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Coronavirus Hits Performing Arts Far Beyond the Box Office

Near-universal performance cancellations due to coronavirus have dealt local performing arts groups a heavy blow that only begins with lost ticket sales.

Santa Clara University’s spring choir tour was cancelled — with a cancellation fee of $8,000, reported SCU professor and Santa Clara Chorale director Scot Hana-Weir.

Santa Clara Chorale postponed its March concert, She/Her/Hers. “This included a world premiere commission, so it is very discouraging for our membership,” said Hana-Weir. “We’re lucky that the Mission was very flexible with us and so we’ve been able to reschedule for Friday, May 29.”

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Symphony Silicon Valley, in addition to rescheduling four concerts, has also cancelled its ArtSPARK program for students.

“We had 4,500 elementary school children and teachers scheduled for field trips to hear our Symphony in a program designed to show the linkage between music and math,” said ArtSPARK Director Lee Kopp.

“The social impacts of cancelling that program are especially hard. We have heard from so many teachers about how disappointed the children are.” In lieu of the live event, ArtSPARK has sent teachers CDs to play in the classroom with descriptions of the musical selections.

“It’s not the same thing as experiencing such glorious music live, but ‘social distancing’ the new normal, at least for now,” Kopp said, promising, “We will bring the program back next year.”

While performances pose risks to audiences, rehearsals pose more of a risk to performers, and some groups are also suspending rehearsals. One is the Santa Clara Chorale.

“A number of our members are over 50, so it felt risky to continue to rehearse at this time,” said Director Hana-Weir. “We’ve cancelled rehearsals for the next two weeks and I’m thinking about ways to get people working on the music for our next concert on their own in the meantime.”

Cancellations hit performers, too, in the pocketbook, said Daniel Cher, a violinist with the Peninsula Symphony, which has postponed three upcoming concerts. “When a gig is canceled, professional musicians lose money.” Many also teach part-time in schools and colleges, and  “When schools are closed, they don’t get paid.”

While internationally known performing companies probably can weather the storm, the prognosis for community arts organizations isn’t necessarily so good.

“If theater companies or musical organizations depend on consistent cash flow year-round, even a few weeks or months of inactivity at the box office will have harsh repercussions,” said a longtime Silicon Valley arts marketing consultant who would only speak off the record because of his clients’ sensitivity.

“If a company normally has only a six or seven month season, rather than a 10 or 12-month season, it may escape the worst effects of a relatively short cash flow interruption by postponing shows rather than cancelling.”

Employees are similarly affected. “If a company is living ‘day-to-day’ it’s staff that will suffer first,” said the consultant.

When payroll is cut, companies also lose important human resources they will need if a turn-around does present itself, the consultant continued. “Finding good people to work for the type of wages most arts organizations can pay can be a difficult search process.”

With the high cost of living in the Bay Area, the epidemic might be the final push driving artists to more affordable parts of the country, further diminishing community cultural life.

With so many arts organizations operating on a shoestring, some of these groups may be gone by the time coronavirus takes its final bow.

“I believe it is inevitable that some of our arts organizations will fail to survive COVID-19,” said the consultant. “This does not look like a short-term threat. Also, coronavirus preys on the elderly, the very heart of the audience population that makes up the bulk of the box office of so many of our treasured arts groups.”

Some companies and teachers are getting creative about how they continue to teach and give performances, and putting familiar online systems to work as alternatives to live rehearsals and performances.

“At least some classes can and will be done via Skype or FaceTime,” said Dina Hawkins of Mission Peak Brass Band. “Instrument lessons definitely will (and still continue for some) be done via Skype or FT.”

Shri Krupa Dance Company Founder and Artistic Director Vishal Ramani is using online video conferencing to continue her Cupertino classes, while limiting lessons in her studio to two-to-four students.

“I have set up a webcam at the studio and signed up with Zoom to ensure that my students and I see each other,” Ramani said. “Teaching continues, in one form or another.

“From my home, too,” she continued, “I am able to view students on a larger TV screen to ensure they are practicing what they know and can make some progress.

“We can also do productions via YouTube,” she continued, “and at least keep exhibition of our talents flowing.”  Another local company, City Lights Theater Company, is considering making a video for ticket holders of its now-cancelled new show, Coders.

Even if coronavirus stifles live performances for a time, it can’t stifle creativity.

Ramani, with singer and composer Ashok Subramaniam, has been inspired by the epidemic to create a new dance drama. The dance’s central character is “a giant demonic force, in the form of a crowned virus that is dancing around for a place to lodge itself,” Ramani explained.

“We want to name it ‘Kali’s Crown Visits.’ Kali is the name of this Yuga — this age. The ‘Kali’ of Kali Yuga means ‘strife,’ ‘discord,’ ‘quarrel’ or ‘contention.'” (Kali Yuga is associated with the demon Kali, not the Goddess Kaali).

“Instead of making this a fear-filled show,” continued Ramani, “we can make it a more humorous one… and address this demon with … clear understanding and politely ask him to leave. If he doesn’t, Ramani says, “We shall all shout out ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and send him out reeling.”

Ramani is interested in hearing from artists and performers interested in participating in or contributing to this production vishart@gmail.com.

Classical radio station KDFC (104.9 FM, kdfc.com) has an exhaustive list of current bay Area cancellations.

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