Actors, dancers, mimes, and musicians have had few — if any places — to perform over the past several months. A coalition of performing artists and the small nonprofits that support them are aiming to change that.
On Tuesday night, a group of artists and performing arts organizations led by the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) will ask San Francisco’s Entertainment Commission to begin developing guidelines for safely reopening outdoors. They’re hoping that if the city begins work on the guidelines now, outdoor performances will be able to resume more quickly once the city is taken off the state’s COVID-19 watch list, which could happen as soon as next week. Currently, all performing arts activities — including large-scale events, like concerts at the Chase Center or performances of “Hamilton” — are slated to resume as part of stage four reopening, which is probably a long way off.
This coalition of independent artists and small organizations is hoping to host much smaller events, much sooner — although under the best case scenario, outdoor performances likely wouldn’t resume until October. “We’re not all the Chase Center, or YBCA, or the Opera House,” says Andrew Wood, executive director of SFIAF. “We think that an outdoor space where people can be properly distanced is a very safe way of trying to reopen.”
While some performing arts nonprofits have relatively stable sources of funding, many venue owners, artists, and tech staff are in dire financial straits. “I know a lot of people who are struggling, says Patrick Simms, the incoming director of People in Plazas and a theater tech. “A lot of people have moved in with their parents or moved away.”
For artists, consequences from the lack of performance opportunities go beyond the financial. “All musicians suffer when they can’t play together,” says Mario Guarneri, founder and artistic director of Jazz in the Neighborhood. “Improvising players especially need to be with other improvisers.”
To help with the financial part of the equation, his organization, along with the Independent Musicians Alliance, distributed about $25,000 in grant money earlier in the pandemic. At the national level, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York today announced the “Save Our Stages Act,” a relief fund for performing arts venues, alongside James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.
But artists still want to perform, if it’s possible to do so safely. SFIAF and its partner organizations have developed draft guidelines for the Department of Public Health to consider. Events would be held outdoors, with each individual or couple seated in their own six-by-four foot space surrounded by empty spaces of the same dimensions. Audience members (all of whom would be masked) would have to buy or reserve tickets for events in advance, ensuring that people could easily be contacted if an audience member subsequently tests positive for COVID-19. All performers would be required to wear masks while performing and bring their own microphones. Wind instruments would not be permitted, at least at first.
This call for action follows in the footsteps of small gyms and fitness studios, which have been pleading with the city to enact new guidelines in anticipation of San Francisco being taken off the state watch list. These groups have been pressuring Dr. Tomás Aragón, the city’s chief health officer, to provide a better rationale for which activities are permitted, and which are not.
Some musicians have been able to perform outside of restaurants that are permitted for outdoor dining. The Chapel, and its restaurant, Curio, hosted an outdoor concert on Saturday.
However, dinner theater-style performances present limited opportunities. For the rest of the performing arts community, time is of the essence. SFIAF, Jazz in the Neighborhood, and other groups want to begin piloting outdoor performance set-ups this fall, before the rainy season, so they can be prepared to hit the ground running in the spring. Potential venues include Rec and Park properties like Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McLaren Park and Hellman Hollow in Golden Gate Park, as well as other public places like Fort Mason and Salesforce Transit Center Park.
More unusual venues could be used as well. Jo Kreiter of Flyaway Productions is currently seeking approval for a dance performance co-choreographed with an inmate at San Quentin that would be performed by dancers suspended from the side of a building in the Tenderloin.
Simms, the theater tech, thinks that if any industry can safely reopen outdoors, it’s the performing arts. “We’ve got people who are working on wires, 50 feet above the void,” he says. “We’re all about safety. It comes with the job.”