As March 2020 began, Ossining’s Westchester Collaborative Theater (WCT) had just begun to celebrate its ten-year anniversary with the upcoming Living Art Festival, an event combining a specially-curated art gallery and live theater performances. Then came March 13, and everything went dark.
The WCT was certainly not alone in having to abandon its performing space. Countless arts venues of all types and sizes across the state have been shut down since the start of the pandemic, from independent concert halls to the legendary theaters of Broadway. “Nobody had a plan for this. Nobody knew what it would be,” says Alan Lutwin, Executive Director of the WCT. “All we knew was that we had lost our home.”
Following the abrupt shutdown, many venues began to explore the option of streaming performances via online services such as YouTube or Zoom. “The online model, for us at least, is mostly about keeping the lights on, and giving visibility to local and emerging artists,” says Bjorn Olsson, Executive Director of the Tarrytown Music Hall. That organization, like others such as the Irvington Theater and Sleepy Hollow’s Friends of Music, has been able to stream concerts online since shortly after the outbreak began.
Classes offered by local performing arts groups have been very conducive to video conferencing, and have allowed the WCT to continue its trademark theater workshops.
“It’s the essence of our company,” says Lutwin. “It’s where plays begin; it’s the incubator, where the nurturing process starts.”
Video streaming and conferencing may be new tools for the performing arts community, but even after the pandemic runs its course, they will help groups reach audiences they otherwise couldn’t. “Audiences may not be able to drive to Westchester to see a show, but they can watch it from the comfort of their home at two in the morning,” says Susan Abbott, Director of Grant Programs for ArtsWestchester.
Abbott’s organization works to serve the Westchester arts community in a variety of ways, including as an advocate and liaison with local government – something especially important during these uncertain times. “We’re having conversations with the county and appealing on the state level for guidance on how or when to open, and open safely,” she says. “These venues are all having the same problems, and they’re all asking the same questions.”
ArtsWestchester has also launched major fundraising efforts to support local organizations, many of which have also relied on grants, loans, and private donations to keep their venues afloat. Overall, these groups have received an unprecedented outpouring of support from their communities. “We’ve learned how beloved this theater is to its community,” says Olsson. “It’s fostered a new sense of community, a sense that we’re all in this together.”
Another encouraging development is the Save Our Stages Act, part of the recently passed federal stimulus bill, which allocates $15 billion to venues and cultural institutions for rent, mortgages, and utilities.
There is a sense of cautious optimism among the Westchester performing arts community going into the spring and summer, with many planning on holding outdoor events once warmer weather allows. The WCT is hoping to mount a “Parking Lot Theater” production working with the Village of Ossining and MetroNorth.
Susan Abbott is convinced of the adaptability and perseverance of the community. “Everyone’s still going. They’re programming, they’re planning, they’re looking to the future,” she says. “There’s a sense that, if we can make it through into the warmer weather, we can open up safely one way or another.”
Bjorn Olsson notes that the period following the 1918 flu pandemic was the most intense theater building period in American history, and is convinced that arts venues will come back even stronger than ever. And, as Abbott observes, “Everyone we work with has a mission, and that’s to serve, and to engage, and to make art. And we’re with them on that.”
Christian Larson lives in Peekskill, having recently moved from Brooklyn, where he worked for NY1 News. He is a writer, podcaster, and event planner. capngoodtimes.com