Monday, March 16 was the worst day of Rebecca Hopkins’ career. As managing director of the Florida Studio Theatre (FST), it was the day she and her husband, Richard, producing artistic director of FST, gathered the entire staff to give them the bad news. “We ended up laying off 70 people,” she says. “It was really hard, but you have to act quick to protect the theatre.” FST was having a banner year, with sold-out productions and its ambitious Suffragist Project garnering praise for its celebration of women’s rights.

Then American Son closed a week early, Light My Fire lost 13 weeks, Paralyzed never opened, nor did The Legend of Georgia McBride, two cabaret shows and six summer productions. “When you talk about things I feared most,” Hopkins says, “it was hurricanes, the slow attrition of audiences—a pandemic wiping us out in a month was not on the list.” 

Hopkins was not alone. Gordon Greenfield, chief operating officer of the Sarasota Orchestra, was sitting at one of the orchestra’s POPS productions when the order came from Governor Ron DeSantis that restricted gatherings of 100 or more people. The pandemic had not hit Florida particularly hard at that point, but the anxiety had already scared ticket holders away—the concert hall was only a third full. “We were upset, nervous, scared,” he says, “but mostly disappointed.” Of course, once the scale of the virus reared its ugly head like Godzilla from the depths, Greenfield says it dwarfed the disappointment.

The orchestra canceled its remaining shows for March. Then April. Then the rest of the season. “Early on, nobody knew how long this would last, so we were shutting things down in increments,” he says. Across the region, other executives and artistic directors shared in Greenfield’s disappointment and, like Hopkins, had their own worst days. Altogether, more than 200 productions and programs from the performance arts landscape were nixed from calendars, casualties of “The Invisible Enemy”. Venues once laden with the intangible electricity of shared human experiences now sat empty, the tightly packed seats affixed with invisible scarlet letters that read “public health risk.” 

“There’s a connection between an orchestra and an audience,” says Greenfield. “Any musician at a concert tells you that they can feel that audience.” It’s the same connection that makes a live orchestral performance more visceral than even the highest fidelity speakers allow or a rock concert more exciting than its corresponding recorded music. In performance art, it’s all about the humans on and off the stage. In the absence of live productions, Hopkins, Greenfield and others began grappling with how to remain solvent and how to keep all of those humans connected without hugs, handshakes, applause or cheers.

Without performances, how do performance arts organizations remain relevant? And so the scrambling began to answer that question. Digital productions in performance art are not a new concept and offer the most obvious opportunity. The Met in New York City set the gold standard for videography in opera, while Cirque du Soleil enjoyed a measure of critical and commercial success with some of their cinematic video productions. But these organizations have enormous budgets and production crews on speed dial, both of which allowed them to corner a market largely out of reach for regional arts organizations. And even Cirque filed for bankruptcy at the end of June of this year amid evaporating ticket sales and fiscal mismanagement.

“Only the Met has been able to make a financial success out of their video productions,” says Richard Russell, executive director of the Sarasota Opera. The Sarasota Opera dug into its archives and pulled tapings from last season to share with its ticket holders, but the archival videos are made with a single camera offset stage left—hardly a production that can compete with the sweeping, multi-camera Met broadcasts presented around the nation in movie theatres (which were also closed for much of the pandemic).

“That level of production is prohibitively expensive,” he says, not to mention it takes years to develop into a polished product worthy of the exacting standards of classically trained performers. On top of that, the digital marketplace for video content suddenly found itself crowded with organizations clamoring for viewers, making the monetization of digital content all the more difficult. With the short-term prospects of revenue for virtual performances already dubious at best, another wrinkle in their production comes courtesy of actors’ unions. “It costs the same to put on virtual shows as it does in-person,” says Julie Leach, executive director of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT).

The Actors’ Equity Association, the largest union for live theatrical performers, maintains a high standard of employment for theatre performers (the American Guild of Musical Artists represents opera and ballet personnel). The union ensures that actors are compensated fairly for their time whether the production occurs in front of a live audience or remotely. Like Russell, Leach found that the cost of producing high-quality virtual performances makes it nearly impossible to recoup the investment when most digital consumers already expect digital content to be cheap.

Furthermore, Actors’ Equity has the final say on when members of its union can safely return to the stage, which poses obvious casting issues for WBTT, FST, Urbanite, Asolo and other theatre companies in the region. In Russell’s conversations with other operas around the US and among area arts organizations—conversations that included arts executives already mentioned—the consensus is that most companies can only reasonably aspire to use technology as a tool for audience development. “In a normal year, we’re done at the end of March,” says Russell, “so the virtual content is a great way to stay connected to the people who love the live product.” Fans of the Sarasota Opera and other organizations became well acquainted with what quickly became a ubiquitous feature of the digital arts landscape. Actors, musicians and dancers all began producing intimate, homemade streams for their respective companies. The opera made impromptu visits around town with a performer and piano for spontaneous performances in public, then filmed the outings to share with its ticket holders. WBTT launched a series of interviews with Nate Jacobs and some of the company’s regular performers.

The Sarasota Orchestra’s “Music Moves Us” series featured cellphone-shot videos of musicians performing from their homes, with pets and kids making cameos in many. The hope was that the endearing intimacy and behind-the-scenes appeal of these offerings would keep the organizations engaged with their audience and signal, “We’re still here; we’re in this together; we can’t wait to see you again.” But some organizations and forums have a longer history of pivoting baked into their ethos than others. “One thing that’s unique to our organization is that we’re pretty adaptable,” says Jennifer Mitchell, Vice President and COO of The Circus Arts Conservatory (CAC).

“This is not the first time we’ve had to pivot,” she says, referring to the way the circus arts survived the Spanish Flu, Great Depression and two world wars. “You can look at these setbacks and say, ‘Wow, what a terrible thing,’ or you can ask, ‘Now what?’” Though CAC also has an archive of videos from past shows, broadcast-quality virtual performances were similarly out of reach on such short notice, so CAC and every other prominent performance organization turned to programming more readily adaptable to the new normal. Education initiatives became the centerpiece of summer content strategies—capitalizing on an audience caged at home with a screen often the only window into the world outside. The Sarasota Opera put together a two-week camp to replace its annual summer offerings, with free tuition that came as a lifesaver for parents treading water while coordinating meaningful screen time for their kids.

“We were really happy with the response,” says Russell. “We had around 50 kids for the camp.” The circus launched CAC Connects, a series of videos that used resident clowns and circus arts to teach science topics like Newton’s laws of motion. CAC also deployed their in-house aerialist, Olga Coronas, to lead an ongoing series of exercise and flexibility streams geared toward circus-specific fitness. Later editions featured Coronas and her daughter for a mommy-and-me routine that offered parents and kids a constructive outlet for burning through some of the angst of being confined.

But no organization built a bigger monument to online learning than the Sarasota Ballet. Its Margaret Barbieri Conservatory offers aspiring preprofessional dancers a chance to train in a high-intensity professional environment. When the conservatory shut down for the pandemic, educational director Christopher Hird and his roster of world-class instructors transitioned the entire curriculum online. As many as 50 classes per week were being offered free of charge to conservatory students as well as members of the Sarasota Ballet School and Dance – The Next Generation, the company’s program for at-risk youth. Like the orchestra’s musician spotlights, the ballet’s videos featured Hird and others in their own homes, using countertops as barres and pirouetting across their tile and linoleum floors. If audience engagement and education came to serve as stand-ins for paying ticket holders and packed theatres, performance arts organizations found varying levels of success.

Though most of the virtual programming targeted folks already orbiting the organizations, the scale and demographics of social media campaigns and video shorts increased the visibility of their respective brands. The educational outreach cemented these organizations as important parts of the community, offering parents a temporary haven from the dark spiral of binge-watching and video games many kids found themselves in during the dog days of summer. But there was still a sense that these virtual programs would be temporary measures, that things would be back to normal in the fall and the pandemic would be a shrinking object in a rearview mirror. The reality is much murkier. The virus that was supposed to miraculously disappear in the summer lingered through the stricter periods of the shutdown.

Whether it was buffeted by the debate over mask efficacy or the consequences of reopening too early remains a hot-button issue, but nonetheless, infection rates spiked dramatically in June and July, surpassing positive cases from the first wave of the virus in March and April. “I don’t know how it became a political issue when really it should just be a public health issue,” says Michael Donald Edwards of Asolo Repertory Theatre. Like directors and executives from other organizations, Edwards has been elbow deep in the ever-evolving machinations of operating Asolo under the strain of uncertainty, but he cannot help but feel let down by political leadership.

“I’m dismayed at the failure of leadership to stymie the virus,” he says, “and without any clear plan, the responsibility has been passed on to people like me.” Rather than settling into a likely return to “normal,” each leader instead must gaze down into a rabbit hole of possibilities for the upcoming season. “How can you plan and budget in this kind of uncertainty?” asks Edwards. The solution, for better or worse, is to meet the precarious moment with a precarious plan of action. Each organization must invariably be prepared for multiple possibilities. “We’re planning for every eventuality,” says Edwards, “but we have to be prepared to come back quickly if the picture changes.”

The expansion of virtual programming remains the most viable option for many arts organizations to remain relevant and survive the uncertainty. The Sarasota Ballet decided early on that its first three performances would get a two- or three-camera treatment along with behind-the-scenes interviews that they hope will enrich the virtual product. “We got tired of all the what-ifs,” says Iain Webb of the Sarasota Ballet, “and felt we needed to make something bold and creative.” The ballet, which already had its own in-house videographer, put together what can almost be considered a full-blown docuseries—complete with rehearsal footage and guest appearances by some of the biggest names in ballet choreography.

The Sarasota Ballet and every other organization continues to develop an operational strategy that, like a little black dress, works for any situation. Across the region, organizations continue to weigh their options as the pandemic continues to rattle their decision trees. For art forms and institutions that have been stalwarts of civilization for centuries, these practices in nimbleness and flexibility remain a constant source of discomfort. Will the crises precipitate change and growth? “At some point we as directors of these organizations have to accept that we are now directors of new media,” says Edwards, “and we’re going to get to a point where we just create new work for the new reality.” And that reality is subject to change. SRQ