Santa Barbara’s Arts Community in
the Pandemic Era
How Organizations Creatively Pivoted to Reach Audiences
By Charles Donelan | Published July 16, 2020
Three weeks ago, we planned this issue as a guide to the reopening of the arts in Santa Barbara. The speedy coronavirus raced ahead of our intentions, and, like everyone else, we had to reconsider what seemed more predictable than it really was. Santa Barbara’s arts organizations ordinarily plan far ahead, but COVID-19 has imposed a kind of paradox on them. When in-person services shut down in mid-March, many people in the arts were already working on what they would be doing in 2022 and beyond. Within weeks, the whole intervening period was put into question; by the time two months of quarantine had passed, the death of George Floyd had sent protesters into the streets all over the country in numbers not seen since the 1960s. It was as though the virus, along with our wobbly response to it, had exposed the ugly stitches of institutional violence suturing an unhealthy and unequal society.
Fortunately, even a pandemic can’t stop artists, performers, and the organizations that support them from doing great work. To understand the ways in which the arts in Santa Barbara have been transformed by these extraordinary times, the Independent sent out a survey. Many people and organizations responded, and we plan to continue gathering that information and providing a place for it both in print and on Independent.com so that people can report and find out what’s happening.
The observations that follow were drawn from the survey results and from a score of recent interviews with various arts leaders. While we could not possibly aspire to a comprehensive account of such a diverse and dynamic topic, we invite our readers to become sources and to have their voices heard as we continue telling this deep, multifaceted story.
Pull Up to the Show
Once mostly consigned to the dustbin of entertainment history, the drive-in movie theater has, thanks to the pandemic, experienced an abrupt and unexpected return to relevance. First the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura partnered with CBF Productions to open the Ventura County Fairgrounds parking lot as a live music venue; then, on Wednesday, July 15, at 8:30 p.m., UCSB Arts & Lectures moved their beloved free outdoor Summer Film Series from the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Gardens to the West Wind Drive-In in Goleta, featuring the film A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks as the coach of an all-female professional baseball league in 1943.
Arts & Lectures’ screenings remain free, and the series this season caters to all ages with “Game On,” a sports film theme. Patrons are invited to set up chairs around their cars, but they are also required to wear masks and observe social distancing. The next film is the ever-popular The Karate Kid on Wednesday, June 22, and the series continues on Wednesdays through August 19. Whether this impromptu solution can revive the intense loyalty that grew up around the screenings at the courthouse is anybody’s guess, but there’s no question this is one of the biggest examples yet of thinking outside the indoor box. See artsandlectures.ucsb.edu for the full schedule.
For those willing to drive a few extra miles and spend money, the Rubicon’s concert series at the fairgrounds in Ventura presents an attractive option. There are four more events scheduled, each of them running for three nights at 8 p.m., offering a total of 12 opportunities to experience a 75-minute concert performed on a raised stage platform, bounced to four giant LED screens, and audio broadcast to your car’s radio. Look for some very well-known special guests to join Jim Messina when he takes the stage there August 17-19. See rubicontheatre.org.
Open On-Site Now
Art galleries like Sullivan Goss and outdoor facilities such as Lotusland and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden have been able to reopen by limiting the number of people admitted at any one time and observing safety protocols. Several dance studios, including the Dance Hub and the Santa Barbara Centre for Aerial Dance, continue to offer in-person classes by observing social distancing. The Dance Hub reports benefiting from strong interest among its members in virtual classes, and the Centre for Aerial Dance was among the first organizations to record expressions of artists’ responses to the pandemic in a series of short videos called “body/antibody.”
The Santa Barbara Historical Museum has been busy presenting free online talks and docent-led children’s lessons online. They plan to reopen in person on July 25 with a free outdoor exhibition on the history of Fiesta. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art reports that its popular (and free) Summer Art Camps were filled in record time this year despite the fact that they must be offered virtually on Zoom. The SBMA also delivered hundreds of art kits to children in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria that include art supplies and coloring pages featuring images of works from the permanent collection. They look forward to announcing their official reopening dates for on-site visits on July 22. In the meantime, see sbma.net/events/sbmaathome to learn more about their rich virtual offerings.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara will also be open again as soon as the governor’s office issues its next set of guidelines. The Genevieve Gaignard show Outside Looking In, which opened right before the shutdown, has been extended so that it can again be visited by the public.
The new Museum of Sensory & Movement Experiences located in La Cumbre Plaza plans to open its doors for the first time this summer. Director Marco Pinter describes this innovative space as “a new way to experience art completely,” yet he also assures me that despite the emphasis on interactivity at MSME, contact with common surfaces is not required to enjoy these startling displays, many of which were developed by graduates of UCSB’s Media Arts and Technology program.
The Major Performing Arts Venues
Although all organizations have struggled, it’s the city’s precious theaters and music venues that have thus far sacrificed the most. The Granada Theatre, the Arlington Theatre, the Lobero Theatre, the Marjorie Luke Theatre, SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, and the mighty Santa Barbara Bowl have all been closed to live audiences since mid-March, and, thanks to the Stage Four status of “concerts and festivals” as outlined in the governor’s plan, their futures remain uncertain. For a look at what SOhO and the Bowl are planning, see the special coverage of live music venues by Miranda de Moraes.
At the Lobero, David Asbell and producer Byl Carruthers have organized a live streaming alternative to the in-person concert experience in the hope that it will eventually allow more flexibility when the time comes for a gradual return to capacity. At the Granada, which is home to the Santa Barbara Symphony, CAMA, Opera Santa Barbara, the Music Academy of the West, and the State Street Ballet, among others, reopening continues to be a big question. At this time, both the Santa Barbara Symphony and Opera Santa Barbara have events scheduled there for as early as September and October 2020. In-depth, recent conversations with both Nir Kabaretti of the Symphony and Kostis Protopapas of Opera Santa Barbara revealed the extent to which Santa Barbara benefits from extraordinary leadership in this regard. Expect to hear more very soon from them, and from Rodney Gustafson of State Street Ballet, about how some of our city’s biggest locally produced shows will go on.
One encouraging insight I gleaned from Kabaretti and Protopapas is that Santa Barbara, thanks to its robust community support and its optimal size — not too big, like Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and not too small either — may lead the nation in conceiving and executing safe reopening plans. As Kabaretti pointed out, “the word ‘local’ means more now” that musicians cannot travel so freely, and, as Protopapas asserted, “no one can keep you safer than a stage manager.” Wise words from two veterans of some of the most intricate and highly organized events in all of the performing arts.
Education to the Rescue
At the same moment when the vexed issue of schools reopening is making so much news, I am delighted to report that many of the brightest spots in this research appeared when I turned to the area’s arts education programs. It seems that when it comes to the much-discussed pivot to remote learning, our educational institutions are providing a multitude of vivid and engaging examples. These programs are so elaborate and so successful that they deserve entire sections devoted to extolling the many virtues of what they have managed to do in the last three months.
MARLI: The Music Academy of the West’s Online Season: When I last reported on the Music Academy of the West’s MARLI program, it was in the planning stages. Since then, this four-week virtual version of our city’s most ambitious music education program and festival has blossomed into one of the web’s most impressive and joyous classical music experiences. Thanks to the talents of the academy’s faculty and fellows, and to an enormous effort on the part of the staff, participating musicians around the world received technical assistance, including special equipment kits, and that has allowed them to not only stay in regular contact with their teachers but also to begin producing spectacular online content.
Online content advisor Joyce Kwon, whose choral/solo arrangement of the song “(Sometimes I Feel Like a) Motherless Child” can (and must!) be seen here, has been working tirelessly since June to support the development of artist-driven video productions like her own. Kwon put me in touch with Gabrielle Pho, a returning MAW fellow who plays the horn, and who is sheltering with her family in Utah. Pho is working on a video performance that will feature her playing a section of From the Canyon to the Stars by Olivier Messiaen that’s titled “Interstellar Call” outdoors in Utah’s Bryce Canyon. Messiaen wrote the work after a visit to the state, and he composed it as an elegy for a dear friend. Pho, who recently lost her uncle, an aerospace engineer who died at the young age of 55, plans to memorialize him and to celebrate Messiaen’s visit to the American west with this unique video offering.
For Kwon, the support of the MARLI technical staff and the inspiration provided by the fellows have come together to create something new in the classical music world. “These artist-driven videos make the music more accessible,” she told me. Personal storytelling by the individual musicians gives listeners a porous surface through which to experience the music more intimately. Digital production skills are now compulsory for young musicians, according to Kwon, and with live in-person performances prohibited, the current situation “calls for unprecedented approaches.”
At the same time that MARLI is providing young musicians with the tools to go global, the academy’s grant-making Alumni Enterprise Awards program has been supporting the efforts of musicians who seek to make a difference in the world beyond the concert hall or the web. One recent morning, I spoke with violist Molly Carr (MAW ’07) and pianist Anna Petrova (MAW ’17) from their campsite in Jackson, Wyoming, about Novel Voices, the debut album the duo just released as part of their Refugee Awareness effort. Thanks to receiving an Alumni Enterprise Award, the pair has spent the past two years traveling the world and visiting refugee camps where they play music, conduct interviews, and provide moral support to displaced people. The album takes its name from a haunting three-movement composition by Fernando Arroyo Lascurain that incorporates sounds and musical idioms that Carr and Petrova encountered on their trip. In addition to their work in support of refugees, in April, the duo began livestreaming one-on-one concerts to patients hospitalized for COVID.
While a full report on the whole range of MARLI would require another whole story longer than this one, no account of the program would be complete without mentioning how easily you can enjoy it from home. The Music Academy posts a new video online every day at 5 p.m., and all of it is worth watching. To get started, head for the “Concert Hall” section at musicacademy.org, which features the vocal fellows in The Many Adventures of Hansel and Gretel, the brass ensemble in Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and the festival orchestra playing Haydn’s London Symphony. These performances received an extra helping of studio magic on their way to the web, and they represent the state of the art in the recording, mixing, and presentation of music made by ensembles of musicians in widely separated locations. From every point of view — technical, musical, and emotional — they will blow you away with their virtuosity and kinetic sizzle.
Theater Journeys to Zoom and Beyond: As a dedicated theatergoer, I was understandably bereft when things shut down. I had been looking forward to so many of the upcoming shows, such as Ensemble Theatre Company’s American Son, and none of them were happening. Since that time, however, live theater online through Zoom and other streaming technologies has flourished, and Santa Barbarans are in the vanguard of the movement.
Within the first few weeks of lockdown, UCSB’s theater department began using Zoom to present plays from its Launch Pad program. Soon the elite cadre of playwrights who have benefited from Launch Pad’s development process had banded together to write a series of short pieces expressly designed for the nascent medium. Launch Pad founder Risa Brainin rallied her troops and gave the university’s BFA students an incredible opportunity to show their talents when the 24 short plays premiered in one marathon day on June 6.
Next, UCSB theater department chair Irwin Appel found an outlet for his energies as director and actor with Arizona’s Southwest Shakespeare Company. Appel directed three full Shakespeare plays while acting in one and appearing in multiple roles in a fourth. By the end of the school quarter, including class work with his UCSB students, Appel had directed an astonishing five full Shakespeare plays on Zoom in a period of a little over two months.
Another distinguished area theater professor, John Blondell of Westmont College, also found inspiration in the new medium, and he created a marvelous version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya called Vanya in Quarantine with actors from all over the world meeting simultaneously on Zoom and streaming the results on Facebook Live.
Blondell followed that with A Midsummer Night’s Quarantine, a short film that was edited together from footage that each of the actors recorded separately. That short film is still available at vimeo.com/432935077.
Back at UCSB, other faculty members such as Anne Torsiglieri and Michael Bernard also helped their MFA students create amazing work throughout this period of desperate uncertainty.
What Matters Now
What’s driving this outpouring of theatrical creativity? The answer is simple and refreshingly positive. What these professors of theater have in common with one another, and with the faculty at the Music Academy, is their commitment to giving their students whatever they need to become the next generation of great performing artists. Whether that’s through rehearsals and theaters and costumes or by performing online from makeshift sets in their childhood bedrooms, they will still get to do meaningful work in the present moment.
With that in mind, consider one more promising development from the time of COVID. On the Verge, the upstart summer theater festival founded by Kate Bergstrom, Riley Berris, Jessica Ballonoff, and Josiah Davis, and employing a cadre of students, teachers, and local talent, has been operating for several years using alternative models of producing and space to make world and regional premieres of new plays. From humble beginnings, these young artists created a safe space for truly inclusive theater in Santa Barbara. By prioritizing female, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ perspectives, and by producing work by emerging playwrights such as Roxie Perkins, Michael Perlman, and Thais Francis, they remade the theater experience here at a grassroots level. In addition to new play development with their OTVReads initiative gearing up for next summer, OTV is currently focused on the urgent work of audience engagement in social justice. Their OTVAmplifies series, a sequence of virtual town halls intended to boost black voices, has its next virtual meeting on July 29. The timing could not be better.
PINTS FOR PRESS
The Santa Barbara Independent Pints for Press presents:
“New Theater Now”
Wednesday, July 22, 7 p.m., live on Zoom. Join Indy Executive Arts Editor Charles Donelan for a panel discussion about the ways in which area arts organizations are responding to the pandemic and to the increasing public awareness of systemic racism in American culture. Participants include Ensemble Theatre Company’s Jonathan Fox, Out of the Box Theatre Company’s Samantha Eve, On the Verge’s Kate Bergstrom, Lit Moon Theatre Company and Westmont College’s John Blondell, UCSB’s Irwin Appel and Risa Brainin, PCPA’s Mark Booher, and SBCC’s Katie Laris. See independent.com/pintsforpress for details.