How artists are leading in a time of social distancing

Theater ghost light shines, even during times of social distancing, separation and even grief

Theater tradition includes the superstition of the ghost light, a single bulb left on after everyone has left, that shines through the darkness of the empty space. Even though the impact of the coronavirus has canceled performances around the world, the arts themselves still function as a ghost light in a time of uncertainty, separation and grief.

“We are a space for people who want a little art in their lives but maybe don’t spend all their time with art,” says Carolyn Payne, executive director of the Soo Visual Arts Center (SooVAC), a nonprofit arts space in Minneapolis. SooVAC is one of many arts groups working to support artists and bring comfort to all in this trying time. She says the response is evidence of the importance of the arts in helping people process the community trauma being created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This can help trigger thinking, smiling, crying all the things art does,” says Payne.

SooVAC closed their doors immediately as social distancing measures began, and created MN Art Mart, an online marketplace that is an instant way of helping artists whose income depends on now-canceled gigs.

“It’s a place to direct people to artists’ websites or Instagram, whatever their platform is, to direct people to their sales as their shows have been canceled and grants are on hold,” says Payne — who previously worked with Hennepin Theatre Trust on the Made Here initiative that brought art to Minneapolis window fronts. “Commissions, all of that, goes 100% to the artists.”

SooVAC’s mission aligns with the Trust’s transformation of the spaces and places that make the Hennepin Theatre District a vibrant, welcoming place — work that is continuing in different ways while we are apart.

“I’m not surprised to see an output of positive energy from visual and performing artists in this community,” says Joan Vorderbruggen, director of Hennepin Theatre District engagement for Hennepin Theatre Trust. “They are people who pay attention to the things that affect our culture, and that’s what they’re doing now, during a time when people need that reflection.”

The Trust’s public art team is juggling safety measures with efforts to plan for new art, so workers and visitors will be greeted with fresh, new creative endeavors when they return to downtown Minneapolis. Vorderbruggen points out that this pandemic comes at a time when we were already dealing with a major reconstruction project along Hennepin Avenue, and the Trust is geared up to make sure the Theatre District was stronger than before.

“We’ve made a promise to our stakeholders and our partners and the businesses along Hennepin Avenue that we would lead visible, vibrant public art activities and other activations that are going to help us to get through the disruption of Hennepin reconstruction,” says Vorderbruggen. “That work doesn’t change now, it just shifts.”

Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Spotlight Education team also had to shut down programs when social distancing measures were enacted. They made a swift transition to virtual education, implementing online classes to bring together high school students from across the state, even when they can’t learn together in-person. Research shows that these experiences build confidence, empathy, sense of community and knowledge of musical theater.

Online virtual streaming masterclasses can help students stay connected

“Our Spotlight Education program is an essential part of arts education in schools across Minnesota,” says Ari Koehnen Sweeney, the Trust’s director of education. “We’re thrilled to be able to still help students build skills on a weekly basis, just over their computers or phones. It’s also really comforting to be able to provide a sense of community and normalcy to these students who work so hard all year.”

Each week, Spotlight students and alumni can engage with online masterclasses taught by local and touring professionals.

Tyler McKenzie, last seen in the original cast of Hamilton, taught a masterclass called “Broadway Sweat” that featured a warm-up, movement material and a Q&A. An educator and performer himself, McKenzie understands the importance of the performing arts and the impact of their absence.

“We know that a lot of students right now are not able to visit their dance studios or go to their voice lessons or do after school programs, and what we’re doing is using the internet to provide outreach and give some tools to further some training while people are practicing social distancing,” McKenzie says. “And we hope that we don’t have to do it for long, but it is nice to have those tools and nice to have this incredible world wide web to assist us in furthering developing careers.”

All of these artists and community leaders are encouraging people who feel trapped or isolated at home to look for opportunities to participate in artistic creativity right now. It could be as simple as drawing a picture to hang in your window for neighbors to see as they take walks, or it can mean joining in these efforts.

Koehnen Sweeney says while masterclasses are geared toward students, anyone can join in their new bite-sized “Spotlight 15” sessions, which are streamed live on Spotlight’s Instagram and share 15 minutes of musical theater training and activity.

Payne encourages people to try an at-home project she created with visual artist Amy Rice to send to senior citizens in long-term care at Walker Methodist in the Twin Cities.

“I’ve been getting messages from people who don’t usually interact with my art, that they have been making this at home, and it’s making them feel better; they’re sending it to senior facilities, and it’s amazing,” Payne says. She also says if you’re in need of hope, you can look to the same place she does.

“Our artists have always been scrappy, self-starting and always a hopeful example of how to pivot, react and be inventive and make a lot out of nothing. I find hope in all of them.”