Arts Beat: Performance artists adapt in the time of coronavirus

May 2, 2020

The Central Coast is known for its many gifted artists—across the spectrum of mediums and disciplines—who choose to live and create here. Via Zoom, we checked in with two local performance artists to learn how they are adapting during the pandemic shutdown, and the shuttering of their livelihoods.

“Like every other business almost on earth, our doors have been shut since mid March—we are in the process of navigating mass cancelations due to the Covid-19 crisis,” said Kevin Harris, managing artistic director of the San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre. He says the company has lost over $50,000 in revenue during this spring season.

“We all have to keep doing something... and we knew we wanted to do something creative,” Harris said.

So while the theater is dark, he and the company created the “Intermission Show,” putting out three videos a week.

“This has actually been a lot of fun,” Harris said. “It’s not theater, but it was important for us to try to do something that wasn’t theater, because theater on TV sometimes stinks, it’s not the same thing at all."

Until now, Harris’ career has been focused on attracting large gatherings of people—and pleasing audiences.

“It’s very strange being in an empty theater all by myself, talking into an iPhone, with all the lights on, with the suit on, being all mic’d up...and you can’t get around the feeling that you’re 100% alone,” Harris said.

The SLO Rep invites anyone to submit videos for possible inclusion in the “Intermission Show,“ and the company has moved its Academy of Creative Theater program for kids—active now for 20 years—to an online platform, with an open call for video contributions as well.

[Sound of clarinet]

That’s Laura Foxx playing a warm-up etude. Foxx is a clarinet and saxophone player for several area bands, including the Tipsy Gypsies. She’s among the performance-based artists trying to navigate online platforms and presence, as all her live gigs vanished.

“In some ways it feels like a setback, but in other ways it’s a really unique opportunity for me to stretch my brain more and just think like hmmm, what are some cool musical activities that we can do with this different platform?” said Foxx.

Before mid-March, Foxx juggled a slew of paid gigs along the Central Coast, including a weekly performance at a Chinese restaurant in San Luis Obispo with the band Twice Cooked Jazz Trio. The group continued partnering online during the initial weeks of sheltering at home, so people could pick up takeout and get home to catch the live stream. She says playing online has in some ways expanded her audience.

“To be able to connect with someone that has never come to see me play at Mee Heng Low because they live in New York is incredible,” Foxx said.

Foxx said, while it’s easy to focus on all the negatives of this unprecedented situation, she is choosing to get even more creative and supportive of the community as a whole.

“I want to support my artist friends when I see my friends in bands playing, I want to tip them because I would be if I were seeing them in person, or I’d be buying concert tickets,” Foxx said.

Both Foxx and Harris say they miss human connection, and how much their performance-based careers depend on that in-the-same-room, in-person bond.

“I think we’ve all been able to feel what it’s like not having the connection with our fellow humans, and theater is a big part of that, so I can’t wait to be able to help provide that to our community again,” Harris said.

Both artists say they will keep trying to navigate the online performance sphere until things change...but wonder, what’s to come.

“Theater has been dying for thousands of years,” Harris said. “But I know that it will be back stronger than ever. I just can’t wait to be able to open the doors to our theater and to all the arts organizations in town, because I know there’s going to be this new wave of energy and connection that I think is gonna be pretty overwhelming when that day comes.”

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from The Shanbrom Family Foundation.

Editor's note: a correction has been made to this story since initial publishing. It was the Twice Cooked Jazz Trio, not Foxx and Rice, that performed at San Luis Obispo's Mee Heng Low prior to the pandemic shutdown.