As the carnival barkers say, step right up -- and see the amazing Geva Theatre Center schedule change before your very eyes.
This is the COVID-19 reality. There will be no flipping of a switch, so that everything suddenly goes back to “normal.” The emergence of the arts from the coronavirus pandemic will be a cautious, step-by-step process.
As Geva Artistic Director Mark Cuddy says, “We’re trying to step up into the season, every next production a little closer to normal.”
Navigating toward normal is tricky in these uncharted waters. Arts organizations are trying to read constantly shifting winds. And after three changes in direction over these past 11 months of the pandemic, Cuddy qualifies every course change to come with an all-encompassing qualifier: “absolutely, might.”
“Some theaters are doing their entire 2021 season digitally,” Cuddy says. “They’re doing everything remote, they’re not waiting. They’re just going to complete their season and then they’re going to announce a new season to start in the fall.
“We decided to not do that. Everyone just wants to be back in performance, or everyone wants to be in the audience and not just receive everything digitally. So we’ve done this whole step-up thing.”
The first step was Geva’s “Reimagined” season that began last October, with four audio shows by Black writers and directors. The rest of the steps -- a cannibalization of the 2020-21 season that was announced last March and retooled in August -- follow.
Step Two: An on-demand video presentation of the one-man hip-hop story of family and racial divides, “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” It opens Feb. 22 and will be available online through March 7.
Step Three: “The Real James Bond…Was Dominican,” about a young boy who discovers that the inspiration behind the Ian Fleming spy was Porfirio Rubirosa, international playboy and man of mystery. It will be livestreamed from Geva’s Wilson Stage beginning in May, with no audience.
Step Four: Geva moves to a full outdoor production in August. And the stage? A key element to most theatrical productions? “That’s one of the details we’re working on,” Cuddy says.
Step Five: A live show on the Wilson Stage in October, for a live audience.
Step Six: A November-through-December run of “A Christmas Carol.”
Step Seven: A new season, to be announced this summer, opening January 2022.
“That’s our current ‘fingers crossed and the creek don’t rise’ kind of thing,” Cuddy says.
That creek bears watching. Absolutely, might.
“We thought we’d be indoors completely, ready to go, by late spring,” Cuddy says. “We thought we’d have full audiences by the summer, indoors, back in August.
“But of course, can’t do that.”
The United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, which appears to be among the worst in the world, is a ball of confusion. Restaurants and music clubs are interpreting state guidelines as they wish. Some venues are closed. Some are open. Of those, some follow social distancing recommendations. Others … not so much.
Cuddy says that by pumping the brakes, Geva will avoid an all-digital season. A slowdown allows it the opportunity to present a few of the shows that it had announced last March. But the shows’ availability depends on as-yet-unknown factors, such as whether the performers have since committed to other shows.
Geva’s 2021-22 schedule, as with other theater groups throughout the country, is a balancing act between the expectations of the season subscribers and the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic.
“People subscribe because they want exactly the same schedule every year, they just want the consistency,” Cuddy says, the tone of his voice reflecting the concerns of Geva’s audience: “ ‘The next show is when? It’s in three months? And it’s on demand …?’
“It’s a very different kind of schedule, but we’re trying to fulfill our current season in whichever way we can.”
It will take patience and flexibility to save the arts. There is no quick fix. Don’t expect big summer concert tours this year. In non-COVID days, the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival would have announced its shows for Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre by now; the only groups currently on the schedule are the Norah Jones-led trio Puss N Boots and Spyro Gyra -- two holdovers from last year’s fest that was set for June, then moved to October, then redirected to this June.
Somehow, we have to cautiously work our way through this. Find ways to save our culture, save our arts. So that as we slowly emerge from this catastrophe, they will be there to greet us.
Ignoring the danger, blinders in place, and proceeding at full speed -- a kind of “Charge of the Light Brigade” for the arts -- isn’t going to get it done. Geva’s latest approach is in line with what most promoters are quietly thinking. A return to some normalcy by the fall. Absolutely, might.
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.