How the Pandemic May Impact Bay Area Performing Arts for Years to Come

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William Oliver III as Storyteller in 'Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station' produced by Oakland Theater Project.  (Colin Mandlin/Oakland Theater Project)

A few weeks ago—for the first time in an entire year—I went to see a piece of live theater.

As befits these times, Oakland Theater Project’s latest production, Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station, was a drive-in experience. It took place in the parking lot outside the historic railroad terminus in West Oakland mentioned in the show's title. It used the setting as the backdrop for a story about the Black and immigrant Oaklanders who once worked on the railroad.

We all sat in our cars, peering through our windshields, as the voice of actor William Oliver III was piped in through our radios.

“Oakland is some kind of town, ain't it?” enthused Oliver, launching into his lines in the guise of a railroad worker with uniform and cap. The audience of cars honked back at him in response.

Drive-in shows. Online fundraisers. Rehearsals via Zoom. Welcome to the new reality of producing art in the Bay Area a year into COVID-19. The pandemic has been grueling—as well as transformative—for the local arts community. And now its constituents are using what they’ve learned over the past 12 months to help navigate the road ahead.

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Oakland Theater Project, for one, has planned its entire new season around the drive-in experience.

“This is something we could ask people to come to and still feel like we’re keeping them safe,” says Oakland Theater Project co-artistic director William Thomas Hodgson.

Hodgson wants to get audiences out of their cars and into the theater again. But there are some aspects to producing shows in a pandemic that he hopes will stick around—like paying actors a fairer wage.

He says his company has been able to up its pay by 50% over last year. That’s possible in a season like this one, where the maximum cast size is five. But this community-oriented company is known for producing shows with much bigger forces.

“We’re committed to this. We’re gonna do it,” Hodgson says. “But our mainstay at Oakland Theater Project has been these large cast productions. I don’t know what that looks like in the future.”

Similarly to Oakland Theater Project, Opera San Jose also hopes one day to return to big productions, like its staging of The Flying Dutchman from 2018, which featured an orchestra, chorus and soloists and required several hours of the audience’s attention.

But the pandemic has inspired Opera San Jose to lean into producing one-act and chamber works with small casts and shorter timeframes going forward. One recent example is the company's video-streamed take on Three Decembers, a 90-minute-long chamber opera with a trio of performers and piano accompaniment.

“Shorter evenings reduce risk and help patrons feel more comfortable,” says Opera San Jose general director Khori Dastoor. “They make a lot of sense to welcome new audiences.”

Dastoor is investing heavily in digital tools and training, including offering video content translated into Spanish and Vietnamese. She says her audience is expanding as a result of these efforts, with several thousand new households tuning in this past year versus around several hundred in previous years, both locally and from places as far flung as Germany and Japan.

She says her donor base is holding, but she recognizes some traditional opera lovers might not be on board with the digital revolution.

“My anxiety and concern is how long it takes for us to get to a model where the people we’ve lost because of our pivot are offset by the new people that are engaging with us for the first time,” Dastoor says.

The bicoastal contemporary dance company RAWdance (based in San Francisco and Hudson Valley, New York) has also been able to reach new audiences with virtual content during the pandemic. In January, the group presented the video world premiere of The Healer, a work for four dancers in flowing, pleated skirts inspired in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. The piece explores humans' ability to overcome physical and emotional suffering through the theme of traditional Chinese medicine and holistic practices.

RAWdance co-artistic director Katerina Wong says her company has been working hard to adapt a three-dimensional art form to the two-dimensional screen.

“How do we still create that sense of connection and intimacy and communication, when so many of us are sitting and watching lots of Netflix or on back to back Zoom calls? It’s really hard to cut through that,” Wong says.

Wong says producing high quality video is expensive, especially for small dance companies like hers, but it’s something she plans to pursue even after the pandemic is over. A major financial challenge her company faces is figuring out how to expand access to the art form without sacrificing the quality of live performances when they return.

RAWdance relies on donations and grants for survival, including funding from the City of San Francisco. Wong and fellow co-directors Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith want to see more government support.

“What feels so essential, being located in these cities, is that it's the signaling of the significance of artists in the community to be culture bearers and culture makers,” Wong says. “And I hope that that can be acknowledged by funding support.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed just announced a proposal to provide $17 million in one-time support to local arts groups. The city’s board of supervisors is expected to discuss the proposal on Mar. 17. But one of the main sources of arts funding, the hotel tax, is down by nearly 90% since last year, and arts groups are worried about making it through.

“The short term prognosis is not good,” says San Francisco-based indie band manager Jordan Kurland. He represents groups like Death Cab for Cutie, The New Pornographers and the Bay Area’s own Toro Y Moi.

Kurland also sits on the boards of several local arts nonprofits including The Lab and the Stern Grove Festival, and says the Bay Area community isn’t just desperate for local government support. They’re also waiting for federal aid to materialize from the so-called Save our Stages Act, a $15 billion aid package signed into law last December.

“That is going to provide some relief,” Kurland says. “But the application process has not begun.”

Yet the resilience and creativity he’s seeing across the Bay Area arts community gives Kurland reason for hope. For starters rents have been dropping in the Bay Area. And, he says, as the Bay Area becomes more affordable, the local arts community will bounce back.

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“I think there's opportunity right now,” Kurland says. “I think that is a silver lining from the pandemic.”