Gray Areas: Arts, entertainment show resilience during pandemic

When 2020 started, I was thinking, “How am I going to cover everything?”

The Robins Theatre in downtown Warren was ready to start the year with an ambitious slate of concerts, stage productions and other attractions.

The Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre would have its first full season in operation. Based on the caliber of shows JAC Management attracted for its abbreviated 2019 debut, expectations were high for the new year.

The Medici Museum of Art in Howland was preparing to unveil the Boy Scouts of America’s art collection, which included more than 60 original works by Norman Rockwell.

These were some of the new attractions that would demand time and coverage in an area that already had a wide assortment of concert venues, community and college theaters, museums, galleries and other arts attractions.

By St. Patrick’s Day, the question had changed to, “What am I going to cover?”

COVID-19 affects everyone and everything, but the disruptions to the arts and entertainment are unique.

JAC was able to do a couple of summer shows at the Youngstown amp, but the Covelli Centre hasn’t had a concert in 10 months. Musicians occasionally got together and jammed on the empty stage at the Warren Community Amphitheatre, but there was no River Rock at the Amp this summer. The W.D. Packard Concert Band hasn’t played a note in months.

The Robins showed classic movies, but that slate of 2020 shows was pushed back to 2021. Stambaugh Auditorium became a set for filmed productions by Opera Western Reserve and Ballet Western Reserve while its stage (and its seats) stayed empty. The same for Packard Music Hall and Powers Auditorium.

But in looking back at 2020, what stands out is the resilience of the arts in the Mahoning Valley.

Think about the different paths groups have taken to continue creating while much of the country shut down. Millennial Theatre Company, Youngstown State University Theatre, Opera Western Reserve and Rust Belt Theater Company are among the performance groups that took their productions online, learning and incorporating new skills in order to make that happen.

Rust Belt founder Robert Dennick Joki literally kept the rent paid at its Calvin Center performance space by making more than 1,000 face masks in the early days of the pandemic.

Trumbull New Theatre actually performed the thriller “Wait Until Dark” for live audiences by moving from its intimate Niles performance space to the the larger Robins Theatre, where spectators had room to socially distance. Kudos to the Robins for making the venue available to groups like TNT and Jordan School of Ballet.

Ballet Western Reserve filmed its production of “The Nutcracker” and converted Eastwood Field into a drive-in in order to keep that holiday tradition alive. Easy Street Productions took its “Miracle on Easy Street” to television.

Westside Bowl pivoted from a bowling alley / concert venue that also sold food to a carryout food business. Its efforts also reflected the generosity of the community as folks donated pizzas that could be claimed by those in need of a meal.

Musicians who depend on live gigs as primary or supplemental income sought out new ways to monetize their work, either through online performances or creating accounts on such sites as Patreon. Others have used the lack of performance opportunities to focus on writing and recording new music, which should make for a fruitful new year.

The coronavirus undoubtedly muted the celebration that would have accompanied the debut of the Rockwells at the Medici, but the art is on the walls and there for the enjoyment of the public.

I’ll be honest, I’ve become a bit of a germophobe in 2020. But some of the places I’ve felt most comfortable in 2020 are museums / art galleries. It’s easy to wear a mask and stay socially distanced. And there’s nothing to touch. I felt safer looking at the Clyde Butcher photographer exhibition and Ed Wheeler’s whimsical fusion of masterpieces and Santa Claus at the Butler Institute of American Art than I have in any of my shopping experiences.

But I miss live music. I see dozens and dozens of concerts a year, both for work and on my own time. Since seeing Blue Oyster Cult at the Robins in early March, the only live music I’ve heard in person was the Sunshine Riders to open the Austintown Park outdoor concert series, a drive-in concert by JD Eicher in a church parking lot and a bit of the Labra Brothers when they performed at Record Connection for Record Store Day.

I’m happy the latest COVID-19 relief packages includes some support for concert venues, which I hope will help them survive through these still-uncertain times.

After seeing the efforts to keep making music, to keep making theater and art and all forms of creative expression, I’m optimistic that sometime — soon, I hope — I’ll be saying once again, “How am I going to cover everything?”

Andy Gray is the editor of Ticket. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com.


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