Taking the 60-piece Vancouver Symphony Orchestra on an open-ended road tour like a fledgling rock band is not what Igor Shakhman, the group’s executive director, had in mind for fall 2021. But that’s what the resurgent coronavirus has forced, he said.
Last month the orchestra scrambled to relocate to the Newmark Theatre in Portland. This month it will debut in more a local, less orthodox location: the ilani casino and resort.
“It’s not a perfect solution, but we are always up for an adventure,” Shakhman said.
What will happen for the seasonal concerts in December, when both the Newmark and the casino are unavailable, remains unclear.
All across Clark County, the arts are struggling with a difficult rebirth. While many patrons are eager to return to plays, concerts, art galleries and poetry readings, official health guidelines and an abundance of caution mean that many performance spaces remain problematic, if not prohibitive, for live arts events.
After already rescheduling once, Woodland’s tiny Love Street Playhouse almost scuttled its production of “Shadowlands,” a popular romantic play about British author C.S. Lewis.
“We are a small and intimate venue and we felt that the only way to safely do the show would be to distance our patrons and actors,” states a web post by Love Street artistic directors Melinda and Lou Pallotta. “By doing that, we calculated that we would only be able to fit about 20 people in the audience per show. It was not going to work.”
Fortunately, a couple of local beneficiaries offered needed solutions: financial help from Benno Dobbe, owner of Holland America Flowers, and a viable space to perform in Longview’s 815-seat Columbia Theatre (the recent recipient of a grant from Vancouver’s own M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust).
“The Columbia Theatre had a time slot available that could work for us,” Melinda Pallotta said. “We needed a larger venue and they needed the income. It worked for both parties.”
Tickets are on sale now, and “Shadowlands” opens in Longview on Oct. 29.
Will it crack?
Dance companies have begun rehearsing, but nobody knows yet whether annual productions of “The Nutcracker” can appear on school stages or not. That’s because local school districts have decided to curtail virus risk by putting off all indoor space rentals to outside groups.
“As for our holiday productions … we are waiting with bated breath, but forging ahead with rehearsals, costuming and preparations,” said Carla Kendall-Bray, director of Dance Fusion Northwest and Northwest Classical Ballet. “We’ve all had a million lessons in resiliency and forging new paths. Finding places and ways to perform is yet another one.”
Columbia Dance intends to stage its “Nutcracker” at Skyview High School’s big, sophisticated auditorium, but it’s also prepared to move the show back into its own 2,700-square-foot downtown studio, add better theatrical lighting and livestream the show as well.
“The bottom line is: The show will go on,” said Becky Moore, Columbia Dance director.
Full swing, with proof
The dilemma isn’t dire for groups with their own space, either owned or leased. In downtown Vancouver, a two-weekend run of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” filled seats to the limit (accounting for social distancing) inside Magenta Theater’s 150-seat auditorium, said David Roberts, executive director.
“Attendance was beyond expectations and revenue was at about 70 percent of normal. Not great, but pretty good for staging a show in a pandemic,” Roberts said. “People were especially vocal and appreciative of our safety precautions, which seemed to go smoothly with no incidents.”
Metropolitan Performing Arts, which leases a suite in a strip mall on Mill Plain Boulevard, is busy with classes and upcoming live shows like “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Heathers: The Musical,” said Barbara Richardson, executive director.
“Luckily, we have our own black-box performance space, so those performances will be happening on our site,” Richardson said. “We are in full swing of our regular programming, taking necessary precautions with temperature checks, masks and keeping class sizes small. Cast members of age are vaccinated, same with artistic team and staff members.”
Audiences must be vaccinated too, she added.
No performance activity has been more curtailed than group singing, which spreads the coronavirus so effectively, one early 2020 choir rehearsal in Mount Vernon became notorious as a superspreader event that infected many singers and took several lives.
Since then, pandemic isolation has been especially lonely for choir singers, according to Jana Hart, music director of the 70-voice Vancouver Master Chorale.
“One singer told me that she felt … like a part of her was missing for the last year,” Hart said.
But now that they’ve procured $20-apiece singing masks, Hart said, the choir is back to rehearsing at nearly full strength at its regular home, Vancouver’s First Presbyterian Church. The accommodating masks aren’t perfect, Hart said, but they provide extra room for nose and mouth so singers can breathe and enunciate normally.
Also, she added, singers are coming prepared, watching and listening carefully, as well as adapting as needed.
“Everyone is extremely flexible,” Hart said. “During a rehearsal, we often have to quickly switch to Plan B and/or Plan C. Such is life in the time of COVID.”
(Just a few singers have not returned because of virus fears or vaccine refusal, she said, and new auditions are increasing the ranks again.)
Members of the group still stay distanced while rehearsing, which forces Hart to conduct extra-emphatically to be seen and understood.
“On the downside, I have to conduct with big patterns and gestures, and yell a lot. After rehearsal I am exhausted,” she said.
She’s hoping the masks are unnecessary in time for the choir’s holiday concerts, set for Dec. 11 and 12, which will feature local instrumentalists too.
“We want to include an orchestra because it is awesome,” Hart said, “and also to create paid jobs for local instrumental musicians. They were all hurting this past year.”
The coronavirus pandemic has underlined the dearth of theaters and concert venues in Clark County, whose largest arts organization has no permanent home.
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra regularly performs in the Skyview auditorium. Vancouver Public Schools’ September decision to hold off on renting any indoor space to outside groups sent Shakhman scrambling for a quick replacement. Moving a whole orchestra — and its large audiovisual crew — is not like moving a rock band, he said with a laugh.
He is grateful that the Newmark Theatre was available, but audience turnout definitely took a hit, he said.
While the orchestra has survived the pandemic surprisingly well, he said, that is due in large part to crucial government pandemic-relief and other grants. Canceling any performance would still be catastrophic in terms of both reputation and ticket sales refunded, Shakhman said.
Unfortunately, Shakhman said, both ilani and the Newmark Theatre are unavailable for the orchestra’s planned December concerts. So are several Clark County megachurches that he tried.
“It is ironic that we must fight for survival at the end of a pandemic,” Shakhman said.
But he vowed to solve the problem. The Ukrainian immigrant said he arrived in the United States with next to nothing, and that music has saved his life many times over.
“I believe in what I do on a very existential level,” he said. “Stopping is not an option.”
On the waterfront
One long-sought, long-term answer would be a Southwest Washington Center for the Arts. That been a dream for decades, but now that the city of Vancouver is making plans for the Waterfront Gateway development in a 6.5-acre area south and west of City Hall and the Hilton Vancouver Washington, deep-pocketed donors have been calling to say, “We’re in,” according to Center for the Arts spokeswoman Kathy McDonald.
The group envisions a 1,250-seat auditorium plus a “flex” theater with movable walls and seating for 200 to 300, McDonald said. That could be the perfect venue for local theater groups, she said.
The Center for the Arts has designers and architects eager to work on the project.
“They are excited to work with us,” she said. “Aren’t we all excited about the waterfront?”