These are not normal times for the leaders of cultural organizations, to put it mildly, and they’ll take silver linings wherever they find them.
So perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising that in a virtual roundtable with five arts leaders conducted by the Globe, Boston Symphony Orchestra president and CEO Mark Volpe cited last month’s “amazing” TV ratings for the NFL draft as a heartening sign for the performing arts.
“People are just so desperate for something live, something where there’s mystery, where there’s suspense,” said Volpe. “And that’s part of what we offer in live performances.”
At the first in a series of roundtables titled “The Next Act” that will seek to bring in a broad range of voices from the arts community to discuss the road back from the coronavirus pandemic, Volpe was joined by Michael Maso, managing director of Huntington Theatre Company; Esther Nelson, general and artistic director of Boston Lyric Opera; Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet; and Dawn M. Simmons, executive director of StageSource, which serves more than 200 theater companies, and artistic director of the Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company. Their conversation has been condensed and edited. (A video of the roundtable in its entirety can be viewed at www.bostonglobe.com/video/2020/04/30/arts/the-next-act-a-stage-set-for-change.)
Globe: Given that the performing arts are driven by a personal passion, what has been the impact on you, your colleagues, and the artists you work with, of having to come to a full stop?
Simmons: We [at Front Porch] are in this place, like many performing arts organizations, where we have to try to figure out: Where do these shows go? What happens to the people that we were employing? Can we move them into the next season? Do we even know if we’ll be able to gather? So we are playing some incredibly sophisticated games of Jenga right now. And then just personally, as a freelance director, many projects that I was working on came to a complete, abrupt stop. Balancing that with the needs of the Porch, the needs of StageSource, it’s just been a constant environment of pushing myself, pushing my employees and colleagues. It’s a fantastic moment. I’m not sure I’ll have a full idea of what it is until we’re out of it.
Nelson: Everything that you just heard applies to us as well. We were in the middle of rehearsing our biggest show — “Norma” — of the season. We got as far as the dress rehearsal, and then we were shut down. You work on a project like that production for years, and it’s like raising a child. By the time you get to rehearsal, it’s like the child begins to walk. And then suddenly it was interrupted. So there is a kind of grief that sets in, because it essentially just disappears. That moment will never be recaptured. When you do a production, that’s over 200 people involved in one way or another. The majority come from this community, and there’s a sadness.
Nissinen: We did a dress rehearsal [for “Carmen”], the day of the opening night, had to go onstage, tell everybody “The show is not going to go on. We’re going to postpone it.” And it was a shock and it was a sort of a numbness that hit everybody. And the news keeps dribbling in, and you start to say, all right, what are we going to do now? In the short-term? What about midterm? What about the really long-term? We had furloughs, lots of planning. So it has been quite a topsy-turvy time. We don’t know yet, but there will be something positive that will come out of this.
Globe: Mark, you had to impose furloughs at the BSO. What’s been the impact there emotionally, psychologically, of coming to a full stop?
Volpe: Well, we haven’t really come to a full stop. We have quickly shifted from an entity that focuses primarily on presenting concerts here, in New York, Tanglewood, the world. We have been in the process of morphing, if you will, into a media company. What we’ve been doing here is working with the players — some of it is archival, some of it is new material. I’m — in a very emotionally challenging environment — somewhat reassured. Just in the first month, we’ve had over 3½ million people access the BSO through our video streams, our audio streams, our social-media platforms. The revenue model doesn’t quite work. We’re continually focused on how we emerge, as well as how we ultimately produce content and disseminate it. Obviously, we can’t do it in terms of live audiences, so we’re doing it electronically.
Maso: When we froze in March, we were about a week away from the first performances of Kirsten Greenidge’s play “Our Daughters, Like Pillars.” You talk about the impact on artists: That was a world premiere of a play that the author had been working on for years. This is a five-year process for her. She had a production and she had a gorgeous cast, and she was deeply involved in this process, and suddenly it’s frozen in a way that is enormously frustrating. We’ve said we’re going to get back to it in a year, and we’ve given it [performance] dates, but that experience is duplicated by thousands and thousands of people around the world, whether it was going to be their Broadway debut or their little-theater debut. We still are committed to those artists, and we’re still committed to the art form that they engage in. For those of us who have some leadership responsibilities, there’s something about the last three or four weeks, six weeks, but some energy which is about sort of a war footing: You know that there’s work to do, and you know that we have to think our most creatively and our most compassionately in order to get through to the other side. My concern is at some point the adrenaline has gone and you’re dealing with the implications of what’s to come in the next year. And I think that will be, honestly, even harder.
Globe: Are you confident that people will still want to gather together as of old?
Simmons: This is such a resilient and creative community that we can all sort of lean on each other to talk about best practices and how we think this should go. But our constituencies are in those danger zones, right? So I think it’s got to be a slow and measured process. But yes, I think people are looking forward to it. And if that means we start [performances] outdoors, and if that can work, then I think it’s that idea of pivoting: How do we pivot to start there?
Nelson: The essence of all of our art forms is the coming together of artists and our community in real time and real space. If we cannot do that, from my end, I will say we are no longer Boston Lyric Opera. I would say that probably when there’s a vaccine and some additional health measures, we will come back to gather in the form that is closer to what we’re used to. Fortunately, we’re very used to going into nontraditional spaces. How do we view this [as] an investment in the future? How does that allow us to reach constituents and communities that have always been kind of isolated, and work together with libraries, with community centers?
Globe: Michael, can you address the question of [reopening theaters with] limited capacity?
Maso: It’s not the answer. And certainly, there’s no financial viability, for us, trying to put 150 people in an 800-seat theater or trying to put 50 people in a 350-seat theater. I certainly believe that people will come back in a very similar way. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t have to accommodate: We have to learn about cleaning, about other protocols. But I also don’t think that’s likely to happen for some time. So we just have to be prepared, and be patient, in addition to being smart about how we gather people when we do again. Certainly when we start producing plays, it will not look the same as it did. I’m sure we will adapt, but we’re really looking forward to the return to the norm because that is fundamental to the experience of our art form.
Globe: The director of the CDC has said there might be a second wave of this that could be even worse if it coincides with the flu. Have you done any planning for that terrible eventuality, and how big a blow would that be to survival for certain organizations?
Volpe: At some point, we’ll know the duration of this pandemic, with the vaccinations. At some point, we’ll have a sense of the intensity. What we don’t know is how long it’s going to take for people, who are all creatures of habit, to feel that they can safely be with thousands of others in the same space. That begs the question: In the interim, what do you do? How do we have live content? I think ultimately we’re going to have to figure out a way to electronically disseminate it and share it with audiences. What the business model for that is, has yet to be fully explored.
Nissinen: The first step is to get serious testing and isolate the people who are sick. We can wait for the vaccine, but I think there are steps that need to be taken prior. What makes the performing arts so special, it’s a communal experience with people experiencing the live performance. That’s where the magic is. For me, imagining a theater at a third capacity, with the masks: I don’t see much fun about it. I also want to point to the economic realities. We have one production a year, “The Nutcracker,” that generates some revenue. Everything else loses lots of money. When you ask, “What happens if there’s a second wave [of the coronavirus]?,” that’s going to be dark times. The kind of decisions that are going to be evaluated at that point, it’s like, I think about them, but I don’t want to think about them. That’s what keeps me up in the night.
Globe: If you can’t do “The Nutcracker,” would viability itself be in question?
Nissinen: Damn close.
Globe: In terms of extending a lifeline to performing arts organizations and artists, what is the obligation of the city, state, and federal government? At this point, what are you seeing or not seeing?
Simmons: I’m seeing quite a bit right now, and it has been incredibly encouraging to see, especially with the city of Boston. What [Boston chief of arts and culture] Kara Elliott-Ortega is doing with her office to keep people in constant contact with each other. The city is holding weekly meetings, having folks in the performing arts community share our resources. I think the obligation of these agencies are high, but I think they are doing everything to rise to the challenge.
Nelson: We have a public funding issue, and that has to be addressed. If this continues there’s going to have to be a lifeline for many organizations that is financial. But I’m more concerned at this point about the communication that’s coming from our public officials. As we enter this new world, what does it mean to provide a safe working environment? Unless we have very, very clear directives, that’s going to be confusing, and the liability issues are going to be enormous for each one of us. To produce an opera is just enormous in terms of people. Between a full orchestra and chorus and soloists and backstage [personnel], you’re looking at 200 or 300 people. Now, we can shrink some of that, certainly, but not down to one, or 10, or 20.
Globe: If someone is cast in a play or an opera or supposed to perform in a symphony and it gets canceled, are they financially supported by the organization in some fashion? Is there an obligation over the next X number of months to make sure people are not starving who were banking on a paycheck from your organizations?
Volpe: We have the players represented by a union, and we came to conclusion that they would accept 75 percent of what they would normally make, and they voted unanimously for that. It’s a little more challenging for us with artists because we hire artists as independent contractors. Andris [Nelsons] and Keith [Lockhart], they’ve taken significant cuts but they are still being compensated. All the other artists, the Yo-Yo Ma’s of the world, others who were scheduled to perform with us, are not being paid by the Boston Symphony. When I talk to my colleagues in Chicago, New York, L.A., none of us are paying guest artists.
Globe: Michael, how’s it working at the Huntington?
Maso: We were in performance for “Our Daughters, Like Pillars,” and on the day we sent everybody home, we sent them home with a check for four weeks’ pay. It’s tricky now for future productions, where we haven’t engaged people yet, we haven’t contracted them. But certainly the artists who were engaged with us at that moment, we felt an obligation.
Nelson: We decided, with our board’s great support, that we would be paying 100 percent of the fees. We have three unions; we deal with three groups of artists. So that’s, in the aggregate, quite a bit. But that was our moral obligation. Absolutely, and there was no question about it. And I will say that in addition to the economic factors here, our artists are an enormous part of our culture here. Many of them in our choruses, they sing in other groups; they sing in churches and synagogues, they are teachers. Collectively, between all of us, we represent a major sector that makes our community better in many ways, besides our institutions. So if we as institutions don’t stand behind the artists and the production personnel in our community, the community at large will suffer to a much larger degree than with just our institutions.
Globe: What is art’s job at a time like this?
Simmons: It’s the mirror up to nature, right? I think art’s job is to help us process everything that is happening around us. And my hope is that because so many of us are in conversation with each other — all the virtual rooms that we’re in — that there will be more cross-collaboration, at least in the city proper. And within Massachusetts, that theater starts to reach out to dance more, that we all start to reach out to the music community more, at all levels and across disciplines and aesthetics. That is the thing that I’m looking forward to and hoping for.
Maso: You know, the day after 9/11, we opened our production of Richard Nelson’s musical adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” It’s a piece of enormously deep emotional resonance, and it’s about living life to the fullest. And it seemed so appropriate. And it was one of the great experiences of my life, and the most moving moment in the theater that I’ve ever had. And we’re missing that moment. But that moment will come.