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The Arts Endure

The Arts Endure
The Arts Endure
The Arts Endure
Presenting Arts Events During the Pandemic

Using unique spaces, exploring innovative partnerships with artists, and safely gathering arts-starved patrons: Virginia Arts Festival has found creative new ways to continue to present arts events during the pandemic that has closed performance venues across the United States and around the world.

“After the venue closures started happening in March and April, and municipal and state rules regarding gatherings were put in place, we were forced—like all the other arts organizations—to cancel or postpone our spring Festival. The response from fans and artists was anguished and immediate. We knew we had to find a way to carry on,” said Robert W. Cross, the Festival’s Perry Artistic Director.

Working closely with local and regional health officials, Cross and his staff created an ambitious plan that allowed the continuation of performances and events while maintaining the safety of audiences, artists and staff as the highest priority. By mid-fall, the Festival had presented 17 live performances and an art exhibit, and welcomed more than 5,000 patrons—safely social-distanced—to its events.

Thinking differently about performance spaces and brainstorming with partners was key to the process. Observing social distancing rules and maximum attendance orders, they quickly focused on the Festival’s outdoor Courtyard as a safe space for performances—both for artists and for audiences.

“We had been planning our coproduction of A Soldier’s Play with the Virginia Arts Festival for months,” explained Norfolk State University Theatre Company Director Anthony Stockard. “When the pandemic happened, that dream seemed to die—until we put our heads together and resized the production for the Festival Courtyard. It was a renewal of hope for the audiences who had been looking forward to seeing this Tony Award-winning play, and an object lesson for our student actors: the show must go on.”

The six August performances of A Soldier’s Play sold out, and the hunt to fill the Courtyard with diverse and entertaining performances was on. Working with area musicians, Cross booked a series of concerts in the Courtyard, showcasing the region’s rich artistic resources. Classical musicians gathered for morning and evening chamber music performances. Local jazz artists welcomed the chance to perform again for their fans. Each performance limited seating to 50, with chairs properly social-distanced between parties. Festival staff worked with patron reservations to arrange seating safely for all. And though the audience seats were a safe distance from the artists, the size of the Festival’s Courtyard made the artistic experience intimate and enjoyable.

“The Virginia Symphony Orchestra had canceled performances, the Festival’s regular spring chamber music series had been canceled—because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunities to perform abruptly ended”, noted VSO harpist Barbara Chapman. “I was so happy to be invited to perform in the Courtyard concerts, to make music again with my friend, Debbie Cross and to see so many friendly faces in the audience!”

Local jazz legend Jae Sinnett echoed Chapman’s enthusiasm. “It was great to be in front of a jazz-loving crowd again. Music adds so much to the quality of life, and having the opportunity to share our music live again was wonderful.”

Audiences responded just as eagerly, and the fall concert series sold out as well.

In one of the most colorful events in the Courtyard, the Festival presented a lively show for Tattoo fans called the Courtyard Cèilidh in two performances Saturday, October 10. The dictionary defines cèilidh as a social event at which there is Scottish or Irish folk music and singing, traditional dancing, and storytelling—and that’s what fans got by the bagpipe-full at this popular event. The Festival’s Virginia International Tattoo has brought thousands of fans each year to an awe-inspiring show that gathers performers from around the world, including massed bagpipe bands, drum corps, dancers and more--but in 2020 the pandemic’s travel bans and restrictions on large gatherings made the Tattoo impossible. For a dedicated bunch of Tattoo fans, the Courtyard Cèilidh brought back sweet memories, and dreams of Tattoo shows to come.

One of the most popular events of the Virginia Arts Festival’s experimental season was its presentation of the exhibit Michelangelo—A Different View. Featuring state-of-the-art reproductions of the fabled Sistine Chapel frescoes, the exhibit allowed visitors to see these iconic masterpieces up close for the first time. Presented in Norfolk’s MacArthur Center, the Michelangelo exhibit welcomed more than 4,700 patrons—double the Festival’s projections. Additional performances were added to meet demand. Remarkably, the audience count included visitors from Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and more. A survey of exhibit patrons revealed that 61% of attendees visited a restaurant and 40% visited a retail outlet in conjunction with seeing the exhibit.

“We know that the arts are good for business,” noted Cross. “Over our 25 years, the Virginia Arts Festival has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Hampton Roads region, filling restaurants and hotels and making cash registers ring. The Festival’s municipal and business partners have been hurt by the pandemic, just as we have. Driving traffic to area businesses was an important part of our planning.”

Like many other arts organizations, Virginia Arts Festival has turned to the digital world to engage patrons. Its most recent venture was its exclusive presentation of a live-streamed concert with Grammy Hall of Famer Judy Collins and the North Carolina-based band Chatham County Line. Recorded live in Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall, the concert was streamed on October 23 and 24, drawing thousands of fans from across the country and around the world.

Normally, the spring and fall are key periods for the Virginia Arts Festival’s broad-reaching Education programs. But the pandemic presented seemingly insurmountable barriers to those programs—until the Festival’s committed staff swung into action. The Festival’s Rhythm Project program has long been one of the most impactful of its arts education projects. In this innovative program, students in elementary, middle and high school are instructed in steel drum performance, instilling discipline and inspiring creativity among students and winning rave reviews from educators who see a real improvement in participants’ behavior and learning. Select students are invited join the Rhythm Project All-Stars and perform for the public; past performances have included shows in the Caribbean, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts, and more. In August and September, the Festival’s Rhythm Project All-Stars brought their joyous sound to four free area performances—two at the Virginia Beach oceanfront, one in Norfolk’s The Plot, and one from the Festival’s Outdoor Courtyard which was live streamed online. Happy audiences danced along to the island sound of the steel drum performed by these area students.

“The pandemic has driven kids indoors, and disrupted their school routines, often with negative results,” noted Festival Rhythm Project Director Dave Longfellow. “Being able to gather the kids for rehearsals and performances keeps their spirits up, and it’s a valuable reminder for them that discipline and hard work lead to great things.”

With the challenges of remote learning, arts education and its unique ability to engage and inspire students has become more important than ever. With many classrooms closed, or with pandemic regulations regarding group size and social distancing, bringing in-classroom live arts experiences became impossible. Finding a new way to deliver this vital experience was paramount, and Festival immediately began working with education partners to provide vital and impactful experiences.

Festival Director of Education & Community Engagement Christine Foust reached out to some of the great artists who have visited area classrooms in the past, arranging with three classical music ensembles and a dream Broadway line-up to provide 45-minute videotaped lecture-demonstrations. Each includes introductions from the artists about the composer, reflections on the music’s historical context and significance, and the musical concepts embodied in the works. A boon for area middle and high school band, orchestra, chorus and theater students, these videos keep students engaged in their studies in a time when it’s all too easy to become stagnant. As with past live in-classroom experiences, the Festival Education team is working with educators to integrate the new video programming into the curriculum, and to offer live Zoom discussions and masterclasses that help teachers continue to engage their students after the performance has ended. This new education programming has been embraced by educators in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Chesapeake schools as well as area private schools.

When the pandemic first began, many hoped that the quarantine would be short-lived, and shuttered businesses, including arts venues, would reopen soon. Now, more than six months later, no one can say when business will return to “normal,” making it more important than ever for arts organizations to continue to find new ways to connect. “We don’t know what the future will bring, as far as COVID-19 is concerned,” explained Cross. “But we do know that people are hungry for the arts and the joy that they bring. We will continue to work with health officials, venue partners, and artists from around the globe to find safe and creative ways to bring live performances to our community.”

Virginia Arts Festival Events Presented Summer-Fall 2020

Norfolk State University Theatre Company
A Soldier’s Play
August 5-15, 2020
Festival Courtyard, Clay & Jay Barr Education Center, 440 Bank St., Norfolk

Evening Classical Concert
Friday, September 25, 2020 
Debra Wendells Cross, flute
Elizabeth Coulter Vonderheide, violin
Luke Fleming, viola
Jake Fowler, cello
Haydn, Flute Trio No. 1 in C major
Beethoven, String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3
Mozart, Flute Quartet in D major, K.285
Festival Courtyard, Clay & Jay Barr Education Center, 440 Bank St., Norfolk

Evening Jazz Concert
Thursday, October 3, 2020
John Toomey Trio: John Toomey, piano; Jimmy Masters, bass, and Brian Caputo, drums
With Eddie Williams, saxophone
Festival Courtyard, Clay & Jay Barr Education Center, 440 Bank St., Norfolk

Morning Chamber Music Concert
Wednesday, October 7, 2020
Debra Wendells Cross, flute
Barbara Chapman, harp
Arrangements of Baroque and Classical sonatas, works of women composers, and traditional folk music
Festival Courtyard, Clay & Jay Barr Education Center, 440 Bank St., Norfolk

Courtyard Cèilidh
Saturday, October 10, 2020
Tidewater Pipes and Drums
Glencoe Lads with Connie Austin Smith
Sara Rhodes Zimmerman of Rhodes Academy of Irish Dance
Highland dancer Emily Brubaker
Festival Courtyard, Clay & Jay Barr Education Center, 440 Bank St., Norfolk

Evening Jazz Concert
Saturday, October 17, 2020
Jae Sinnett Trio
Festival Courtyard, Clay & Jay Barr Education Center, 440 Bank St., Norfolk

Michelangelo: A Different View
August 7-30, 2020
MacArthur Center, Norfolk

Rhythm Project All-Stars
Saturday August 19 & Saturday, August 26
Virginia Beach Oceanfront, 24th Street Stage

Saturday, September 19

Festival Courtyard, Clay & Jay Barr Education Center

Saturday, October 24

Norfolk’s NEON District: The Plot

Artists creating arts education content for fall 2020:
Seraph Brass
Catalyst String Quartet
Akropolis Reed Quintet
Rob Fisher, Broadway music director & conductor, with Meredith Lustig, soprano

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