The next act: How Louisville’s arts scene is coping without live performances amid COVID-19

by Maggie Menderski, Courier-Journal

They called it “Imagine Greater Louisville 2020.”

That name seems laughable now. Not even our most creative artists could have imagined a year like this.

But that’s the title of a plan published by a committee of Louisville leaders three years ago that addressed the question: How can the arts and culture sectorbest serve this community?

Now as we enter the fifth month of a pandemic and the third month of daily protests revolving around racial injustice, that question is more complicated.

It’s no less important.

Initial projections from Louisville’s Arts and Cultural Alliance in March indicated museums and performing arts organizationscould lose $1.3 million a day during a total shutdown. Museums got the green light to reopen in June at limited capacity, but there’s still no guidance about how to reopen indoor theaters safely.

Even if there was, many arts leaders told me they don’t want to put their performers and audiences at risk or add to a public health crisis.

Between furloughs and budget cuts, most of our arts organizations are operating at about 50 percent capacity compared to what they usually do, according to Christen Boone, president and CEO of Fund for the Arts. They’ve made difficult choices and cuts in order to survive and keep making art. Traditional ticket sales don’t exist right now and that makes balancing the budget hard.

And in a time where it would be easy to throw down the curtain and quit, many of them are doing what they do best — getting creative.

Diversity and inclusion in the arts was always one of the pillars of that “Imagine Greater Louisville 2020” plan, but now given the social unrest across the country, it’s more important than ever.

“The racial equity side of the arts are going to be a really important part of helping us to have tough conversations,” Boone told me.

This isn’t how anyone imagined 2020, but it’s very much where we are.

‘In a year like this, you have to make your music for everyone’

For the moment, the 2020-2021 arts season in Louisville looks more like an improv act than a true script.

I imagine we’ll see experiments, surprises and even a few awkward moments as our arts groups suss out this unprecedented, financially crippling time.

Actors Theatre of Louisville Director Robert Barry Fleming on Monday, July 20, 2020, with some of the innovative ways that ATL is innovating through the pandemic.

Of all the leaders I spoke with, Robert Barry Fleming, the executive artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, was the only one who’d launched a true outline of what his season would look like. His theater has converted its usual productions of “Dracula” and “A Christmas Carol” to radio plays and they’ve also stacked the season with pieces and productions designed to make the audience reflect on the racial justice movement around us in Louisville.

“Reckon with the past, see what the present is and move into the future,” he told me when we talked about his goals for Actors. “That can be done without self-pity.”

The Louisville Ballet has transformed part of its building on West Main Street into a film studio, and the organization plans to welcome its dancers back into the space on Aug. 31. It’s entire “Season of Illumination” will be filmed, and those pieces will be announced four to six weeks in advance to assure they’re all funded.

The new platform — which will be filmed in pieces like a movie and then mastered together — is something that Robert Curran, the ballet’s artistic and executive director, intends to use in tandem with live performances even after they return to the theater. He’d like to celebrate the ballet’s 70th anniversary next year with live performances, but he’d be comfortable with this new model alone if that’s all the coronavirus pandemic will allow.