Cleveland Opera Theater and others explore creative options for performing, reopening

By Conor Morris

Northeast Ohio Journalism Collaborative

Some of Cleveland’s most beloved music venues have yet to reopen to audiences, even though Ohio’s restaurants and bars were allowed to fully reopen in late May after a mandated hiatus due to the coronavirus (COVID-19).

The question of when – and how – to reopen is consuming many of Cleveland’s brightest minds in the performing arts scene, and there’s no easy answer in sight for venue owners.

Local theaters and opera houses, meanwhile, have pivoted to continue their productions and arts education missions digitally, with the working assumption that the coronavirus is here to stay until a vaccine can be developed.

Karamu House in Cleveland, the oldest African-American theater in the country, will be presenting its first-ever virtual streaming performance in the theater’s 105-year history on June 19th. The production, called “Freedom on Juneteenth,” will commemorate the ending of slavery in the U.S. through performances by local artists and musicians, with an eye keenly focused on current events, said Ann Barnett, Karamu’s director of marketing. The program is being built “from scratch,” Barnett said, in direct response to the huge amount of upheaval in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Department officers. But the production will also be mindful of the pandemic.

“All of the pieces are being constructed so that it does create the six-foot social distancing… actually incorporated into the choreography,” Barnett explained, adding that the musicians will be in an entirely different theater than the performers.

The program will be featured on local TV stations, live-streamed on social media, and will also present an opportunity for watchers to engage digitally afterward with a live panel. Barnett said Karamu will continue hosting digital productions on the topic of social justice each month for the rest of the year, with similar opportunities for people to engage with the artists.

For Cindy Barber, co-owner of Beachland Ballroom & Tavern in Cleveland, and Todd Gauman, marketing director, the pandemic means a complete re-imagining of live performance in Cleveland.

Barber said Beachland along with other Cleveland venues, artists and health officials is part of the national Reopen Every Venue Safely (REVS) pilot project, which has similar task forces in seven other major music cities in the U.S. She’s also part of the National Independent Venue Association, which is advocating for federal aid for independent venues. Barber said that both the REVS taskforce and NIVA provide a way to communicate with other venue owners about best practices as they look to reopen.

A collaborative approach is needed now, Barber said, because music venues struggled even before the pandemic. Gauman explained that music venues have long dealt with razor-thin profit margins, and there’s a high level of financial risk associated with shows because venues often guarantee a certain pay-out to artists before all the tickets are sold. Things have become even more dicey in recent years as the costs such as insurance, utilities and alcohol continue to increase for hosting touring acts. 

During the pandemic, everything is on the table including buying bulk liability insurance for multiple venues, for example, or using a group of venues’ collective buying power for employees’ health insurance, Barber said.

In the meantime, Sean Watterson, co-owner of Happy Dog in Cleveland, said that his business has still been able to host a few talks and artists via live-stream (with donations going to his workers), but that’s not a viable event-hosting model. Watterson – who is another member of the REVS taskforce – wondered how his business, which typically has over 300 live events each year, would be able to continue hosting community events safely with musicians, artists, and customers feeling comfortable enough to return.

For the Beachland to reopen safely, it’s “going to be a whole new platform,” Barber said. The bar/restaurant is currently undergoing a large-scale renovation to help it achieve that goal.

Gauman explained that current plans – which are still just that, plans – include several phases over the next few months. 

The first? To turn the large 500-capacity ballroom area into a “pop-up restaurant” with socially distanced tables, he said. That’ll be followed by reintegrating live shows with a reduced capacity, hopefully starting in July. Gauman explained that Beachland’s ballroom is thankfully large enough to be able to still accommodate a decent number of customers while keeping them far away from the stage.

Meanwhile, the much-smaller tavern portion of Beachland will also be transformed into a “live- streaming studio” with new equipment and high-speed broadband to showcase local and touring artists.

“Prior to all this, it was at a 150-cap space, and really, when you look at tables and spacing people out, the max we could get in there was like, 14-16 people,” Gauman explained. “That is not going to be conducive for any type of shows.”

Then, there are plans to transform Beachland’s parking lot into an outdoor venue space. The business has asked the state Division of Liquor Control to expand its liquor license to cover the parking lot as well, Gauman explained. Health experts have said in recent months that people are less likely to contract the coronavirus while outdoors, considering the virus will be diluted by even a light wind (it typically is transmitted by water droplets emitted when one speaks, coughs or sneezes).

For Watterson with Happy Dog, he doesn’t have a decent-sized outdoor space that can be used as a performance space. He said he faces a lot of tough questions when considering how to reopen. The REVS task force helps with that, especially when hearing from venues in other cities that are working to reopen. 

“It’s not just about reopening safely but recognizing these venues as neighborhood anchors and culturally important institutions, and trying to figure out how to preserve them,” Watterson explained. “They’ve been at risk even before the coronavirus came around.”

Meanwhile, Megan Thompson, director of education and outreach with Cleveland Opera Theater, said theaters such as hers are keenly aware of the potential for singing to spread the coronavirus. Instead, Cleveland Opera Theater has launched an entirely virtual 2020/2021 season, with live-streamed performances, classes and more.

Thompson explained that an expert panel assembled by The National Association of Teachers of Singing, the American Choral Directors Association and others, said there is “no safe way” for singers to rehearse or perform together until a vaccine is developed, which could be anywhere from six months to two years. That stern warning came after 45 people were infected with the coronavirus and two died after they met to sing at a choir in Skagit County, Washington in early March.

So, to prevent a local tragedy,  performances are going to be all-online for the immediate future, Thompson said, including a weekly “Maestro’s Corner” with the Opera Theater’s Maestro Domenico Boyagian conducting interviews with musicians from around the world.

There’s also plenty of creativity at play as local theaters figure out how to continue their programming while keeping patrons safe. Cleveland Public Theater, for example, is still planning on hosting its annual Station Hope arts festival on June 27, where over 250 artists come together to celebrate Cleveland’s social justice history and future. The main difference this year? The artists will be performing from their own homes, spokesperson Caitlin Lewins said, with work around the theme of envisioning, interrogating and seeking out hope.

“Those are probably going to be some pretty timely conversations,” Lewins said.

Karamu House, CPT, Cleveland Opera Theater and other local theaters are all continuing their education programs digitally, as well, with Karamu House’s Arts Academy Summer Intensives classes continuing digitally this summer (for students grades 7-12).

There are some difficulties in teaching performing arts digitally, however, said Cleveland Play House’s BJ Colangelo, a teaching artist with CPH’s CARE (Compassionate Arts Remaking Education) in-school theater education program. The biggest one is the “digital divide” for some of her students, Colangelo said. 

Some don’t have access to a webcam, which means Colangelo will need to adapt her lesson plan for the day to accommodate them. Other children don’t have access to the Internet at home, but some are finding their own solutions, Colangelo said.

“Some of our students are logging into classes using devices with WiFi from restaurants and stores in their neighborhoods because they don’t have it at home,” she said. “…It really speaks to the resiliency and passion that the youth of Cleveland have that they want to be here. They want to be in their classes. They want to continue their education by any means.” 

Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsroom.

NOTE: The West Park Times is a current member of the Northeast Ohio Journalism Collaborative.

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