As anyone who has spent a good amount of time in Berkeley knows, the city is a hub for the arts. In regular times, there is never a shortage of diverse shows and exhibitions to enjoy. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local arts institutions must be more creative than ever to keep their magic alive.
Each year, young artists at Youth Musical Theater Company (YMTC) produce multiple musical theater productions at the professional level. This year, that process is looking a little different. In order to allow for theater that complies with COVID-19 safety restrictions, YMTC constructed an outdoor stage in Aquatic Park to rehearse and perform its fall show, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Jennifer Boesing, YMTC’s artistic director, explained, “Everybody’s wearing masks, everybody’s six feet apart, and it’s all completely outdoors.”
Boesing described producing a show during a pandemic as “a totally brand new world.” She voiced several unforeseen complications, like the costume designer having to create specific masks for each character, the sonic ramifications of actors wearing masks, and the stage being adjacent to an active railroad.
Berkeley Repertory Theater (Berkeley Rep) has chosen to take a different approach, exploring the possibilities of remote theater. Susie Medak, the company’s managing director, said, “We just went into rehearsals for a radio adaptation of a play called It Can’t Happen Here.” Additionally, Berkeley Rep has been running a variety of theater related classes through Zoom since spring.
Shotgun Players, another Berkeley theater company, is leading the charge in using technology not only to replace, but to enhance live theater. With Open Broadcasting Software (OBS), Shotgun Players is elevating virtual performances by adding a digitally produced touch. Patrick Dooley, the organization’s founding artistic director, explained, “You can edit in video and sound effects, you can do filters, you can do all kinds of things to give it more of a produced feel.”
The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) has also hopped on the trend of using innovative technology to inspire artistic engagement. AJ Fox, BAMPFA’s media relations manager, reported that while the museum itself is currently closed to the public, it is offering a “a large and growing number of [online] programs,” including film screenings, virtual exhibition tours, and music performances.
Even with the many creative adaptations, it is no secret that COVID-19 has dealt a weighty financial blow to artistic institutions. Medak admitted that Berkeley Rep’s current financial state was grim. “Because we can’t produce plays, we are generating no income,” she said. “We’ve laid off most of our staff, because we simply have no money. We will be asking people to subscribe to both the virtual and live season, knowing that we are not … certain when that live season will happen.”
The pandemic has not been easy on Shotgun Players either. “It is clearing our shelves of anything that we have to sell,” said Dooley. However, Shotgun has managed to stay afloat thanks to its generous donor base. “[Of] the people that bought subscriptions or tickets for the season, over 90% of those people said, ‘You can keep the money for all of those tickets,’ ” said Dooley.
To make up for its loss of ticket revenue, BAMPFA has been exploring new revenue options, like charging people to watch films online. Despite the reduced income, Fox remains hopeful. “If we are fiscally prudent and responsible, we can come out of this crisis stronger than ever,” he said.
However, operating online has also afforded institutions a few unexpected benefits. Virtual programs have allowed BAMPFA to reach a much wider audience, geographically speaking. One such program was BAMPFA’s retrospective of Rosie Lee Tompkins, an African American quilt artist. “We had just finished mounting the largest ever retrospective exhibition of her work,” Fox recalled. “A few people did get to see it in person. But we now have a virtual tour of that exhibition, and people are experiencing the exhibition all over the country.”
Online theater has also given Shotgun Players the opportunity to collaborate remotely. “There are artists that worked with us that had moved to the East Coast, or moved up into the mountains,” said Dooley. “I thought, ‘Well, we won’t get to work with them again.’ But that’s one of the great benefits [of operating virtually] — you can collaborate with artists across the country.”
It is no wonder that local arts institutions are struggling during this time: adapting artistic impact to an online format is no easy feat. Nevertheless, it is vital that these institutions continue to persevere, because in challenging times, the arts are needed more than ever. As Boesing pointed out, “The arts can really uplift people and change hearts and minds during times of hardship.”