By Jan Mercker
Social distancing and the arts don’t really go hand in hand.
New restrictions on public gatherings and concern for public health are taking a toll on performers and arts-related organizations in Loudoun. But there’s a silver lining: the county’s creators are getting creative about bringing music, performance and visual arts to the community.
The Franklin Park Arts Center has closed its doors for in-person shows at least through April 1. But as a county-funded facility, manager Elizabeth Bracey said the center has the staff and resources to continue promoting the arts in the community by organizing a series of lunchtime demos from visual and performing artists.
“It’s making lemonade out of lemons. … I think that is a wonderful testament to the human spirit,” Bracey said. “OK, we’re confined to our homes—we’re not just going to sit here and feel sorry for ourselves—we’re going to figure out a way that we can still connect with people. Nobody likes being restricted, but I truly believe that the arts are a wonderful catalyst for keeping people together and connecting people.”
Bracey said she’s concerned for the community groups like Arts for All that have had to postpone performances, while other community groups with scheduled performances later this spring are missing out on essential rehearsal time. She and her staff are working hard to adapt and support arts groups in a very fluid environment.
“What we’ve said is, ‘We hear you, we want to reschedule,” but I can’t even give them dates or ideas until we resume normal operations. … They’ve worked so hard and then to not be able to have that final performance,” she said. “For performing artists, the process of putting something together is as important as the final product. That’s especially true for Arts for All. For those performers, the process of rehearsing is as important for them and for their growth as artists.”
But Bracey said the virtual concerts and demos can help artists and the community stay connected during a challenging time.
“No matter what I’m doing in my job, I really believe in community building, and that is the part that’s really the most important to me about public service,” she said. “The arts center in some ways can serve as a hub for that community—people who need the arts in their lives and also who are artists and want to share it. If it helps connect people, then we were successful with this. In some ways, these situations encourage you to stretch and grow.”
COVID-19-related closures are having a profound impact on the county’s musicians and venues as gigs dry up. One of downtown Leesburg’s musical hubs, the Tally Ho Theater, has postponed performances through April 10, with the possibility of additional pushbacks.
“[T]his outbreak is certainly going to cripple us considering we may not have a show until May. Luckily, our fans and ticket holders have been nothing but supportive and patient with us and our mass postponements,” said Tally Ho’s Jack Devine in an email to Loudoun Now.
Ara Bagdasarian, co-founder of BENEFIT, the coalition of bands and community leaders known for its annual fundraising festivals for children’s charities, is setting up a series of virtual concerts featuring artists involved with its nonprofit work. BENEFIT’s upcoming online show, “Loudoun Unity: An Evening of Connection and Music,” features top names from the local music scene including Todd Wright, Jason Masi, Emma Rowley, Michael O’Connor, Ryan Wright, Geff Garnhart from Frayed Knots, Johnny and Anna Kasun, Laurie Blue, Dave Mininberg, Ryan Bentron, Ella Levri and Max Redding. The online event takes place Saturday, March 28 at 7 p.m. and will be streamed via Facebook Live from the BENEFIT Facebook page.
“BENEFIT’s Unity on Facebook Live and other online music events give our neighbors a much-needed boost of joy during this period of social isolation. It also shines a light on our amazing musical community whose world has changed enormously in recent weeks,” Bagdasarian said.
The county’s community and professional theaters are also taking a hit. Nonprofit theater company Sterling Playmakers canceled the second weekend of its spring play “Puffs” after Loudoun County Public Schools closed March 12 and has put auditions for a planned June production of “The Laramie Project” on hold.
The county’s professional theater company, Ashburn-based StageCoach Theatre, also has shut its doors for the time being, pending further direction from health authorities. For years, StageCoach, which specializes in interactive performances—from mystery shows to cabarets to improv comedy—has filled a niche for ongoing professional theater in Loudoun. The company, which opened its own space in Ashburn in 2018, was coming off an especially active winter season with an Alexander Hamilton-inspired murder mystery and a series of Valentine’s cabarets, when COVID-19 restrictions hit.
“Before all of this, it was going gangbusters. Normally, January is a time when we can all just catch our breath after a very busy holiday season and we didn’t get that chance. We just kept going. Things were fabulous and this has just brought us to a grinding halt,” said StageCoach executive producer Jerri Wiseman.
The company is continuing after-school drama workshops and private lessons online, but Wiseman is concerned about the trickle-down effect.
“We’re all in this together. If we don’t get paid, our actors don’t get paid, the crew doesn’t. Our caterers for the dinner theater don’t. Everybody is going to feel it,” she said. “We’re just trying to see what we can all do to stay afloat during this time.”
Local visual artists also are adapting to restrictions with online classes and other creative ventures.
At Leesburg’s Clay and Metal Loft, co-owner Amy Manson has taken instruction online. With state and federal gathering restrictions taking effect right in the middle of a group class session, moving ceramics instruction into the virtual realm has taken some improvisation.
“While we look out for our community, we know you are looking out for us,” Manson wrote to students in a letter she shared with Loudoun Now. “We appreciate your concern and support. As a small art business, we are concerned for the future as all small businesses are. We will continue to find ways to keep things moving forward. We are working with our instructors to come up with content that will be useful to us all whether through social media or online. As a small art business, we are creative and we WILL make something good out of this mess.”
Students came in March 15 to grab clay and other materials and borrow tools, and Manson created a private Facebook group to finish out the eight-week session online. Meanwhile, the studio’s paint-your-own pottery kits are selling like hotcakes as parents and non-parents alike seek a creative outlet while practicing social distancing. Manson initially designed the kits for kids but found that adults were buying them too as a much-needed form of stress relief.
For now, single session workshops are on hold. Manson is planning to move forward with the studio’s popular summer camps but is putting contingency plans in place. She’s also moving her focus as an artist to online pottery sales via the shop’s website.
“Everything changes every day,” Manson said. “We’re just planning to adjust.”