Birmingham arts groups struggle during pandemic but seek to adapt, move forward

Birmingham arts groups struggle during pandemic but seek to adapt, move forward
Members of the Alabama Ballet during a performance before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Like other arts groups, the ballet is adapting to the new reality. Two major productions were canceled this year, but the company is moving back into live performance with a studio production this month and plans for "The Nutcracker" at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex in December. (Alabama Ballet)

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the U.S. economy hard. Millions have lost their jobs. Thousands of small businesses have closed.

Nonprofits have been hurt as well, including the arts and cultural organizations that enrich our lives. Birmingham Ballet announced in July it would close indefinitely.

Iron City Ink surveyed most of the large arts groups and venues in Birmingham to learn how they’ve adapted.

“I’ve worked with most of the performing arts organizations in this community, and they’re responding to the crisis just as I would expect them to respond,” said Kelly Dean Allison, chair of the UAB Department of Theatre. “They don’t give up. They adjust.”

Groups were asked what they’ve planned for the fall, live or online.

These plans could change due to the pandemic’s fluid nature, so be sure to check the arts groups’ websites and social media for updates.

THEATER

► Birmingham Children’s Theatre

Three productions were shut down when COVID-19 hit in March, but Birmingham Children’s Theatre in the past six months:

  • Created the video series #AtHomeWithBCT, featuring theater lessons and entertainment for children.
  • Moved its popular summer camps, including the new Imagine Outside the Box, to a virtual format.
  • Created the Cardboard Puppet Theatre online.

“They say necessity is the mother of invention, and while we all long to have roaring audiences in our theater spaces again, there are some beautiful ideas being discovered right now,” said Ashley Woods, interim executive artistic director of BCT.

“The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus,” a one-performer show by Eric Coble, will tour schools for outdoor performances through Nov. 20 and be available virtually.

For details, call 205-458-8181 or go to bct123.org.

► Birmingham Festival Theatre

The venerable Birmingham Festival Theatre is down but not out after canceling the majority of its season.

“The board has been focusing on getting financial aid, which has been difficult,” said Rhonda Erbrick, board president. “The rent and bills are still there, so we’re constantly on the lookout.”

BFT has worked on its website, and the play selection committee “has not stopped reading and planning future seasons,” Erbrick said.

Dates haven’t been set, but BFT hopes to offer some shows this fall, perhaps recorded or outdoors, “while keeping everyone safe,” Erbrick said.

Bottom line, BFT – in Five Points South for nearly 50 years – will be back.

“We’re not going anywhere and will push through this,” Erbrick said.

For information, call 205-948-7033 or go to bftonline.org.

► Birmingham-Southern College Theatre

Theater faculty and staff began preparing for the fall by staying in contact with students, learning about safety and health precautions, and exploring video and socially distanced options, said Alan Litsey, Theatre Department chairman.

One fall production is planned, and the spring will feature two shows, including a Shakespeare comedy.

For now, only the fall production has been announced:

  • “Made in America” (Oct. 22-24 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 25 at 2:30 p.m., College Theatre main stage). Written and performed by BSC students, the show is built around the prompt, “Today my world is …,” with each actor writing about life amid the pandemic and instances of racial injustice. Face coverings will be required for all attendees and seating will be limited. Admission is free.

Call 205-226-4928 or go to bsc.edu/academics/theatre.

Alabama Ballet company dancer Andres Castillo lifts fellow dancer Madison Ryan at Vulcan Park. Many Birmingham arts groups have found ways to keep the arts flame burning despite the unprecedented difficulties presented by COVID-19. (Erin Nelson)

► Red Mountain Theatre Company

Though it canceled all fall performances, Red Mountain Theatre Company is building its new facility in Parkside near Railroad Park, said Drew Francis, marketing director.

“We continue to stay engaged with our community as we raise funds for the completion of the arts campus,” he said.

All live events have been canceled until the opening of the new arts campus in June 2021, Francis said.

In the meantime, some RMTC conservatory classes will be held in person this fall.

For information, call 205-324-2424 or go to redmountaintheatre.org.

► Terrific New Theatre

When Terrific New Theatre closed its doors after a few performances of “A Doll’s House” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2” in March, Executive Director Tam DeBolt thought it would be temporary, perhaps two weeks.

But for TNT, at least in its Pepper Place location, it was permanent. On July 31, DeBolt and others moved TNT out of its longtime facility, and the theater is in “hibernation,” she said.

“Things have not halted,” DeBolt said. “We have been applying for federal, state and local assistance. We have had ‘angels’ in Birmingham, both organizations and individuals, show their financial support for TNT. Our board of trustees continues to meet regularly … to make important and difficult decisions about TNT’s future.”

That future includes a “post-pandemic existence,” according to DeBolt.

“We will start a refreshed and vigorous campaign for capital funding and will be finalizing plans for our new location,” she said.

There will be some online programming. TNT plans to continue its new internet series, “This ‘n That from TNT,” which started in August.

For more information, call 205-328-0868 or go to terrificnewtheatre.com.

► Theatre UAB

After canceling one of its three spring productions, the folks at UAB have been regrouping, “determining how to move forward and provide opportunities for our students to create,” said Kelly Dean Allison, chair of UAB’s Department of Theatre.

“Adversity leads to innovation if you don’t simply give up,” Allison said.

“We’re learning many new things that will make us better artists when (the pandemic) it’s over,” he said.

A fall outdoor performance was considered, but “there were simply too many unknowns,” Allison said.

Three virtual events are planned for the fall:

  • Freshmen Showcase, an online, prerecorded event for first-year students.
  • Student Spotlight Series, also prerecorded.
  • “Virtual Theatre Project,” a combination of live, streamed and prerecorded content. For more, go to https://vimeo.com/447609732.

For more information, call 205-934-8777 or go uab.edu/theatre.

The Virginia Samford Theatre has a full slate of productions planned for fall and spring. (Talia Pepke)

► Virginia Samford Theatre

The Virginia Samford Theatre has a full slate of productions planned for fall and spring, along with new processes to keep performers and audience members safe.

The staff at VST is “resilient and resourceful,” said Ben Burford, VST’s marketing director.

Those processes include selling only half the available seats in the theater, blocking rows for social distancing, requiring masks, doing temperature checks and sanitizing the theater between shows.

“We realize the importance of making our patrons feel safe and comfortable coming back to the theater,” Burford said.

Here’s the remainder of the VST fall lineup:

  • “The Fantasticks” (Oct. 15-25). The classic musical features songs, such as “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “Try to Remember.”
  • “Disney’s Frozen Jr.” (Nov. 12-22). VST’s youth program, STARS, presents the musical that spawned the song “Let it Go.”

For details, including the spring schedule, call 205-251-1228 or go to virginiasamfordtheatre.org.

DANCE

► Alabama Ballet

The coming of COVID-19 in March forced Alabama Ballet to cancel the rest of its season, including two major productions. The Alabama Ballet School was also closed.

Company dancers have since been unable to rehearse or perform, said Tracey Alvey, the troupe’s artistic director and CEO.

“We share in the challenges with all the other arts organizations in the metro area and understand that we are all facing a difficult road ahead,” Alvey said.

However, a few dancers who quarantined together performed at the Birmingham Arts Drive-In at UAB this summer, and the company offered classes online.

The company was able to hold its Summer Intensive and other camps with strict safety guidelines.

The Alabama Ballet School opened Aug. 17 with adapted health and safety policies.

Best of all, Alabama Ballet will present live shows for its 2020-21 season.

The troupe will open its season with an in-studio performance, “At Home,” Oct. 16-18, to be live-streamed and performed outdoors at Avondale Brewery.

The first major production, “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” will be presented Dec. 17-23 at BJCC Concert Hall.

For information, call 205-322-4300 or go to alabamaballet.org.

MUSIC

► Birmingham Music Club

Birmingham’s oldest cultural arts organization – it’s 115 years old – has canceled several events because of COVID-19, including its Young People’s Concert, formerly scheduled for Oct. 21 at the Alabama Theatre.

In July, the BMC presented a live-streamed jazz concert on the Lyric Theatre stage. More than 7,400 watched it, said Ron Bourdages, BMC executive director.

Right now, the BMC hopes to return live when it’s safe.

“Nothing can take the place of a live performance for an audience,” Bourdages said. “And we want to thank our sponsors for sticking with us, even though it is not business as usual and we can’t present live concerts.”

For information, call 205-253-1313 or go to bhammusicclub.org.

► Opera Birmingham

Opera Birmingham canceled its main-stage performance of “Cinderella,” the Opera Gala fundraiser and its 42nd Annual Vocal Competition.

However, the organization is “adapting to the times,” said Eleanor P. Walter, director of marketing and community engagement.

Opera Birmingham uses YouTube and other social media to post daily, including videos of past performances. The organization developed a new video series called #OperaCarpoolKaraoke.

Opera Birmingham needs tax-deductible donations “now more than ever,” Walter said.

Call 205-322-6737 or go to operabirmingham.org.

► Alabama Symphony Orchestra

The Alabama Symphony Orchestra has canceled or postponed 40 performances and events since March, said ASO spokesperson Taylor Stewart.

Like other groups, the ASO went online to remain engaged with its audience.

Digital content included “Tuneful Tuesday,” a weekly segment of ASO musicians playing pieces from Mozart to the Beatles.

The symphony took part in the prerecorded Birmingham Arts Drive-In event on the UAB campus this summer.

“It is our genuine hope to welcome patrons back into the concert hall as soon as it is safe to do so,” Stewart said.

ASO will move its previously announced 2020-21 performances forward to the 2021-22 season.

The ASO will “redefine the current season through a virtual lens” and “interact with music lovers on a digital platform,” according to a symphony news release.

For information, go to alabamasymphony.org.

A panel from Jacob Lawrence’s “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross, opening at the Birmingham Museum of Art in November. The museum reopened Tuesday after being closed most of the year because of COVID-19. (The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

VISUAL ART

► The Birmingham Museum of Art closed March 15 and canceled all programming. However, staff continued to create digital offerings and prepare five exhibitions that open this fall, said Cate Boehm, the museum’s director of marketing and communications.

The BMA created #BMAfromHome, a landing page on its website that includes digital exhibitions, art-making games and activities, gallery talks and artist interviews.

The BMA reopened to visitors on Tuesday, Oct. 6. “There is plenty of space to spread out at the BMA and safely return to the incredible cultural experiences we have to offer,” Boehm said.

Here are the new exhibitions:

  • “Wall to Wall” will fill the lobby and cafe with works inspired by Birmingham and created by Alaska-based Merritt Johnson.
  • “All Things Bright and Beautiful” is an exhibition of contemporary works that illustrate the importance of being seen, choosing how to be depicted and telling one’s own history. This exhibition takes its name from a painting by Amy Sherald.
  • “An Epic of Earth and Water: Clare Leighton and the New England Industries Series” will highlight 12 wood engravings created by Leighton for Wedgwood and inspired by New England whaling.
  • “Ways of Seeing: Buildings and Monuments” is an exhibition of 60 rarely seen objects from the BMA collection that encourage visitors to view Birmingham’s built landscape with new eyes.
  • “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” opens Nov. 20 and features a series of historical paintings created in the mid-1950s by Lawrence, one of the greatest narrative artists of the 20th century.

For dates of the exhibits and digital programming, go to artsbma.org.

► The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) on the UAB campus remains closed. AEIVA has gone online to remain connected to its supporters, said Lili Anderson, executive director of visual and performing arts at UAB.

For example, AEIVA partners with the Department of Art and Art History to host an annual student art show, and this year the opening reception was held virtually.

In addition, AEIVA has posted gallery talks, interviews and free virtual activities with guest artists on YouTube.

AEIVA’s “A la Carte” exhibition, running through Dec. 12, explores the culinary perspective of art, offering “arts talks” with special guest artists and chefs.

For details, go to uab.edu/aeiva.

LARGE VENUES

► The Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center

The Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center at UAB was forced to cancel or reschedule many events in the spring, including big-name music concerts and the ArtPlay Parlor Series.

But the ASC adapted. “When the stay-at-home order was given, we quickly pivoted,” Anderson said. “Within two weeks we began creating videos, and by the third week we began providing engaging Zoom events.”

For example, ArtPlay and the Institute for Arts in Medicine conducted a variety of summer art camps for children and teachers workshops via Zoom.

The ASC hosted virtual meet-and-greets and performances with famed musicians.

In July, the Alys Stephens Center partnered with Alabama Ballet, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Opera Birmingham and Red Mountain Theatre Company for the free Birmingham Arts Drive-in. Performances were filmed at the ASC and shown on a big screen on the UAB campus.

To see digital content, go to alysstephens.org/arts-on-demand.

For more information, including details about the new Virtual Arts Pass, go to alysstephens.org/events.

It costs $500,000 a year to maintain the Lyric Theatre, pictured, and the Alabama Theatre, both owned by the nonprofit Birmingham Landmarks. Because of COVID-19, the group has had little revenue this year. (Alabama NewsCenter)

► The Alabama Theatre and the Lyric Theatre

These historic venues – both owned by the nonprofit Birmingham Landmarks Inc. – have been hit hard by the pandemic, said Executive Director Brant Beene.

“We have had more than 100 events either canceled or postponed,” Beene said. “Since mid-March we have been virtually without revenue.”

And during this time, “the bills for building maintenance don’t stop,” he said. It costs the nonprofit $500,000 per year to maintain the theaters.

The organization hosted a dozen streaming events, each of which brought a few donations. It considered opening the Alabama Theatre lobby as a bar, but there’s “virtually zero bar traffic anywhere in the city,” Beene said.

So Birmingham Landmarks’ mission for the fall is simple. “Fundraising, fundraising, fundraising – It is our best hope for survival,” Beene said.

Birmingham Landmarks has also launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $500,000 for the theaters. To donate, go to bit.ly/savethealabama.

► Alabama School Of Fine Arts

One of the jewels of downtown, the Dorothy Jemison Day Theater at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, has been dark since mid-March.

“ASFA performances were canceled along with Red Mountain Theatre Company’s summer professional season and parts of Sidewalk Film Festival that would have normally been in the theater,” said Katie Roach Dudley, ASFA marketing director.

Many of ASFA’s events, including visual art shows and music recitals, were streamed online.

This fall, ASFA is continuing to present classes and performances remotely. ASFA began an initiative called ArtWorks @ The DJD. The DJD Theater took applications for grants for professional artists to create original theater, music, art, writing and dance content.

For details, call 205-252-9241 or go to asfaschool.org or djdtheater.org.

A deep-sea diver in an exhibit at the McWane Science Center before COVID-19 temporarily closed its doors. The facility reopened in July and has followed strict safety protocols during the ongoing pandemic. (McWane Science Center)

MUSEUMS

► McWane Science Center

“Like our community partners and fellow nonprofits and businesses, this has been a difficult five months,”said Amy Templeton, president and CEO of the McWane Science Center.

But on July 8, the facility reopened with strict safety protocols. “It’s been incredible to hear children and families learning and playing together,” Templeton said.

McWane was named Attraction of the Year by the Alabama Tourism Department in August, she said.

“Adaptation and creative problem-solving have been key to our sustainability,” Templeton said, noting that McWane has turned to its website and social media during the pandemic.

McWane is launching a Fall Learning Lab providing a safe learning environment for students unable to return to traditional classrooms.

Things are still challenging financially, since revenues have been down, Templeton said.

“We will continue to rely on donations,” she said.

For details, go to mcwane.org.

This story originally appeared in Iron City Ink.

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