SARATOGA SPRINGS – In a typical year, Labor Day is a sign that summer entertainment is over. This year, the passing of Labor Day is a reminder that it really didn’t happen.
A live theater event was a rarity. Museums didn’t start opening until August and very few live music events were available. Major venues like SPAC, Tanglewood, and Jacob’s Pillow never had a live performance. Music, theater, dance and opera have been absent from area stages.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, it would seem this was the summer of our discontent.
But to the contrary, I would rather refer to his phrase, “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears a precious jewel in his head.”
Today the adversity is clear: it’s the pandemic. The jewel less clear. I see the jewel as the way artists are responding to the Coronavirus pandemic in a way that has been courageous, innovative and focused. Few have surrendered.
Indeed, this was a season of amazing accomplishments that illustrated the determination and ingenuity of creative people to express their art. It was a period when artists looked outside themselves to realize not only do they have stories to tell, but those stories have purpose. This year artists added depth and understanding to political and social causes.
An example of this determination to create art is Julianne Boyd of Barrington Stage Company and Kate Maguire of Berkshire Theatre Group.
Both women fought bureaucracy, naysayers, and at times the elements to produce live theater. It happened under tents and were compliant with the strict safety rules established by local and state governments as well as with Actors’ Equity Association.
“Harry Clarke” was a thrilling one-man drama at Barrington Stage and “The Hills Are Alive” was a needed musical respite from the isolation we’ve endured. At Berkshire Theatre Group, “Godspell” showed how a musical that’s been around for 50 years and is based on material 2,000 years old, can have contemporary meaning.
In March, no one thought it could happen. In August, many were grateful it did.
Their hard work and devotion to their craft, their community and their audiences was inspiring. That the work happened was amazing, that the work was of high quality was a minor miracle.
It also was a summer where artists found their voices within social causes. It started after the May 25 death of George Floyd. Marches protesting the death happened all over the country. Some included violence.
But the June 7 March in Troy was without incident. Contributing to the communal nature of the Troy March was that local artists created an environment conducive of social awareness. Because of the violence in other cities, downtown businesses covered their store windows with plywood to protect them. However, almost spontaneously, visual artists started painting mural-like images and creative interpretations of slogans that related to the movement on the plywood. They transformed the look of a city under siege to an outdoor museum articulating the emotions of an important social movement.
Theater artists also contributed their sense of grief to Floyd's death by joining together to create a sense of community and understanding as to the Black Lives Matter’s movement.
In late June, Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York, led by Jean-Remy Monnay, reached out to the theater community inviting them to unite with him to express their heartache and concerns over Floyd's brutal death. Monnay’s company and six other companies produced “8:46.” It was seven pieces, each offered in 8-minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time a knee was held on Floyd’s neck. It was produced online with the technical support of Capital Rep and Troy Foundry and unified an entire community. It was a powerful commitment to a social movement that was given added emotion and insight by concerned artists.
Not all artistic acts were political. Also recognized was the need for people to find a relaxing environment. Cities and towns changed street traffic flow to permit music and dining to take place. Troy established a socially distant zone called Summer Square where people gather near Monument Square and the Troy Music Hall to eat, listen to music and enjoy crafts and lectures. Live music is offered Wednesdays thru Saturdays.
Other bold and innovative attempts were made to keep music alive. Both the Troy Music Hall and Proctors looked to convert drive-in movie spaces into concert sites. They combined a live music concert with a film that reflected the theme of the music offered to provide a safe and unique evening of entertainment.
Most significant was the manner in which artists tried to help other artists. Venues like Caffe Lena held online concerts with a significant portion of the donations going to musicians. Quarantine e-Theatre used local actors to produce new plays online created by local writers. They gave all donations to area not-for-profit theaters. Area costumers have united to make face masks which they distribute to hospitals and nursing homes.
Most everyone realizes that the crisis is still with us. As things move indoors the challenges to reach audiences will be great. However, the actions of the past several months give hope that the artistic community will continue to shape the dialogue on social concerns.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.