Artistic expression survives COVID-19

From theater to choral groups, from visual arts to marching band, arts find a way

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By Michelle Dybal

Arts Editor

While 2020 turned everything upside down due to the emergence of COVID-19, the arts community showed incredible resilience. Faced with everything from complete shutdowns to having the option to go on with small gatherings, but with added difficulties specific to the arts, the challenges were monumental. But so many local artists and organizations rose up with creative ways to continue in some way. 

Proving the show must go on were those working with youth in theater. Since things shut down in mid-March, Michelle Bayer, performing arts department chair and teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School, worked with her team to come up with a solution to have a robust theater program for the 2020/2021 school year. They succeeded in having as many plays as they would in a non-COVID year with all fall semester shows taking place virtually. The big spring musical will take place too, and auditions were recently held. 

Student-focused theater school, The Actors Garden, was early to the virtual play format. Dave Hudson, husband to owner Gigi Hudson, wrote the play "The Show Must Go Online," and it sold worldwide. Ovation Academy, which runs out of Madison Street Theater, has continued for students both in-person and virtually. The theater was remodeled and ready to be celebrated on March 12. That fundraising event was canceled, and now rentals of the spiffed-up venue are down with pandemic restrictions in place. That lack of revenue only made things worse when theater board member and Ovation CEO Tina Reynolds entered a too cold building in November to find their outdated HVAC system had failed. A Go Fund Me was launched to remedy the situation. They are 89 percent of the way toward their $60,000 goal. 

For those who look forward to some Shakespeare in the park, Oak Park Festival Theater had no summer show in Austin Gardens. But they brought an original creation to home screens for the holidays, "Christmas Comes but Once a Year." Berwyn's 16th Street Theater brought two thought-provoking, high-quality plays into audience's homes – "Methtacular" and "Rastus and Hattie."  

Visual artists continued to create, but where they exhibited and sold work was greatly impacted. The Oak Park Art League (OPAL) has been shut down, offered a virtual gallery and opened with safety protocols, for example. To raise funds, they decided to auction 17 paintings from their permanent collection including two by OPAL founder Carl Krafft. The May auction through Toomey & Co., Oak Park, raised just over $20,000 for the 100-year-old institution. OPAL's centennial celebration was postponed to 2021 – another fallout from COVID-19. Local artists and community art centers saw city-wide exposure, such as Compound Yellow, Practice and Terrain Exhibitions exhibiting at Hyde Park Art Center's, Artist Run Chicago 2.0 and Jesse Howard having his first work featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. That show, The Long Dream, has been extended through May 2021, with the museum currently closed based on state-wide orders. And, while the Oak Park Area Arts Council Off the Wall summer mural project was cancelled due to village budget cuts and to keep artists safe, a new mosaic mural went up in Oak Park in the fall reflecting the times, "You Are My Other Me," addressing both the oppression of people of color and the pandemic in depicting essential workers.   

The challenge of presenting live music has been faced with various solutions. FitzGerald's Nightclub, purchased by Will Duncan from retiring Bill FitzGerald in early March, started bringing music to neighborhoods with their Truck Concerts in early April. These evolved to Christmas Bus concerts for the holidays and will likely become a staple for the business after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, according to Duncan, because of their popularity.   

The Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest created a summer program, Music by the Numbers, where small groups of musicians, counting up through a nonenette, performed together at Cheney Mansion to deliver a virtual concert each week. Their autumn concert, with a larger group, was postponed however, as COVID case numbers rose. Unity Temple Restoration Foundation's Chamber Music series' spring shows were canceled but resurrected as virtual programming in the fall. Two of the concerts were held as shorter versions and brought musicians of the CSO and Lyric Opera together for one and The Avalon String Quartet for another. They also featured a virtual holiday show with Duo Diorama. 

While OPRFHS went completely remote, The Marching Huskies, 100-students strong, met outside, in-person and completed a mini season of marching and music-making, later edited together into a show. There were no marching band competitions or football games, but there were very happy masked marching musicians who got to do what they love with their peers. Curricular band and orchestra students met remotely and recorded themselves individually for a compilation of some 400 musicians into the annual Prisms of Winter Concert for 2020.

The OPRF choruses were also part of those Prisms of Winter recordings, meeting remotely and recording individually to create ensemble works. Choirs throughout the village were indeed challenged by not being able to sing together – a sure way to spread droplets. Retooling first was the Sounds Good Choir for those ages 55 plus. Within weeks of the mid-March shut down, they had pivoted to practicing virtually and continued with this for an engaging fall program to produce a virtual holiday concert. Pro Musica Youth Chorus took a different approach and met in person this fall, with safety measures in place, until the weather changed in November, when they moved to virtual rehearsals until 2021 brings warmer weather again. 

Author talks were greatly missed. Going from up to four per week to hardly ever one, is a big loss. However, local best-selling author Elizabeth Berg brought back her program, Writing Matters. Her plan was in the works before COVID hit, but the timing was brilliant nonetheless. Partnering with the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association for the venue, the events are brought virtually for free. Berg said she can bring authors from all over because of the virtual format. Her first author talk in August was with Douglas Stuart, author of Shuggie Bain. Three months later, his debut novel won the Booker Prize. 

Although we may miss being in the room with an author, feeling the intensity of live music, being immersed in the story of a live play or taking in visual art surrounded by others, the creative and talented minds of locals involved in the arts have kept it as alive as they possibly could in 2020. Bravo!

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