Editorial: What our resilient arts community taught us during the pandemic
Fourth in an Opinion series
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
In mid-March, Illinois' theaters and music venues went dark.
What we all hoped would be a brief hiatus stretched on through spring, summer, fall and, now, into winter.
Though the state's pandemic reopening plan allowed for movie houses and museums to welcome visitors for a time before COVID-19 numbers spiked again, live theaters and concert halls have remained closed and will stay that way until Phase 5, which is likely still months away.
But while these beloved institutions were shuttered, their artists were not silenced. From the very early days of the pandemic, they found ways to fulfill their craft, to entertain, to inspire and to keep the arts alive.
In their nimble responses and their resilience, they embodied some of the most important lessons of the pandemic. They adapted. They evolved. They shared. And they nurtured their impulse to create in innovative new ways by focusing on what they could do -- instead of what they could not.
Oil Lamp Theatre in Glenview filmed a one-woman comedy "Bad Dates," starring Lisa Dawn of Lisle, and then made it available as a drive-in screening and online. First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook dipped into its archives to stream past productions. Writers Theatre in Glencoe helped keep a holiday tradition alive with a one-man version of "A Christmas Carol," while Goodman Theatre reinterpreted the classic as a radio play.
Chicago's Strawdog Theatre created a theatrical-cinematic hybrid for "Run the Beast Down," a one-man play about loss and isolation. Invictus Theatre Company livestreamed its digital revival of "'night, Mother," a two-hander with actresses working from their homes and viewed via split screen. Steppenwolf Theatre commissioned a whole new digital play, with "What is Left, Burns" unfolding over a Zoom call.
Musicians, meanwhile, did their part by livestreaming solo shows and adding drive-in concerts when health conditions, and the weather, allowed.
Recognizing the economic fallout of COVID-19, many performers and theater groups made their shows free or pay-what-you-can as a generous gift that helped distract us from the darker days of the pandemic and gave us alternatives to endless nights of Netflix.
Yet, those very same artists -- and the venues they call home -- are hurting. Some Chicago theaters have closed permanently; suburban music venues are on an extended hiatus. Many are in need of donations to stay afloat.
In its Giving Tuesday appeal, Chicago's Windy City Playhouse reminded potential donors that financial support is vital, now more than ever: "Our industry has been forced to reduce our primary source of earned revenue, and cease the thing that defines us: in-person performance."
Those performances will resume, but the industry needs help to move forward. When the pandemic is largely behind us and the focus shifts to economic recovery, culture must be a part of that larger discussion. The arts, after all, do more than just stir our souls; they contribute billions to the economy. In Illinois alone, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, arts and culture industries provide more than 224,000 jobs and more than $30 billion in income.
For that reason and so many others, we must support the arts -- individually and as a nation.
In an interview with Daily Herald theater critic Barbara Vitello, First Folio Theatre founder David Rice acknowledged the toll the pandemic has taken on the arts, but he remained upbeat about the future.
"We're all looking forward to that point somewhere down the road when we can get back to live theater," he said. "Until then, we keep plugging away doing the best we can."
And that best has been nothing short of inspiring.