Nearly three years since the COVID pandemic shut down public events across the region, local arts groups have adapted by embracing or expanding the use of outdoor performance spaces.
“Creative people are problem-solvers,” said Michael Bobbitt, executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency that promotes inclusion, education, and diversity in the arts, humanities, and sciences. “Creative makers can make any space a cultural space.”
“For us, it is about forward-thinking,” said Michael Busack, portfolio director of the 210-acre Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, a Trustees of Reservations property.
“Our audiences are seeking a meaningful arts experience, but in a safer way. I remember in September 2020, our first outdoor concert was limited to 50 people, including the performers and staff. Afterward people came up to me in tears to say thank you.”
Since then, Fruitlands has continually expanded its 40-year-old outdoor concert program — doubling the number of events from six to 12 in 2022. A similar full schedule of outdoor concerts is planned for 2023.
“Utilizing public outdoor spaces to bring people together is important,” said Bobbitt. “Consumption of the arts at indoor venues is going be vulnerable for a number of years.
“From the Berkshires to the oceanfront, Massachusetts has the most amazing diversity of outdoor performance spaces.”
Peter Aucella is general manager of the Lowell Summer Music Series, which is held at Boarding House Park within the Lowell National Historical Park. “I felt lucky that we were already outdoors. I think people are still hesitant to attend events with fixed seating in close quarters with strangers,” he said. “Going into last year, there was a fair amount of concern people might not come, but in 2022, our attendance was every bit as strong as pre-COVID.”
“If there is a positive that came out of the COVID experience, it is innovation,” added Bobbitt of the Mass Cultural Council. “Arts and cultural organizations have learned to adapt by embracing the natural beauty of spaces like botanical gardens or aquariums. We are currently in the process of evaluating 778 applications — compared to 583 last year — for our Festival & Projectsgrant program that focuses on outdoor events.”
Responding to the demand for more outdoor options, the Trustees of Reservations introduced the Scenic Songs program for hiking enthusiasts and music lovers alike last summer. The program offers an intimate live music experience in natural settings. A small group of ticketed participants take a 1 to 1½ mile hike that leads to a serene spot for an acoustic live performance. According to Busack, the informal concerts were well received and this coming summer, Scenic Songs hikes will take place at seven of the Trustees properties, including Moose Hill Farm in Sharon, Ward Reservation in Andover, and at the Crane Estate in Ipswich.
According to Bobbitt, the pandemic created economic devastation for arts organizations that depended on indoor paid admissions. For theater organizations, survival has meant literally thinking out of the box.
Faced with the unknowns of the pandemic in 2021, the Gloucester Stage Company made an adventurous decision to move its entire summer season from its 178-seat indoor theater to the nearby 4.5-acre outdoor Windhover Performing Arts Center in the Pigeon Cove village of Rockport.
“I believe they became the only professional theater company on the Eastern Seaboard to be able to present their full summer season by moving outdoors that year,” recalled Lisa Hahn, Windhover executive director. “Even before the vaccine became readily available, people flocked to the outdoor theater performances.”
Windhover, with a rich history in dance training and performance, had previously hosted some theater events, but the Gloucester Stage experience identified new opportunities. A grant from the Mass Cultural Council helped Windhover upgrade the facility to make it fully handicapped accessible.
After adding a new stage and a full tent to make performances less dependent on weather, Hahn expanded the theater offerings last year, inviting new companies to perform outdoors with Cape Ann as a backdrop.
Looking ahead, a full summer lineup of theater, dance, and music is scheduled for spring and summer on the Rockport stage that offers seating under the tent or the option to spread out at picnic tables along the perimeter of the verdant area.
“Creating outdoor theater is infinitely rewarding,” said Lily Narbonne, artistic director of Lane’s Coven that brought sold-out performances of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” to Windhover last year and will return with “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde June 30 through July 9 .
“Windhover’s stage area is far back from the road, so the magic washes over you gradually as you leave civilization to engross yourself in another level of being,” Narbonne said. “The iconic architecture, the sound of peepers, on the edge of the world is the idyllic setting for our unique form of heightened theater.”
Located on a peninsula in Hingham, World’s End, a 251-acre Trustees of Reservations park and conservation area, provides a stunning natural backdrop for concerts. A Summer Solstice concert at World’s End has kicked off the season for the last decade, except during the early period of the pandemic in 2020.
“What better way to celebrate the season than with friends and family, enjoying time together while the sun sets over the Boston skyline?” said Anne Smith-White, director of The Trustees’ South Shore portfolio. “Two years ago we added the Summer Send-off concert in August and this year we will feature Boston’s premier Bob Marley tribute band, The Duppy Conquerors. These events are a celebration of music, local food, and craft beer, and are our way of saying thank you to our community for its support.”
Aaron Friedman, director of Natick Recreation Programs and Special Events, is looking forward to a full summer season after seeing “an uptick in attendance and greater appreciation” of the local free summer outdoor performance season. Since the pandemic, Natick has nearly doubled its programming, which will include seven family-friendly concerts, four or five programs geared toward kids, and outdoor movie nights in 2023.
“After the [pandemic] isolation, I think people have a greater appreciation for community,” said Friedman. “They want entertainment, but also to be able to be close to home and to be outdoors. People bring a blanket or lawn chairs to our events — they see the ability to spread out in the fresh air as a positive.”
The change from indoor venues comes with challenges, but both artists and audiences appreciate it.
“Utilizing outdoor spaces is not always easy, especially with the New England weather,” concluded Mass Cultural Council’s Bobbitt. “But it is always worth the effort.”
Linda Greenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.