The Center and Resident Companies Talk About Saving The Arts!

October 2020

When Gov. Holcomb ordered the statewide shutdown of all nonessential businesses as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Center for the Performing Arts and all six of its resident companies were forced to cancel shows—some that very day—and the rest of their seasons were completely derailed.

Upon reading the news that Broadway doesn’t anticipate illuminating its stage until May 30, 2021—at the earliest—I felt compelled to reach out to the Center’s CEO/President Jeff McDermott and a few of its resident companies that I have covered over the past decade. I asked them to share what they have been doing to creatively work through the pandemic as well as express their thoughts on how critical the community’s support will be to maintaining the resident companies’ viability. We also discussed how the arts—both visual and performing—are essential for communities to create cultural and unifying bonds. Simply put, if we do not support these organizations now, they may not be there when we need them to be the most.

The Palladium

McDermott recalled that the Palladium was setting up for the U.S. Army Field Band concert on March 12, 2020, when the first executive order for statewide closures came down.

The Center for the Performing Arts

“The [order] shut it down, and it was heartbreaking telling them to load up their trucks and that the show had been canceled,” McDermott shared. “We rallied over the next couple of days to figure out a path going forward. Unlike some other arts organizations around the country, we took a different approach—closing down and shuttering the doors and windows was not an option.”

The Center and its resident companies met to discuss everyone’s options and plans over the following days, weeks and months.

“We’ve been working closely with the resident companies and their leadership, putting our heads together to come up with the best protocols to keep us all moving forward, safely,” McDermott expressed. “I’ve said numerous times that I think the Center, its resident companies and arts in this community are truly part of the spirit of this community and have to be part of the solution.”

The Center and its resident companies have pivoted their programming by introducing virtual programming and web-streaming shows. The Center is also producing hybrid programs for both virtual and in-person audiences for many of its educational and outreach programs.

“We’ve invested in technology for livestreaming and filming,” McDermott said. “I think the more that we can do to bring back as much of the [live entertainment] as possible, as soon as possible, and be as safe as possible, is really part of our obligation to the community.”

While working through the current challenges that the pandemic has brought upon the Center and its resident companies, McDermott shared that the Center’s board and staff are planning for a full 2021–22 season, which will also commemorate the Center’s 10th anniversary season.

“If we don’t plan it now, then it won’t happen,” McDermott said. “We know we will have to make adjustments, but our goal is for it to be our biggest and best year ever. We’re assuming that social distancing will apply, which limits the audience, so many of the artists that we’re working with have agreed to do two shows for the price of one so it becomes easier for us to absorb some of the financial hits. We’ve got to be in position to bounce back quickly, which is why I’ve been insistent that we can’t shut down. It will take a long time to start the engine back up, so while it’s been purring and not roaring, the engine is still running.”

The Civic Theatre

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre has survived more than a century’s worth of economic downturns and national crisis. And it plans on emerging from this pandemic stronger than ever before, but, again, that outcome will be determined by its ability to adapt and the ongoing support of its patrons and donors.

Executive Artistic Director Michael J. Lasley spoke with me about what the Civic is doing to persevere through this most challenging year that has doused the house lights, leaving only a ghost light to fill an otherwise desolate Knebel Stage in the Tarkington.

The Center for the Performing Arts

“It’s the nature of our business to work 60-, 70-, 80- and 90-hour weeks most of the year, burning the candle at both ends,” Lasley said. “And then it was like the brakes were suddenly put on and everything just stopped. We had to reinvent ourselves and learn new skills. We’re pretty adaptable as theater artists, but to suddenly be thrust into becoming internet producers and TV producers and whatever else we’re trying to figure out—and make it all happen overnight—has been exhausting for all of us. We’ve had to develop an entire new set of skills in what’s felt like 48 hours at times.”

Lasley shared that as the lockdown was going into effect, the Civic was three hours from opening “A Few Good Men” and the subsequent shows that had to be canceled thereafter. The Civic quickly pivoted its programming to virtual classes and experiences, like their fellow resident companies. But until working and proven therapeutics and vaccines are available to the general public, Lasley isn’t convinced that the 500-seat theater will see near- or at-capacity audiences in the immediate future.

“I told my staff not to count on the 98% capacity that we had for “Elf” in December of 2019 until December of 2024,” Lasley stated. “Until there are therapeutics and vaccines, it’s important that we don’t just cease to exist. We have to find ways to stay relevant, even if we’re just clawing to the edge of relevant for a short period of time. I worry about us as an organization. We’re 105 years old, and I tell myself every morning, ‘Please, God, not on my watch.’”

Lasley continued, “I am optimistic as we’re looking at our various options for the holidays. We are looking at doing a short 35- to 45-minute show aimed at children that we can do multiple performances with a small house that is socially distanced and while following the guidelines. And I can tell you that one way or the other, “Elf” is going to be available for streaming—if not this year’s production, it will be our production from last year. We’re excited about that.”

The Civic does have productions scheduled for the first half of 2021 and is looking at offering streaming opportunities in addition to offering a grossly reduced number of in-person tickets to adhere to the social-distancing guidelines.

The Center for the Performing Arts

“I really believe that it’s going to be the local theaters and local arts that will come back first before the [national] tours and back before Broadway,” Lasley expressed. “We don’t have the financial realities that they have, and I think we have the commitment of our community. I really believe that our community will help us survive. But without their support, we may not be there on the other side of this.”

Carmel Symphony Orchestra

Like their fellow resident companies, CSO had to quickly reinvent itself and redefine its purpose throughout the pandemic. CSO Artistic Director Janna Hymes shared what CSO did to pivot and to keep its musicians playing and to provide a needed injection of culture and civility through music.

The Center for the Performing Arts

“We had a concert on a Saturday in March and were told a few days before that the Palladium was going to be closed [due to COVID-19],” Hymes recalled. “Up until that moment, we had been going, going, going, and then suddenly, we ran into a brick wall. The first thing I did was take a deep breath and thought that I’ve got to get these musicians playing or doing something, whether it’s through digital or virtual means, because [playing] is not only how they express themselves, it’s how they pay their bills and feed their families.”

CSO went into “emergency mode” and started producing videos and interviews with CSO musicians. It even hosted a virtual online summer camp for audiences of all ages. They were in full creative mode in spite of the limitations imposed on the arts community due to the unknowns regarding the novel coronavirus.

“We began playing outside with small ensembles and kept coming up with innovative ideas,” Hymes enthused. “The team was great! I think the hardest thing was reinventing and coming up with ways to stay ‘alive’ because closing the doors was never an option for us. The major orchestras had to close down, and I understand that because their overhead is so enormous. They can’t afford to have a reduced audience of 200 people, and streaming is not going make up the difference. The benefit of being a smaller orchestra is we can have small ensembles playing—socially distanced—all over town.”

Over the summer and leading into fall, CSO ensembles have performed at Anthony’s Chophouse in Carmel, at the Carmel Farmers Market on July 4 and at the grand opening of the Hotel Carmichael. CSO recently performed its first live concert at the Palladium since the pandemic struck our community, and though it was in front of a significantly reduced audience, it was a powerful and emotional performance enjoyed by all. CSO has been recognized—nationally—for its innovative programming over the last several months.

“We’re all over and becoming something way bigger than we ever were,” Hymes shared. “It gives our musicians an opportunity to play in a small and intimate setting. And as much as we need to hear music, we need to make music. It’s who we are.”

The Center for the Performing Arts

While the world waits for vaccines to be made available, CSO is moving ahead with its plans for the 2020–21 season. Hymes confirmed that while it will be downsized and in accordance with the Palladium’s COVID-19 guidelines, CSO will be performing its annual “Holiday Pops” this December.

“We’re also going to be expanding these small ensembles next spring and fall and make these programs even bigger,” Hymes explained. “There’s no reason why we can’t be playing in Fishers, Zionsville, Westfield and playing all over—outdoors. We are getting even more creative with how and when we play. We have great sponsors and supporters that we will need to continue to rely on, and with that support, our season’s going to look a little different, but it’s still going to be really enjoyable and with a real sense of purpose.”

Actors Theatre of Indiana

I spoke with ATI’s co-founders Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell and Judy Fitzgerald about how they have been engaging central Indiana with their innovative pivots to their programs that continue to offer high-quality professional theater performances and programs amid the pandemic. The award-winning Equity professional theater company is the ONLY professional resident theater company in Hamilton County.

The Center for the Performing Arts

But like their fellow resident companies, they too are relying heavily on the community’s support and patronage in order to keep their lights on and continue to support the vast number of professional and AEA (Actors’ Equity Association) actors, staff and creative minds that ATI employees.

“Everyone who’s involved in the arts, whether it be the performing or visual arts, is made of sterner stuff,” Collins said. “We’re in a volatile profession anyway as actors, and we’ve built up a thick skin because we’re used to things not going as we want them to always go. That’s just the way it is—there are no guarantees in the arts.”

Fitzgerald added, “The three of us come from a performing background; we didn’t come from the producer side [of this industry], so we’re used to reinventing and figuring out what we have to do. If we had given up after every audition or every time something didn’t work out, we wouldn’t be where we are now. So, we already know that the tide will turn, and it will be OK, so we can’t just give up.”

Having worked their way out of the trenches before, Farrell expressed, “We’ve been here before in 2008. I remember the three of us talking, and we said that if we can survive this, then we could survive anything. Like we did then, we have to be as lean and mean and innovative as possible and put all of our energy into making ourselves mobile and versatile.”

All three ATI co-founders emphasized their gratitude to their families and their extended families, including donors and subscribers, for their ongoing support and belief in the quality of work and the value their outreach programs have in our community and throughout central Indiana.

“We love our subscribers and donors and are humbled by their support,” Farrell expressed. “Our ATI family has grown even more so from our initial family units to our subscribers, and we appreciate all of them just as much as our own flesh and blood.”

Fitzgerald continued, “We would not be standing today without the support of our families. They gave us the startup money, serve on our boards and continue to support us in countless ways.”

Since March, ATI has been entertaining its audiences in a myriad of creative ways that include their Friday night Facebook Live and Zoom shows and, most recently, their ATI Drive-In Theatre shows.

“People need an escape in these stressful times, and we know what the power of culture and art can do,” Farrell stated. “We have to be out there for our community because our community has been there for us.”

“We’re lucky to be able to do outdoor concerts with the drive-in concept,” Collins shared. “It’s been a wonderful collaboration with the city, who’s a season sponsor of ATI. And we’re going to do a holiday concert after Thanksgiving—that’s going to be really big deal, and we’ll bring in special guests for that concert.”

In closing, please continue to support the Center for the Performing Arts and all of its resident companies. If possible, donate what you would’ve paid for tickets or a season package and invest in our community’s future as a place where the arts not only come alive but continue to thrive!

For more information on any of the upcoming performances by all of the resident companies, visit thecenterpresents.org for links to the respective companies’ websites.

The Center’s Resident Companies

Actors Theatre of Indiana atistage.org

Carmel Symphony Orchestra carmelsymphony.org

Central Indiana Dance Ensemble ciaodance.com 

Civic Theatre civictheatre.org

Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org

Indiana Wind Symphony indianawindsymphony.org