Performing through a Pandemic: How Local Arts Organizations are Surviving COVID-19

Jan 19, 2021

The cast of Rhinelander High School's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat stand on the stage after their final dress rehearsal.
Credit Erin Gottsacker/WXPR

COVID-19  has put the performing arts industry in peril, spelling hardship for theaters, performers and arts educators everywhere.

But in the Northwoods, the show must go on, and local theaters are adapting to the times.

I’m sitting in Rhinelander High School’s nearly empty auditorium.

On the stage in front of me, about 20 students are performing their final dress rehearsal of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

One of the actors twirls around in a long, rainbow-colored coat.

They’re singing into microphones tucked beneath tie-dye masks.

The students are getting ready for a weekend of performances.

Like their rehearsals, these performances will look much different than shows from a pre-COVID era.

Kristin Higgins is one of the directors.

In addition to the masks, she said the play has been choreographed so that students stay six feet apart.

“I’m constantly yelling, ‘watch your distance!” Higgins said.

The play is short – only about an hour – so it doesn’t have an intermission when the audience can mingle.

Not that the auditorium will seat a full house.

The seats in Rhinelander High School's Auditorium are taped off to account for social distancing.
Credit Erin Gottsacker/WXPR

The majority of its 700 seats are blocked off with masking tape.

The musical’s other director, Roddy MacMillan, points to the taped-off rows.

“We’ve got like two seats in a row, and then you see there’s a row which is empty,” he said.

Each student can invite two guests, so the available seats are reserved for those invitees.

Everyone else will have to livestream the performance.

Despite these COVID-induced adjustments, the School District of Rhinelander’s drama department is doing more than many theaters in the Northwoods.

Most have cancelled their seasons entirely. Many have yet to decide when they’ll reopen.

Theatre North in Ironwood, MI is an example.

“This would have been their 57th season, and they have never gone dark before from live performances,” said Miles Mykkanen, who spent his childhood performing on Theatre North’s stage.

From Theatre North, Mykkanen went on to study at Julliard.

Last March, he was preparing to perform an opera in Switzerland.

Then COVID struck, and he suddenly found himself back home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“When I got back from Switzerland it was definitely a few weeks or a month of deep mourning and depression for my own personal career and understanding what was happening in the world, and the prospect of all professional musicians, artists, performers,” he said.

A month later, Mykkanen started working with the theater’s president and co-president to figure out alternatives to live performances.

Their solution – spotlight videos.

They rehearsed 20-minute skits with community actors.

“And then we filmed all of them socially distanced,” Mykkanen said.

The final products were posted to Facebook, where anyone could view them at no cost.

These spotlight videos were pretty popular.

“Our first scene in the first weekend had hit over 10,000 views,” Mykkanen said. “We started getting donations from Florida, California, Maine, even places in Canada.”

Theatre North is one of the oldest community theater's in the country.
Credit Theatre North's Facebook Page

Now Mykkanen is working with the Theatre North board of directors to plan an outdoor, socially distanced arts festival in August.

It’ll feature singers from Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera, art exhibits and an international film festival.

Like the spotlight videos, fundraising efforts for this project were announced through Facebook videos.

Since March, Theater North has raised over $10,000 through their online efforts.

Other arts organizations haven’t been as fortunate.

Like Theater North, the Campanile Center for the Arts is also relying heavily on donations at a time when they normally wouldn’t have to.

Sandy Madden, the center’s executive director, said when COVID-19 first hit, the Campanile Center stopped everything while they tried to learn more about the virus.

Now the Campanile Center has resumed teaching music lessons, but Madden says that income is only enough to fund the teachers.

“We don’t make a lot of extra through the music lessons,” she said.

Without revenue coming from performances or leasing out their venue, Madden said the center is operating at a fraction of its capacity.

She’s received grants from the state, but she said she’s trying to be especially economical.

Before COVID-19, Madden ordered new lighting and sound equipment.

“I halted that order because I didn’t know when we would be able to open up to use the equipment,” she said. “And quite frankly, I wanted to preserve the cash.”

The Campanile Center for the Arts will survive the pandemic, Madden said. “But the question is just going to be, what will the Campanile look like on the other side?”

Back in Rhinelander High School’s auditorium, the cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are rehearsing their final bows.

Students perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with the School District of Rhinelander's drama department.
Credit Erin Gottsacker/WXPR

For some of the students on the stage, play practice was a sought-after semblance of normalcy in a world disrupted by a global pandemic.

Arts organizations are still figuring out how to survive in this world.

No matter what happens next, COVID-19 will be a tough act to follow.