Will artists make it through the pandemic with the creative flame still burning? Will all of the arts institutions they’ve called home survive? Those are questions that feel as pressing today as when stages went dark and museums locked down on March 13, 2020.
Here’s another, paradoxical question to ask one year later: Is there a chance that musicians, playwrights, dancers and visual artists will emerge from the COVID-19 shutdown as the first voices in a stunning new Belle Époque?
Every artist thrives or leaves for greener pastures according to a unique set of circumstances. But stirrings a year into the pandemic suggest a spectrum of creative responses. The Inquirer profiled seven artists last April, a few weeks into the pandemic’s awful grand pause. Those same artists today find themselves experiencing a range of consequences: Some are hedging their bets by flirting with other careers, and some have blossomed. Others are just finding ways to get by.
A light at the end of the tunnel? Perhaps. But in some sense, we are all already changed, even as we wait.
Says actor and singer Zachary James: “Here we are a year later, and more than 500,000 people have died in our country. I don’t think we’re ever going to forget this. It’s always going to be a part of our lives.”
“I think we’re in a holding pattern,” says harpist Mindy Cutcher. “Right now we are waiting until winter ends.”
Taysha Marie Canales and Akeem Davis, actors
When theater curtains fell a year ago, Canales and Davis both found themselves in shows that couldn’t go on. Canales, a member of the Wilma’s HotHouse Company of resident artists, was appearing in Shakespeare in Love at the People’s Light in Malvern, and Davis had just begun previews at the Arden Theatre for A Streetcar Named Desire.
They’d recently bought a house in South Philadelphia and were planning for their September 2020 wedding at the Arden.
Some of their first moves were financial — getting temporary forbearance on their mortgage and Canales’ student loans, filing for unemployment, trying to conserve their savings and the money that was still coming in from Canales’ continuing part-time gig with HotHouse and Davis’ work preparing tax returns. Still, they were up to date on their mortgage again within three months.
Now, theater as we once knew it still appears to be at least months away, but Canales and Davis haven’t put their lives, or their careers, on hold.
Canales has been in Virginia in recent weeks, filming Wilma’s upcoming digital production of James Ijames’ Fat Ham, a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which she plays the Ophelia character, Opal. Like the Wilma’s critically acclaimed Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Fat Ham is being produced on location in a quarantine bubble. After that, she’ll be filming the one-person show No Child ..., for the Arden’s digital spring season.
Davis and Canales were both part of the Wilma’s audio production of Is God Is and are working together on a digital short. Davis, who taught an acting class last fall at the University of the Arts, appeared in the People’s Light streaming production of A Christmas Carol in Concert.
And they got married.
After they twice trimmed their in-person guest lists to accommodate the city’s shifting guidelines, the couple’s wedding took place as scheduled on Sept. 5 at the Arden and on Zoom. “That was a pretty high point in the year for me,” says Canales, who along with her new husband, recounted their pandemic wedding adventure in a video, #Matrimony&Masks, that’s streaming on the People’s Light website.
One thing the last year has left them with is more determination to control their own financial well-being. Davis, who once thought of becoming an actuary before turning to acting, has started studying the bond market. “It’s coming out of a desire to really establish some agency for us moving forward,” he says. “That’s my focus word for 2021, it’s agency.”
“I’m in the bond market every day and every night trying to really simulate trading and learn how to read that market, and the plan is to become a live day trader to subsidize my acting work.”
Canales, who’s participated in some of the bond market training, says that for now it “feels good to remember how to be an actor again. But that’s what I love about Akeem. He’s really goal-oriented and driven, and has a vision for the quality of life that we both want for each other.”
— Ellen Gray
Mindy Cutcher, harpist
When we interviewed freelancer Cutcher last year as everything shut down all at once, she said, “It was like someone pulling the rug out from under you.” The Nutcracker dropped out of her mix of gigs, and her atmospheric presence at weddings is on hold.
Her seven harps are hardly sitting idle, though.
After the pandemic started, Cutcher started picking up new students. Some are young upstarts. But others are older — amateurs who studied harp earlier in life and wanted to study again, or who long harbored the urge to study harp and figured now was the time.
“Everyone is stuck at home and this is the perfect time to practice an instrument and learn something new,” says Cutcher. “I think they decided, ‘Hey, this is something I can do,’ so it’s great. Great for me, too, because I’ve been teaching on Facebook, Skype, Zoom, whatever they want.”
In the last year, she’s added six students, bringing her studio total to 22. “I can accommodate every one of them since I’m not going anywhere.”.
She has picked up a part-time administrative job from home working for the Music for Healing and Transition Program, which brings musicians into hospitals, nursing homes, and other health-care facilities. She regrets not being able to make music, though, especially with others.
“I think that is probably what everybody misses in their careers, being able to collaborate with other people,” she says. “There has been none of that.”
Not playing in the ballet or opera pit also means not having the benefit of practicing with a goal in sight. “With nothing on the horizon, when you don’t have something on the books, it’s a little harder to be creative.”
It’s not all bad. Cutcher says there’s one thing for which she’s been grateful this winter.
“I have to say, I was thrilled I didn’t have to move a harp in the snow. If there’s a snowstorm, it means if I have a gig I need to drive and put a shovel in the car. There’s always the flip side of the coin.”
— Peter Dobrin
Zachary James, opera singer and actor
Last April, a month or so into the shutdown forced by the pandemic, James was watching his income dry up and decided that enough was enough. “I kind of looked back at my career and thought I had done everything I wanted to do, and that it was time to do something else.” He applied for more than 300 jobs, got three interviews — and landed not a single job offer.
“It was discouraging,” says James, a Philadelphian whose career has spanned from opera to creating the part of Lurch in the original Broadway cast of The Addams Family. Then, in May, came devastating news. His 14-year-old nephew had been fatally stabbed.
“This thing happened that flipped life on its head,” he says. “My family is small, and I really had to rally around my brother and help him pick up. I was in Florida for two months and forgot about everything else, even the pandemic, dealing with police and attorneys. It wiped me out emotionally. But it was one of these moments where perspective shifts greatly.”
Returning to Philadelphia, James began a period of intense self-examination.
“I thought, what am I going to do with my life? I started to think about the arts and how important creativity is, how art is the foundation of community and how it makes more-well-rounded people. And really how art is us at our best. And that’s really needed right now.”
And so James decided to return to singing and acting and began piecing back together a career — but with a mind-set that had evolved.
“I realized that all of these things that people say you have to do like, ‘You have to do Wagner or Verdi…’ Well, I kind of don’t. I’ve always been a weirdo in opera because I don’t fit neatly into the genre.” Now, he says he is considering “what is important in life and what matters and what doesn’t for the first time in my life and career. … The stress and the pressure to succeed has lifted.”
He’s doing an online talk show for Dallas Opera every Friday and performed a Broadway show for Des Moines Metro Opera with pianist Charity Wicks that was filmed at Chris’ Jazz Cafe on Sansom Street (available starting March 19 at desmoinesmetroopera.org). He is also taking a lot of film and TV auditions.
“Things are happening.”
I started to think... art is us at our best.
Not that it’s easy piecing together a career at this point in the pandemic. It’s also not lucrative, at least right now. James says he’s gone from a career that was bringing in six figures to living with the help of Medicaid and food stamps.
Still, he says, there are a few things he won’t miss about the way things used to be. Among them: unaddressed racism in the arts, and the absolute power of conductors and directors. “I can’t imagine ever going backwards.”
Janine Beckles, dancer
A year ago, Beckles was on tour in Europe with Philadanco. Then, with little notice, she and her colleagues had to pack up for a whirlwind evacuation back to Philadelphia, where she faced quarantine and the loss of three jobs. Instead of dancing, teaching, and working part time as a legal assistant, she spent her days taking dance classes online, journaling, and praying.
“With COVID shutting everything down, it just put me in a weird energy that I wasn’t happy with,” said Beckles, who was also Philadanco’s tour manager.
A year later, “things have drastically moved along,” she said. “Jobs are now in abundance. It’s like the opposite.” She teaches online or in person at multiple schools, including Philadanco, Howard University, and a studio in Pittsburgh.
Philadanco is back rehearsing on a hybrid schedule, and she has danced in several virtual performances, including one at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts that included a piece she and a partner choreographed.
And then, in October, company founder Joan Myers Brown told Beckles she was eager to keep her in the Philadanco family long-term, so she promoted her to assistant to the artistic director.
The new job is “such a fast learning curve,” Beckles said. “I love seeing the logistics of everything that goes into putting on our performances... dealing with presenters and dealing with the different artistic pieces, choreographers, and lighting designers.”
The promotion was also serendipitous, as Beckles had been dreaming of a future leadership position. “My ultimate goal is to be an executive director of an arts organization, preferably a dance company,” she said. “That is my ultimate goal, because there’s not a lot of — I’m just gonna be honest — African American women who are in that position.”
In order to get there, in September, she started an MBA program. “I was like, ‘COVID? I got the time, I should utilize it.’ ” So she applied, not realizing that her dance work would start heating up again so quickly. She’s back at the law firm one day a week, too. Plus, she has joined two boards promoting cultural advocacy: the Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyer Association and Dancers Amplified.
“It’s way more than before,” she said. “I noticed that the busier I am, the happier I am, because it keeps me focused.”
— Ellen Dunkel
Lavett Ballard, visual artist
By any standard, Ballard has had a banner year. She got picked up by not one but two galleries, and her art, far from falling into obscurity during the pandemic, is selling — briskly.
“Oddly enough, my sales went into the stratosphere,” says Ballard, a University of the Arts graduate who lives in Willingboro.
She is well aware that such success is not the norm.
“We know what’s going on, what’s happening in the world. There are a lot of artists that are struggling just to get someone to look at their work, much less buy their work,” says Ballard, whose art explores stories of people of African descent in materials like collaged photos, paint, and metallic foils.
Ballard got a big break last year when her work appeared on the cover of Time magazine. She was understandably concerned that some of the potential visibility might get lost amid the torrential news cycle of those months. The worry, it turns out, was unnecessary.
“People were like, ‘Wait a minute, there are Black artists?’ Prayer may have had a lot to with it. I think it was the moment in time, everything being aligned in the right place and the right time. People recognized that there are many people of color who are artists.”
Among the recent recognition Ballard has landed is a residency at Yaddo, the prestigious artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Rowan College at Burlington County, which she attended but from which she did not graduate about a decade ago, plans to award her a degree in May — and invited her to give one of the commencement speeches. Her work in the last year has been acquired by numerous institutional and private collectors.
She said things have gone so well recently that she keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop. “It’s like, what is going on? Is my mom up there harassing some angels? Because this doesn’t happen normally.”
She’s also getting quite a bit of media attention, and in one recent interview, with a reporter in Syracuse, found one of her own questions being answered.
Is my mom up there harassing some angels? Because this doesn’t happen normally.
“I never understood how people who aren’t Black understand my work, and the reporter pointed out one of the pieces that was inspired by the Greenwood Massacre. And she remembered her grandfather talking about reading about that, and how it was a blip in the newspaper, but it stuck with him. When she saw the work that reconnected to it, it reminded her of her grandfather. And you could see this connective tissue where it aligned my history with all histories, which is pretty cool.”
David Thomas, pianist
The last paying gig Thomas played before the shutdown was on March 12, 2020, at Howl at the Moon, the Center City dueling piano bar where he’d been performing since graduating from University of the Arts the previous spring.
The next one came nearly a year later. This month, the 24-year-old singer did his first virtual show as Maui, a wedding duo he’s formed with former Howl coworker T.J. Young. They performed Queen, Billy Joel, and Harry Styles covers from a Delaware Avenue studio for a corporate audience.
In between, Thomas struggled with suddenly losing his livelihood. The same day that he lost his job at Howl at the Moon, he also learned of the cancellation of Red & Black, the UArts production that was scheduled to play the Polyphone Festival at the Wilma Theater in April.
“I was waiting on unemployment, and a slew of things were happening,” says Thomas, who lives in South Philadelphia with his girlfriend, Juliana Luber. ”It just felt like, what’s the point of making music right now?”
But then opportunities started to arise. In college, he had formed the band I Found You! with fellow student Donnie Grimm, who approached him about finishing A Dark Place, an album of trippy postapocalyptic folk that they began in 2018.
“A lot of the songs are about the end of the world, which we thought was going to come later than it did,” he says with a laugh. The album, which also features Luber’s vocals, was released on March 5.
When marchers began protesting the police killing of George Floyd, Thomas, who identifies as biracial, felt the need to make his voice heard.
It just felt like, what’s the point of making music right now?
“This summer, it really hit me. I was feeling so depressed and secluded, and I felt like I needed to start writing and saying something about what was happening.” He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and says, “I started writing about my journey, and mental illness.” He hopes to perform those songs in Philly venues this year.
In Maui, both Thomas and Young sing, play a variety of instruments, and DJ. In-person dates are lined up starting in May, “and I’ll actually be able to pay my rent without digging into my savings.”
The pandemic has strengthened his resolve. “Every time I think about leaving music and doing something else that’s not as personal or exhausting ... I think, what would be this fulfilling? I know that I’m meant to do music. It doesn’t matter if I’m a superstar or not. I just want to make a living doing music.”
— Dan DeLuca