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Necessity, Meet Invention
Although we didn’t realize it at the time, Meany Center’s 2019-20 Season came to an end on March 4.
Up until that day, Meany Center operated as it always had. Our purpose was to present performing artists from around the world on our stage, and everyone had a well-defined job to do in order to make sure that happened. But when the novel coronavirus suddenly shut us down, Meany — like so many other arts organizations in the world today — faced an existential crisis: what is the purpose of a presenting arts organization without live performances or audiences?
In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the concept of the five stages of grief — and Meany went through all of them: Denial (Of course we’re going to finish the season!); Anger (I can’t BELIEVE this is happening!); Bargaining (Maybe it will be just a few weeks and we’ll still be able to finish the season!); Depression (We can’t go on…) and finally, Acceptance (…We’ll go on).
We soon realized that though our stage was dark, our mission was the same: to foster innovative performances that advance public engagement, cultural exchange, creative research and learning through the arts, and to provide opportunities for diverse artists, community, students and faculty to connect in the discovery and exploration of the boundless power of the arts to create positive change in the world.
Now we just had to figure out how to do it in a Covid-19 world.
Even in the best of times, the arts and artists have always lived precariously; this can be uncomfortable, but it builds a certain resiliency. No sooner had we set up Zoom on our home computers than Meany staff pivoted towards rescuing what we could of the present season and planning for an unpredictable future. Live performances were now impossible. We would present artists digitally, instead.
In a matter of days, we created “curtain speeches” — a short video introduction by Michelle for each of the remaining eight artists on our season. We sent the curtain speeches out via email to ticketholders on the nights the performances would have happened, and included links to further resources available online: performances, interviews, articles and other contextual information.
These curtain speeches were our first foray into creating original online content, but not our last. The process got a further workout when we transformed our live gala into a virtual fundraiser. In support of this five-day campaign, Meany developed 20 original videos that included performances (many by Meany staff and board), how-to videos, scripted daily introductions and more.
In just a few weeks, Meany had moved from presenting the work of others to producing our own! That we were able to do this at all was entirely due to the deep pool of talent that works at Meany.
Our stage manager, Juniper Shuey, is a practicing artist in his own right with years of video experience that he brought to the task of editing videos for curtain speeches and the gala and to creating our season “sizzle” reel.
Before she became Meany’s grantwriter, Alix Wilber had produced documentary films; she scripted many of the videos and worked closely with Juniper to edit the final products, and with freelance filmmaker Joe Bosch to create an eight-minute documentary on Meany Center’s history.
Meany’s graphic designer Francesca Penchant is also a multi-media artist; she was able to employ those skills to develop video graphics as quickly as they were needed.
Director of Artistic Engagement Elizabeth Duffell and her team shifted from planning in-person educational outreach activities on campus and off to sourcing and curating available online content for the current season. Elizabeth is also leading a team of staff members from across Meany’s various departments in exploring new ways to consistently produce and leverage online content in the future — even after live performances are possible again.
As pianist Hélène Grimaud took her fourth encore on March 4, 2020, nobody on the Meany Staff had an inkling of what the next three months would bring. As we end our 2019-20 Season, we have embraced the motto: Stand together — but not too close. Though working in isolation from home, Meany Center has never been more unified or more committed to moving outside of our own comfort zones and our present constraints to continue serving our artists, our patrons and our community with innovative, exciting and engaging performing arts experiences, no matter what the future might throw at us next.