The virus begins. It spreads, it moves across international borders, it boards jets and cruise liners and trains. It shuts down cities, and even countries. Shops, stores and schools close their doors and the world moves online.
Every conceivable facet of our existence is affected. A “normal” concert or theater performance is almost unimaginable in the current world.
Ask Pasadena resident Rachel Fine about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the theater world, and she will take the long, historic view.
“I think the prevailing wisdom is that theater and the arts have survived the plague and many other crises in the past,” said Fine, the executive director/CEO of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. “And if artists are good at anything, it is being creative, resourceful and resilient.”
Fine acknowledges that would-be audiences have been shuttered and isolated for nearly six months now, but says, “They haven’t been able to have that theater experience in so long, that once they feel safe, I think they will return in droves. I really do.
“The arts awaken our human spirit,” she said, “and I think right now it’s such a terrible time, and not just because of the pandemic, but because of so many different things that once it’s safe for everyone, I truly believe we will rebound, and we will be resilient.”
Given the vast number of unknowns in returning to normal from a pandemic, Fine also acknowledges that the theater world “may be different.”
“It may look different,” she continued. “I suspect a lot of people are learning the digital craft in a way that they haven’t before. So I think there are new opportunities. I don’t think it’s going to take the place of live performance, but it might be enhancing live performance in ways that we haven’t seen.”
The Wallis made the difficult decision to close its doors in March, early in the pandemic. “We were among the first arts organizations in Los Angeles County to close our campus,” Fine said, “and it was a very, very difficult situation because I think nobody knew at that point what the future held.
“We’re all grappling with the same issues. How serious was this? And are we putting people at risk if we continue to stay open?”
Fine noted that the Wallis’ Board of Directors includes members with offices in other countries who were seeing far worse conditions than in the U.S.
“We really needed to make a quick decision and close our doors immediately,”she said. “And when I say close, I mean, close our doors to audiences, and close our campus, but continue our operations.”
All Wallis Annenberg programming is currently limited to “periodic digital events,” Fine said.
And what does this all mean for theater and performing arts groups of various sizes? Will smaller groups be swallowed up by larger companies? Will smaller groups simply vanish, unable to sustain their work with digital-only audiences?
Even an experienced theater professional like Fine is uncertain in a pandemic remarkable for its constant fluidity.
“I don’t know that I have the answer,” she offered, adding, “I think a lot of people just simply don’t know. On the one hand, smaller organizations are more nimble. They’re often more flexible than larger organizations and I see some really creative and fancy footwork out there in smaller organizations that will keep them going.”
For the Wallis, the key is having a “very, very dedicated Board of Directors and great board leadership,” says Fine, “along with a community of supporters that truly believes in the power of the arts and this campus, to make their city a better place.”
To that end, the Wallis has designed a provisional schedule of indoor and outdoor programming for January through July 2021. It includes six theater productions, four dance performances, more than a dozen music concerts and a handful of film events. Scheduled artists include Delirium Musicum, Diavolo, Heidi Duckler Dance, violinist Johnny Gandelsman and members of the L.A. and Long Beach opera companies in collaborations with the Wallis. The Beverly Hills theater is also currently in the midst of a major fundraising drive, with 70 percent of a $300,000 goal raised so far.
As for the future, said Fine, “I think everyone’s asking the exact same questions. I think we’re gonna see phases until we’re able to get back to a level of operation that just supports a lot more people and performances, but I don’t know. I don’t know exactly what the landscape will look like.”
As a board member and supporter of several Pasadena-based arts organizations–including the Armory Center for the Arts, the Pasadena Symphony and the Pasadena Playhouse– Fine has plenty of fellow local arts leaders to commiserate with and be inspired by.
She pointed to the Pasadena Symphony, which recently configured its season. Pasadena Symphony CEO Lora Unger is looking at what used to be Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena when she was doing her season announcement, and what she and [Music Director] David Lockington did together was really great. I mean, they have a Plan A and a Plan B, and I have now 10 different financial scenarios, as we all have, as the environment changes around us. We’re all having to make adjustments.”
Fine continued, “What we knew and thought six months ago is not what we know and think now, and I just think the community of administrators in this field is really exceptional and very supportive of one another.”
The pandemic has also affected Fine in more pedestrian ways, as it has everyone else in the universe. She is spending much of her time these days at home, rather than her Beverly Hills office.
“I joined the parent coffee this morning for the 11th grade!” she said, gleefully, explaining that that time would usually be spent commuting to work.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to have a time as a family where we’re spending so much time together. My husband [Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer, City of Los Angeles, and former Los Angeles Times architecture critic] has a very big and demanding job. And not only is my job, you know, big and demanding, but I have a commute in addition to that.
“And,” she continued, “I’ve worked since my children were born and they have never known me as someone who was home every single night for dinner. So I am really trying to make the most of the time that we’re spending together as a family unit.”
Added Fine, “And as hard as it is, it is incredibly special. I feel like I know them in a way that I haven’t known them, maybe even ever, because, you know, they’ve always been at school during the day, but now they’re at home during the day. And I am there with them.”