COVID-19 steals the stage from local performers

SEATTLE -- The performing arts were among the first to feel the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and stay home order - and they will be among the last to return. That has left performers offstage waiting for the next act.

Before every performance, Sarah Rose Davis thinks about the people filing into the theatre.

“All of a sudden that monitor turns on and you can hear the audience. This may be the hundredth time you’ve done the show, but it’s definitely someone’s first time seeing it,” says Davis.

She harnesses her butterflies backstage and her chords flutter from the orchestra to the mezzanine. She pours her heart into every note, before a packed house, full of empty seats.

“It’s especially eerie to be singing when there’s no one else here. There’s not even a production happening. My last day of work I was standing on those stairs and at 11:30 pm and they were like, ok good night, we’ll see you tomorrow. And we never came back,” says Davis.

Her life’s work, her livelihood, is dependent upon filling the seats.

“The audience and the rush and everything, the adrenaline, everything that comes with performing, but there’s an underlying uneasiness about it this time around. The reality is you don’t know when it's going to come back and if it’s going to come back in the same way at all. It’s not unfamiliar, it’s just uneasy,” says Davis.

“I think especially for younger people, with arts education going away in the schools, our organizations are filling that void. So for a young person to experience musical theatre or ballet or symphony, to have a soul raised; that only arts and culture can do; the power of musical theatre can do, is life-changing,” says Bernie Griffin, managing director of the 5th Avenue Theatre.

“For a couple hours you can come in here and be transformed and transported, worlds away from the every day,” says Griffin.

Three hundred thousand people walk through the doors of the 5th Avenue each year. And many organizations in the central Puget Sound area could lose up to $135 million due to this shutdown and pandemic.

Beyond the chains and padlocks on the theater doors, the feeling of loss spills out into the streets. The sidewalk remains empty. The marquee remains dark. And a billboard promotes a production that remains unseen.

For Cyrus Khambatta, it was from the box office to the backyard.

“I feel like many artists don’t know how to process everything that is going on,” says Khambatta.

His personal studio in West Seattle is normally a space for his dancers to rehearse. Instead, he is solo. And being out touch can also feel very out of step.

“Our bodies have to be trained, they have to work at this. I want to move people and in order to move people, I have to move myself internally. I realize I’m visualizing them in space as they were. And as they are. And that does scare me, to be honest, just not knowing what’s going to happen,” says Khambatta.

Maybe what connects us, essentially, is reflected through the arts.

“It’s sort of a feeling I’m not even sure I’ve ever put into words before … necessary,” says Davis.

“I do feel it’s necessary and I hope people realize what the opposite of having the arts is,” says Khambatta

“It’s a feeling. It is what makes us as humans,” Griffin.

COVID-19 may have stolen the show, but it cannot bring down the house. Not with people like Cyrus and Sarah patiently waiting in the wings.

“Don’t forget that the arts are the things that are going to fill your soul with hope and joy. That it’s going to be better than it is right now. And there is something to look forward to,” says Davis.

The Arts Fund conducted a recent survey of arts, cultural, and scientific nonprofits in the Central Puget Sound area, to track impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their data projects nearly $135 million in lost revenue, nearly 5,000 jobs lost or furloughed, and 97% of cultural nonprofits canceling programs. For more details click this link.

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