Behind the Pandemic Curtain: An Empty Hall Brims with Hope
A behind-the-scenes look as Stanford Live charts a way forward
By Chris Lorway, Stanford Live Executive Director
The last several months have been tough. For many of us, the notion of time has become abstract. As we settle into work-from-home routines, we forget how quickly the world has changed. Reflecting on my own experiences has been a helpful exercise in understanding how to navigate a complex crisis such as this. I hope that sharing this reflection will provide some insight into our journey at Stanford Live through the pandemic thus far and bring you into our thought process for charting a way forward.
In early January, the curatorial team made its annual pilgrimage to New York City to see work and meet with artists, agents, and managers to finalize plans for the 2020–21 season. By the time we were back at Stanford, information was circulating about what was unfolding in Wuhan, China. Given our focus on Chinese artists this season, we began to assess the viability of presenting some of the programs from that region scheduled for the spring.
“We hope we can deliver many of the programs we have planned in some format, but at the same time, we are rooted in the reality that many of the things we were hoping to share with you will likely not be possible.”
A week later, we made the call to postpone performances by Yang Liping and Gong Linna in light of new travel restrictions. As we worked through the communication protocols for canceling these events, we still didn’t comprehend how COVID-19 would soon fundamentally disrupt the arts and entertainment sector as we knew it.
In late February, Executive Director Chris Lorway attended the Asia TOPA festival in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Chris Lorway
Initially, the cloud had a silver lining for me. The cancellation of Liping’s Rite of Spring meant I could extend a previously planned research trip to Australia. Summer in the southern hemisphere is when most of the major festivals and events take place, and visiting during that season provides a great opportunity to see a range of international work in a condensed time frame. Over two weeks in late February, I attended performances at the Perth Festival, the Adelaide Festival, the New Zealand Festival of the Arts, and Asia TOPA, a new triennial event in Melbourne that fosters creative partnerships between Australian artists and artists from the Asia-Pacific region. The pandemic was starting to illustrate its reach as certain participants were unable or unwilling to travel, prompting cancellations or last-minute casting changes. Scenery and equipment were being held at international ports as the movement of essential equipment became a priority, which caused additional cancellations or last-minute scenery builds by local crews so shows could continue as scheduled.
On March 3, I flew from Wellington, New Zealand, to Sydney for a meeting with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Upon landing, I received a voice mail saying that Stanford was planning to curtail public gatherings. When I arrived back in California later that day, the reality had set in that there was little chance of continuing our season. We had our last Bing show on March 4, a wonderful performance by Michael Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble. Already we were seeing lower-than-usual attendance rates as concern for public gatherings increased. Our final performance of the season followed a week later in an intimate studio show featuring Dreamers’ Circus, a contemporary folk ensemble from Denmark. Again, the audience was small but incredibly appreciative of the opportunity to congregate and share in a wonderful evening of music, knowing at that point it would likely be the last opportunity to do so for some time.
The performance by Dreamers’ Circus in the Bing Studio was the last show this season. Photo by Harrison Truong
The weeks that followed were focused on what my colleagues in the field have referred to as “unproducing.” At Stanford Live, our artistic team reached out to artists to either postpone or cancel performances, including the world premiere of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. The marketing and ticketing team worked on communicating these cancellations to ticket buyers and processing refunds. Production canceled orders from various vendors and let contingent staff know that all scheduled work was terminated until further notice. Development reached out to stakeholders to ensure that they were aware of our plans and to determine how and if designated funding could be repurposed at this time. Most of this work occurred from home as we sheltered in place and migrated our regular team meetings to Zoom.
After that initial scramble, we were able to start having creative conversations about what we could do to keep Stanford Live present in a virtual space. We quickly pulled together a digital season—The Show Must Go Online— featuring existing content from many of the artists scheduled to appear on our stages this spring. Internally, we instituted a weekly Zoom happy hour, creating an informal virtual space where staff could gather to share stories and even play online games together. And we began the seemingly impossible task of trying to figure out what lies ahead.
Stanford Live staff meet for weekly happy hours over Zoom. Photo by Krystina Tran
By now you have begun to see the rollout of our plans for the 2020–21 season. This is a somewhat surreal exercise as a number of the programs included in the season announcement 5 have already been postponed or are unlikely to happen. Given that we were learning new information on a daily basis (that could change the following day), we made a collective decision to share our vision for the season with you, regardless of the feasibility of specific programs occurring. That was an important and empowering decision for us to make.
Each season takes the curatorial team and our partners years to plan, and great thought and detail go into the choices we make about how each performance is part of a larger narrative. To completely dismantle that effort at this stage was both an exercise in futility and incredibly demoralizing for our team. So our season launch is not a statement of fact but rather a statement of hope. We hope we can deliver many of the programs we have planned in some format, but at the same time, we are rooted in the reality that many of the things we wanted to share with you will likely not be possible.
The situation we find ourselves in does give us an opportunity to step back and consider the best way to support artists. While we have been increasing our investment in commissions and co-productions, we would love to see more work made at Stanford. We are currently in discussion with a number of artists about providing time, space, and resources for them to develop new projects on campus. Having them with us for longer periods of time also means more opportunities for interaction with students, faculty, and donors interested in supporting this important work.
One of the best pieces of advice I received during my time as a consultant was to never attempt strategic planning in a crisis. Strategic planning is intended as an opportunity to set goals for the future and to identify the resources required to achieve those goals. Because of the uncertainty we currently face, scenario planning is a much more useful tool for us to employ. We have been envisioning a number of potential futures so we are prepared to respond to one or more of the scenarios as they play out in real time.
Stanford Live will announce the 2020–21 season in late May. Photo courtesy of Hybrid Design
Here are some of the ideas we are exploring. The best-case-but-highly-unlikely scenario is the status quo, with artists and audiences reunited with increased public-safety standards and enhanced hygienic measures implemented across all our venues. Another scenario looks at a season absent of international performances due to visa restrictions and travel bans. We’re also exploring the possibility of moving some of our fall shows to Frost, utilizing the main bowl for Bing shows while keeping attendance to fewer than 1,000 to allow plenty of space for social distancing. Finally, we have been investing in our capacity to offer high-quality broadcasts of some performances in the event that we have to wait awhile before having audiences return. All our ideas will need to be carefully vetted and approved by public health and university risk management officials to ensure the well-being and safety of our artists, staff, and audiences. At this point, our best strategy is to buy time and wait to see how things develop in the coming months.
In his article “Performance Buildings in the Post-Pandemic World,” Byron Harrison—a partner at the international theater consultancy Charcoalblue—offers hope for organizations like ours:
The COVID-19 crisis, while not unprecedented, is unlike anything any of us living today have experienced. While it may be difficult to accept from the throes of damage control, history suggests that the performing arts world will be resilient. Bringing venues back on-line and reassuring audiences of their safety is not going to be an easy process; however, people will be hungry for culture and engagement once lockdowns and self-isolation end. Even in the midst of crisis, a “we’re all in this together” attitude is prevailing.
The incredible support and guidance we have received from audience members over the past few months confirms that we are in an “all in this together” moment. We take solace in the idea that we are collectively taking the necessary steps to ensure that we can gather together again at some point. Our promise at Stanford Live is to keep you—our audience—informed as we chart a way forward. You are an essential member of our recovery team. On behalf of all of us, I thank you for sticking with us during this challenging time.
Canceled in late January, Yang Liping’s stunning Rite of Spring is rescheduled for December 2020. Photo courtesy of Sadler’s Wells Theatre