers, some choreographed by students. The last dance was a hip-hop dance with the entire company. All the kids were excited about it,” Uva said.
SVPA’s spring musical is also postponed. At this time, it is unclear whether the shows will happen this year if school resumes, next year, or never, and how this will affect the arts programs.
Essex Youth Theatre and Vanguard Theater have both canceled classes until further notice too.
Vanguard had just signed a lease for a home on Bloomfield Avenue. As of right now, Vanguard is still planning to offer its summer theater camp in July, “by which time, COVID should be a distant memory,” Vanguard said in a release.
TAKING A HIT
Luna Stage had thought they could stay open: it is a small theater, and could be a place for the community to seek solace and connection. At first that seemed like their social responsibility.
Then it tipped.
“No, our social responsibility was to have people not leave their homes,” Kreith said.
Luna Stage had just been named New Jersey’s Favorite Small Theatre by People’s Choice of JerseyArts.com, for the second year in a row.
The decision to close has repercussions. The theater has only two full-time staff; everyone else is hired for productions or is part-time. Luna Stage is still figuring out how it will cover everything financially. And not being able to do what they do, for an undefined time, is bound to take a hit on the organization that pays rent and has other bills to pay.
Margot Sage-El at Watchung Booksellers also has concerns about how the bookstore will fare in the long run. Over the weekend, the bookstore was packed, Sage-El said, as people prepared to hunker down. It was quieter on Monday.
“The closing of the parks gave the message: ‘do not leave your house.’ If we have to close I don’t know what the repercussions would be,” Sage-El said. “We have payroll next week. Rent at the end of the week. We have to pay publishers.”
The cancellation of the Literary Festival, which was to take place later this month, has hurt the store’s projected income, though fortunately, she had not ordered the books that would be sold at it yet.
As of Monday, the bookshop is open from 1 to 6 p.m., and is selling books and ebooks, offering delivery, and free media mail.
Montclair Early Music postponed its spring concert. The volunteer arts organization holds its concerts in a church, and, said founder Julienne Pape, people might not come anyway. But the concert, which had been scheduled for March 22, had already incurred some expenses, including program printing.
Outpost in the Burbs canceled its next three concerts, through April 4. Suzzy and Lucy Roche were to have played Outpost tomorrow, Friday, March 20.
The mother and daughter were driving back from Nashville, Tenn., when they spoke to Montclair Local — after speaking to us just a couple of days previously about the now-cancelled concert.
“We suspected this was going to happen,” Suzzy said.
She had been reading about what was happening in Italy, and thought this was the right thing to do, praising Outpost for the way it was done. Outpost is trying to find later dates for the concerts.
Still, losing touring dates is scary.
“It’s our income. But when your income depends on endangering people, you have to let go of the gigs. It’s not like there’s any other income. All musicians are in the same boat,” she said.
A concert scheduled to take place at Symphony Space in Manhattan was cancelled too.
The CDs sold by singer-songwriters mostly happen at their concerts. Lucy Roche had just been about to start a tour of Europe; the entire tour is postponed.
But as buildings and classes shut down, the arts may not, after all.
The public library has already announced that it will stream StoryTime on March 25, welcome news for parents who have children home from school all day, as they try to work from home.
Montclair Early Music’s recorder competition for young people always took video submissions. The grand prize includes playing with MEM in the fall, which Pape is hopeful will still take place after the threat of Covid-19 is over.
The “America to Me: Real Talk Montclair” program will change its group leader trainings to a series of Zoom meetings, writes Masiel Rodriguez-Vars, president of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, which presents the program, in an email. The goal of “America to Me: Real Talk Montclair,” which launched on March 1, is to have a community-wide watch of a 10-episode documentary about race, “America to Me.”
Visual arts spaces are looking for ways to make artists' work visible without opening galleries. Studio Montclair’s “The Place Called Home” exhibition will soon have a video component to go with its podcast, said SMI executive director Susanna Baker.
Kreith is playing with ideas for live streaming at Luna, she said. Actors have approached her with ideas. She is investigating how virtual arts could work, while keeping everyone safe.
“Is there a way that somehow we support the creation of a series of short plays inspired by where we are at this moment in time?” she mused. Perhaps actors could film monologues and she could post them.
Last week, high school students began doing just that, posting monologues and songs from their canceled plays on Twitter. The hashtag #KingLear reminded everyone that Shakespeare wrote his tragedy when under quarantine during a plague year.
Elizabeth Uva’s daughter is choreographing a dance at home, too. For her high school dance class, Emma does dance and yoga, and is doing a guided meditation, Uva said.
Her twin brother plays sports, and for gym, was told to “film himself doing something athletic. I told him, ‘teach your sister football, and she can teach you dance.’”
“We don’t want to compete with Netflix,” Hall said with a laugh. “We are trying to think of creative things to do with people, if they are bored at home.” Watch parties and online conversations could be in the mix.
Suzzy and Lucy Roche, who were scheduled to appear at Outpost this week, are talking about streaming too.
“Our next concert will be out of our living room,” Lucy said.
“We have a community of music lovers,” said Gail Prusslin, Outpost’s head of promotion. “In times of difficulty and stress, music brings people together. It can help us feel better.”