Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

You Gotta Have Art: Sidelined by the pandemic, Harrisburg area artists wait, worry, wonder.

A scene from Open Stage’s “Angels in America Online. Photo by Dan McGregor

Help wanted for pandemic endurance. Must be resourceful, creative, resilient and thrifty. Artists, actors and musicians encouraged to apply.

Since a shutdown descended on the midstate, artsy people have unleashed their unique skills sets to deliver hope while, not insignificantly, shifting themselves into survival mode.

“When your business model is built around bringing people together, how does the organization survive in a world where people can’t be together?” said Stuart Landon, a force behind two of Harrisburg’s cultural cornerstones, Open Stage and Midtown Cinema.

In this climate, Harrisburg-area artists are putting performances online, soliciting donations and ticket sales, and generating new initiatives. It’s all meant to keep audiences connected until regathering time.


Makes Us Tick

Reina “76 Artist” Wooden waited 10 years to see her works hanging on the walls of the Art Association of Harrisburg. And maybe she still can see it—if she stands on tiptoe and peers through a window. Her joint exhibition with partner Charlie “Bootleg” Feathers, “Bootleg Meets R76,” opened not long before the gallery went dark.

“We achieved our goal,” sculptor Feathers said with a laugh.

The pair can no longer show and sell their work through galleries, but after all, most artists “are accustomed to working on shoestring budgets,” said Reina. “In times of trauma, the artists are the new army. We have the emotionality to heal.”

Still, artists gotta art. Reina and Feathers are making how-to videos on turning things at hand—dried-out clay, stacks of egg cartons—into art, posted under #togetherathome.

“I’m hoping this will slow us down and help us recognize the things we have and be grateful for that,” Reina said. The connection among humans “is art in itself.”

“The world is sowing its beauty,” she said. “It’s our calling to inspire people right now.”

Open Stage is also going virtual, having received approval from licensing house Broadway Play Publishing to revamp its planned “Angels in America” production into “Angels in America Online.” The Zoom broadcasts began in April and continue this month, with actors reading their lines from separate locations. Donors get a link to view the live or archived presentations of Tony Kushner’s epic of the AIDS crisis.

The play about a past “medical, spiritual and political crisis” remains pertinent, said Landon. “It’s very strange and very sobering—or haunting, rather—to hear how a lot of these words are just so relevant.”

In March, Gamut Theatre Group had to halt its presentation of “Enemy of the People,” Henrik Ibsen’s classic about the scorn heaped on a man warning townspeople about infection at a local spa.

Artistic Director Clark Nicholson said that he seeks inspiration in the age of the “Restoration,” when the British theater recreated itself after three decades of banishment. In those times “more dire” than ours, people were “being smart and being tenacious.” For 2020 and beyond, that means figuring out how to remain interesting and relevant without overloading the internet.

“What’s the sweet spot of a very imperfect product right now?” he said. “Because theater is not theater unless people are together in a room.”

Executive Director Melissa Nicholson added that artists are “a little bit better positioned to be openminded.” (Gamut, she noted, has offered state and county government officials use of its building if needed.)

Musicians are adapting, too. The Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra offered online master classes for its youth orchestra musicians. HSO is also streaming a previously taped Masterworks concert to its database. Its “Music in the Key of We” community celebration and Beethoven birthday bash, scrubbed from its original April date, has been rescheduled to Nov. 14.

“The orchestra’s strong,” said Executive Director Jeffrey Woodruff. “It’s been around for 90 years. It has its rightful place in the community and has been through many crises and will come out of this one just fine, sooner or later.”

Veteran jazz pianist Steve Rudolph’s busy 2020 itinerary used to include a fully booked JazZenJourney, the annual trip to Italy he leads with his wife, Andrea Minick Rudolph, and a recording session at the studio of filmmaker George Lucas.

“This was looking like one of the best years I’d have had,” he said. “Sometimes, you just have to laugh.”

For the duration, Rudolph is composing and, like the rest of us, reorganizing his office. He is Skyping with his ensemble, hoping to announce an online matinee or happy hour to “have some fun for a half hour and give some people a little relief.” He hopes to solicit donations to charities supporting musicians until, he joked, “in about a month and a half, I’ll be having people donate to me.”

On the pop scene, artists and audiences are missing out on the touring that has become their financial lifeblood. Country music artist Ben Gallaher, a Camp Hill native now based in Nashville, postponed a midstate stop and a tour to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, as the opener for country legend Joe Diffie, now lost to COVID-19.

“All my friends just came to a halt,” said Gallaher. “For the music industry, it’s not just artists that are affected. It’s band and crew members, business managers, agents, labels, venues, venue promoters, merchandise companies. There’s quite a trail there.”

Amid the Facebook Live and Instagram performances, hometown support is helping to sustain Gallaher. A show planned for early April at the Ned Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Millersburg was originally an indoor acoustic performance. The rescheduled June 20 show will move to the center’s amphitheater.

“So it’ll be full-band,” he said. “We’ll be rocking in June.”

Woodruff calls the arts “an essential part of life.”

“It gives sustenance,” he said. “We’re all so preoccupied with money, but it gives things other than money. It can be inspirational. It can give us solace. It can enlighten us. All these art forms give us a glimpse into our humanity and what makes us tick.”


Squeezing Dimes

At Gamut’s theater in downtown Harrisburg, the ghost lights are on. The heat is not.

“If you walked into Gamut right now, it is freezing,” said Melissa Nicholson.

As business manager, she is cutting expenses, talking to the bank, and—for the first time—exploring the world of Small Business Administration loans.

“Our number-one priority is keeping our people working,” she said.

Clark Nicholson agreed.

“I can talk a lot about artistic motivations,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, we’ve got a lovely theater that’s got a big old mortgage.”

Months of no ticket sales, gallery exposures or school classes are eroding one-third to one-half of artistic budgets. Artists are putting their faith in their loyal patrons, issuing emergency appeals and selling unconventional products, such as Open Stage’s discounted “Rainy Day” tickets.

“It’s important for us to say out loud that we need help getting to the other side so we can tell the stories that you need to hear,” said Landon.

The Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra is urging patrons to buy 2020-21 season tickets, “because the lifeblood of any organization is their subscriber base,” said Woodruff.

With a decent endowment and the net from a recent capital campaign, the orchestra had the wherewithal to pay its musicians.

“The board has the ultimate fiduciary responsibility to do what is best for the organization,” Woodruff said. “We had enough resources on hand to at least pay the players who were hired through the end of the season. We felt it was a very, very important thing to do.”


A Rebirth

So, what comes next?

In the fall of 2019, before the world turned upside down, Reina 76 Artist and Charlie Feathers invited friends to an open house, a sort of pop-up gallery from their art-filled home. When this is over, they swear, there will be another.

Rudolph worries about outcomes. Will jazz-friendly venues survive? Will an older-skewing audience fear coming out?

“I’m going to keep doing it whether it gets out there or not,” he said. “Jazz in itself is an introverted art. You’re playing for the music, but when there’s a great audience, it makes a difference in how you play.”

Arts organizations are planning upcoming seasons through a new lens. What can they afford? Is the topic timely? In Woodruff’s words, groups are honestly scrutinizing “what is possible, what is practical.”

Costs will probably loom larger than ever in selecting seasons, said Melissa Nicholson. As life returns to normal, maybe Gamut will sell fewer tickets and space the seats farther apart, she said. (Open Stage, too, is rethinking arrangement of newly ordered seating). In the meantime, artistic minds keep churning.

“When this is over and organizations have survived, the amount of stuff you’re going to see will be incredible,” said Clark Nicholson. “It’s like thoroughbred racehorses being held in the starting gate.”

Artistic types “have a particular skills set we can offer to the universe,” said Landon. “I feel very blessed to have this position and to be surrounded by such wonderful artists, able to create such beautiful pieces. This is a job at the end of the day, and it’s my job to lead this organization, to make sure this organization is going to be around for your children and your children’s children.”

Or as HSO’s Woodruff put it, “It’s springtime. Let’s be optimistic that we’re going to have a rebirth.”

Numerous arts groups were mentioned in this story. If you’re able, please donate generously to them.

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