Every June, local performing arts patrons traditionally face the annual tragedy of choice: having to select a handful of shows from the flashy websites and eye-catching mailers that tease a bewildering smorgasbord of more than 200 events from regional universities and presenters. 

To say the least, 2020 has been different. After the pandemic wiped all live shows off the books in March, midsummer came and went with little or no word on future seasons from regional mainstays including Carolina Performing Arts, Duke Performances, and NC State LIVE. Presenters’ websites slipped into an eerie state of suspended animation, leaving patrons with little insight into the future.

When season rollouts have taken place, they’ve tended to be both incremental and uncharacteristically glitchy. After PlayMakers said that passes for a series of six virtual productions would go on sale September 1, ticketing remained offline for two additional days, and the language on the company’s webpage about individual and season tickets was confusing. 

Meanwhile, patrons may have wondered if the five virtual musical offerings visible last week on the Duke Performances website were the only events they had on tap for the fall, or if two “virtual coffee breaks” featuring winners from a “Wolfpack’s Got Talent” contest were the only things to come from NC State LIVE.

But behind the disarray, as presenters try to adapt very old habits for a very new world, frantic work has been going on to make and salvage production plans. 

“The performing arts is an industry very much in crisis right now,” says Bobby Asher, the new director of Duke Performances. “Our entire field has been turned completely on its head.” 

Amy Russell, the director of programming at Carolina Performing Arts, cites the sudden closure last week of Columbia Artists, a 90-year-old classical music institution that represented Leonard Bernstein and Leontyne Price, as evidence of the deep threat the pandemic poses to such institutions. 

“It’s just a completely different business, overnight,” Russell says. “You feel like you’re in triage mode: What can I do? Who haven’t I talked to? Who do I need to check on?”

PlayMakers Rep has to raise $1.5 million to cover a shortfall from canceled spring productions to keep the company “resilient over the next few years,” according to producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch. Its six-show season involves turning Paul Green Theatre into something like a soundstage for livestreamed and filmed productions. The season includes four solo shows, starting with a remount of Kane Smego’s Temples of Lung and Air beginning September 28. 

NC State LIVE has a different response to the financial pinch; it plans to operate on virtually no revenue this year, according to director Sharon Moore. 

“I’m not convinced that we can greatly monetize livestreaming events,” Moore says. “There’s so much out there now, and it’s so overwhelming.” The program will continue through student fee allocations and stepped-up fundraising efforts among supporters. “We’ll get through this, and the arts will still be here,” Moore says.

In the meantime, NC State LIVE will offer free, online, monthly “happy hour” presentations in which artists can directly engage with audiences. The series begins at 5:30 p.m. October 6 with musical excerpts and conversation with Las Cafeteras. There will also be pop-up performances by local artists, including a September 17 gig with George Hage from Jack the Radio, for those still on campus. 

But Moore’s most exciting initiatives are two year-long social justice residencies in which cellist Shana Tucker and choreographers Tommy Noonan and Murielle Elizeon will work with campus and community partners on “issues of value, belonging, voice, and how bodies can tell those stories, to ask how we find a better way to live in the world together going forward.”

At Duke Performances, Asher and colleagues have commissioned high-quality films of artists initially booked for live performances. The season begins September 12 with Attacca Quartet performing Beethoven and North Carolina composer Caroline Shaw. Other events in jazz, dance, and world music will be announced monthly during the fall.

At Carolina Performing Arts, conversations with artists and patrons about the support they need have led to two initiatives. Details of a livestream series of artist interviews and performances hosted by Tift Merritt will go public on CPA’s website on September 10. 

The presenter will also sponsor two programs of adult online classes under the name “Feedback: The Institute of Performance.” The first course, starting October 6, deals with the element of “liveness” in performance. The second, beginning October 29, addresses arts economies. Tuition is free, but online registration is required.

When the American Dance Festival canceled its summer season of live performances, choreographer Monica Bill Barnes had to shelve a scheduled world premiere. But the choreographer repurposes movement and interviews associated with the work in the virtual run of Keep Moving September 30–October 4. In the coming weeks, ADF will produce four other virtual events, including a reimagined performance of hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris’s Funkedified and the premiere of dance film by Mark Dendy and Stephen Donovan. 

The goal, according to Executive Director Jodee Nimerichter, is to provide “a broader combination of experiences, including performances, that reengages artists and builds platforms of collaboration across countries.” That includes an international partnership between choreographer Dana Ruttenberg and Netta Yerushalmy.

With each of these presenters, a shift that began in some cases years before the pandemic has picked up urgency: a change in emphasis from individual, one-night performances to extended interactions between communities and creators while making work.

Local presenters realize staying yoked to a professional infrastructure based on single make-or-break events leaves them vulnerable. Still to be resolved: Can they devise a different model that succeeds?

The article has been updated to correctly identify Tommy Noonan. 

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