By Sharon Hoyer
June in Chicago is the start of festival season, when long stretches of warm days signal a bloom of dance, music and theater on stages both indoors and out. The summer of 2020 will be different and, we pray, a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly. Chicago infection and mortality rates continue to rise and a timeline for reopening the city is unknown. One thing is certain: the Pritzker bandshell, Grant Park, and venues large and small will wait a season before throngs return for concerts, plays and performances.
But a few small, nimble organizations have found creative ways to shift online and hold modified, virtual versions of the live festivals that ware planned for June. Edgewater-based Pivot Arts Festival was scheduled to present dance, film, theater and multidisciplinary performances in small venues across the far North Side. When the stay-at-home order was announced in mid-March, director Julieanne Ehre considered what an online festival would mean. “We were about to hire a marketing manager and send out a press release. March and April is when we’re getting print materials and advertising ready,” Ehre says. “The timing of Covid was such that I just hit the brakes on everything. I worked with the board and cut the budget in half.”
By eliminating all print materials, space rental and travel costs, festival funding went to paying artists and a small staff, including a videographer and web designer to move performances online. Some parts of the program shifted readily to the format, and address social justice issues that have been made clearer. The Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project will present “The Long Term,” an animated video using personal narratives to describe the impact of long-term prison sentencing. “Again, another tragedy made worse,” Ehre says. “The arts program cannot happen in the prison right now. Those artists—and we refer to them as artists, not inmates—are endangered more as the virus runs rampant in prisons.” The stream will include a discussion between creator Damon Locks, a civil rights attorney, and artists and activists affected by long-term prison sentencing.
“The Long Term” will be followed by a stream of three short films from the In/Motion International Dance Film Festival. In/Motion executive director Amy Wilkinson curated the program for what felt appropriate in a time of isolation, selecting films that have a mix of gentleness and humor. Wilkinson, while grieving the absence of community created by an in-person festival, sees silver linings to a virtual festival. “Art, on a whole, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so the very fact the festival exists and allows people to share is an absolute necessity right now. It’s an outlet for people to share and create and have something to focus on,” she says. “We’re so fortunate to live in an era with this technology—people have tools they’ve never had before to get creative with. Unique and fun and experimental things happening. That’s what art-making is all about. Creativity has the tendency to explode in times of scarcity because there’s no other option.”
Of course, not every artist is keen to pull digital technology into their practice, making creating and sharing work under quarantine difficult-to-impossible for some. Ashwaty Chennat, curator of Mandala Makers Festival, presented by Mandala South Asian Performing Arts, wants the virtual edition of the festival to provide space for these artists to share their struggles as well. Like Pivot Arts, Mandala decided early to move festival programming online even as the ground was shifting rapidly under everyone’s feet. “In the first week of shelter-in-place, I reached out to the artists to see who might be interested in doing this virtually. We were all candid about how we were unsure how to recreate the experience with the limited resources we have at home,” Chennat says. “After talking to all the artists, individually and together, I decided to open up the festival to whatever the artists want to share at the time. If they just want to share that they can’t create at this time, I think it’s important to hear how this time is [affecting] artists. These are people making life so much richer and more vibrant. Artists feed our souls and I want to draw awareness to how they are dealing with this situation.”
The Mandala Makers Festival is slated to include mini-performances, live music, visual art, storytelling, rehearsal video footage and demonstration lectures by over a dozen South Asian artists, but much of the programming is to be determined. “I’ve become so open in terms of what we’re presenting,” Chennat says. “A few of us will be on a livestream in a conversation about our artistic processes and how they’ve changed or paused or been frozen. I feel like I need to have a few more conversations to know who is interested in sharing that. It’s a day-to-day thing. I want to respect people’s needs and space.”
Flexibility and adaptability are the pliant foundations upon which these small festivals are being constructed. None are presenting what was originally planned the way they planned to do it. Two dance companies slated for Pivot program will present video excerpts of work to be performed live later—a documentary about an L.A.-based writer-performer will temporarily stand in for his planned appearance; an immersive live play by Seth Bockley will be transformed into an interactive video game—but the capacity to rethink performance art in a virtual space is a testament to the resiliency of these small organizations. “The big festivals don’t have the luxury of an organization of our size that’s already doing adventurous programming,” Ehre says. “For now we’re better positioned than big festivals that have to have thousands of people show up to pay their artists.”
Luxury isn’t a word we hear these days, especially in the context of small arts organizations. “It’s a hard time psychologically, and it’s a hard time to do all the logistics,” Wilkinson says near the end of our interview. “Being able to work while isolated or, for many people, taking on the roles of care-taking for children and other people in their lives. For those artists and presenters to continue to do work and put it out there, it’s inspiring. I’m really grateful to be included in it.”