Mark Trimble (Photo courtesy of Ami Sadeh)
Queer-centric arts groups fight to survive the pandemic but still live for the applause
Rich Lopez | Contributing Writer
It the end of this 2020 tunnel, there is the light of hope with the news of a coronavirus vaccine on the horizon. The idea of returning to normal — or perhaps adjusting to an entirely new normal — is within grasp. But still, the collateral damage has already been felt beyond individuals and hospitals. Bars, restaurants, small businesses, charities have all felt the heavy blow of the pandemic.
Area arts organizations have suffered greatly as well, to the tune of almost $70 million dollars in lost revenue.
The Save Our Stages Act could provide $20 billion in grants to the performing arts depending on current negotiations in Congress. That money would revive the industry across the country with its relief, but the damage has been done.
For the local queer community, the loss of the arts is a heavy blow. Not simply because of the lack of the theater or the concerts, but because the community has the privilege of organizations that speak directly to LGBTQ audiences. In addition, there are plenty of out musicians, artists and actors all absent from their respective stages.
“I imagine that in the general public mind, a musician is not a frontline worker. The arts are probably not at the forefront of other people’s thoughts right now,” professional musician Mark Trimble said.
But as the country is almost a year into the pandemic, the arts have had to adjust big time. Much like everything else, performances are now virtual (mostly). The Turtle Creek Chorale hosted its annual holiday concert online last weekend, and
The Women’s Chorus of Dallas will hold its “Love and Joy” holiday concert virtually on Saturday. And Uptown Players filmed its holiday show for online streaming.
But a screen, for these guys, just ain’t the same.
“We’re just tired of being onscreen or on our screens,” TWCD’s Executive Director Crystal Koe said. “But our outlook is to remain optimistic. It’s difficult at times, but we can come back from this.”
Albeit a diverse group of singers, the Women’s Chorus of Dallas has been a home for queer female voices since 1989. The group has about 100 singers on its roster with an average of three concerts per season.
With 2020 being what it is, active singers have significantly reduced. Determined to keep its holiday show, Artistic Director Melinda Imthurn pivoted to Zoom rehearsals for the year-end concert, even with less than 50 percent of its singers chiming in.
They know the impact won’t be the same when patrons watch them sing on their computers, tablets and smart televisions. But, Koe said, “It’s better than nothing. We’re all just pulling together like a large family.”
Imthurn wanted something — anything — for her chorus to keep some semblance of its usual self. “For me personally, it’s been about keeping the membership as engaged as we can,” she said. “That has been the challenge. Keeping them engaged means that when we can be with each other, we have a chorus to come back to.”
Now they Zoom each week to rehearse, which is a tricky feat for Imthurn. While they sing on their end, everyone is muted, and she leads but doesn’t hear them. In today’s age, the technology doesn’t exist for her to lead a “live” chorus on screen.
The rehearsals, though, have become something much more: “We are on a forced hiatus — from concerts, performing live, hiatus from the office and each other,” Imthurn said. “Our members need the singing, so we’ve shortened rehearsals and stay to socialize. Virtual or not, this has saved my life.
“Right now, there is nothing like logging into a Zoom call. They need what music offers them. There is the need to feel involved and contribute. It’s very powerful,” she added.
As TWCD has gone virtual, Imthurn and Koe have discovered some positives to all this. Being in a virtual world allows them to invite former members back into the fold, wherever they are. And, for now at least, they’ve let go of the pressure of attendance.
“I get to explore possibilities of what’s going on and creative ways to connect with our patrons. We have new partnerships and have the potential for an even bigger audience,” Koe said. “Sure it’s hard to feel optimistic sometimes, but we’re still able to create and look forward to future projects.”
Virtual concerts and rehearsals also mean one more thing: technological know-how. If there was a silver lining, it was that.
“None of us were trained for the world we live in now,” Imthurn said. “We all had to stretch our creative muscles to be as engaging as possible and [stretch] our technological skills, but those will become super handy now.”
Koe added that there has been time to explore within as well. “We’ve been able to see where and how our organization falls into the larger conversation of our society. A big motivator has been taking the time of difficult conversations on what we want the chorus to look like.”
A longtime goal for Koe and Imthurn is to remove any systemic problems that may have lingered within the chorus. With diverse leadership, those talks have opened up the group to proceed with complete self-awareness. With the pandemic black cloud still lingering, Koe and Imthurn do believe that TWCD will come out of this ahead existentially.
Trimble is a professional musician who serves as principal flutist for the Irving Symphony Orchestra as well as the Amarillo Symphony. During the holiday season, he often finds himself busy with performances.
“Normally during Christmas season I’m doing The Nutcracker, two or three Christmas shows, a kids’ concert, some have church gigs,” he said. “December is normally the busiest month for musicians.”
This year though, Trimble only prepared for one: last weekend’s “Home for the Holidays” concert with the ISO at the Irving Arts Center. All his shows in Amarillo were canceled.
For Trimble, the pandemic is frustrating on different levels. At the Irving concert, the show was limited in capacity, and musicians played with barriers between.
“It was very small, and it’s a very different sound experience for us as individuals,” he explained. “You don’t hear the neighbors as you would normally, and thus it’s hard to know if it’s in tune. You get the gist but it’s not quite the same.”
In a normal year, he’d have close to a dozen performances at both orchestras. The holiday show was his fourth and his last for the year. As a musician, it’s taken a toll.
“Well, everything about the pandemic is bringing me down. It’s devastating for musicians, but there are those who are getting super creative with it. There is an outpouring of creativity, but I haven’t tried that,” he said.
He’s taken refuge in another instrument — that and some updates to his house with husband Ami. “I have a nice piano at home,” Trimble said. “I took that up and have refined techniques that had gone out of my fingers. It became this fun hobby, and right now I like it more than the flute because that now just reminds me of work.
“I’m like the least handyman person there is, but I built most of a wood path and redid our cabinets. I guess there are definitely some ways for me to be creative outside of music,” he added.
Otherwise, he’s waiting it out with the awareness that nothing could happen for a long time.
“Those of us in the arts or music, it’s just the least practical profession right now because it’s inherently dangerous for us and for audiences,” Trimble said.
His Irving concert served as some distraction. The music was familiar enough to be easy for rehearsal, but the performance itself, different as it was, helped.
“I think everyone was pleased there was a gig at all. We know the situation is challenging,” he said.
Trimble was doubly affected by the pandemic earlier this year. He is one of the founders and board members of the nonprofit BearDance, the dance event held during Texas Bear Round-Up in March that had to be canceled the same day county commissioner Clay Jenkins decreed the lockdown. The event raises money for local nonprofits.
There was a lot of disappointment, but we were still able to donate a fair amount of money,” he said. “I was thrilled we could do something.”
Trimble does have the freedom to make choices should his creative side need to break out: “Musicians are often dependent on organizations, but we’re freelancers, too,” he said. “I can always do my own thing — especially if things go on much longer like this.”
The Turtle Creek Chorale was all set for its big Corona comeback with Turtles in the Park(-ing Lot) performance in October at the Jackson Street Parking Garage. The venue was sold out for two nights, and Dallas case numbers appeared to be on the decline. Feelings were good until … .
“The week before, we had to cancel which was devastating,” Artistic Director Sean Baugh said. “Just when we stuck our feet back in the water, too. We worked hard, and our members were so upset. That was a blow. I still credit the organization for having that bravery to try something different.”
Next up would have been TCC’s holiday concert which is perhaps the chorale’s signature performance and, like their sisters in TWCD, this year, they went virtual.
“We’re following that lead, but it was more of a produced musical hour,” Baugh said. “We’re all learning that transition from live performance to broadcast.”
The concert featured soloists, smaller ensembles and prior performances. The live concert being absent from the holiday landscape, however, was tough.
“It’s a huge financial hit because it’s the concert that sustains us throughout the year,” Baugh said. “Not having that is a bit strange. This was the first time in 41 years the concert was not live.”
Still, Baugh considers TCC lucky. The Chorale’s fundraising concert featuring Idina Menzel was held in February, before the pandemic hit, which has helped keep the financial side of things afloat.
But he knows that only lasts for so long.
We have to continually raise money. If we can still produce, donors are more willing to give. They may not, however, give to a group that hibernates. So we’re asking all the time,” he said.
What worries Baugh though is many people are having to prioritize donations right now. “If there’s any catastrophe, any emergency, people start to forget that arts need funding. This is going to be a long time with no revenue and as a nonprofit, we’re reliant on sponsorship and donations,” he said.
All is not lost however. Baugh has discovered a few plusses. For him, putting creative people in a bind amounts to a wealth of reflection and discovery.
“The thing I’m really challenged with right now is the need for us to get out of the concert hall,” he said. “I think by limiting ourselves to the hall, we limit who we can reach. So I’ve been thinking about the time we come back together as a chorus and getting our message out from behind the walls.”
Hence, the parking garage venue; but that hasn’t been the only innovation for TCC.
“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, we wouldn’t have our new podcast OffStage, and we’ve discovered small pockets of singers that work well together we’ve never put out before. That’s been a huge positive.”
As TCC moves ahead with virtual programming and podcasting, Baugh is adapting to a bevy of new skills. For the sake of the choir, he’s working on video editing, recording skills along with leading virtual rehearsals and piecing together concerts.
But the emotional aspect of it all has not been lost on the Turtles: “We used to rehearse twice a week, which is an enormous amount of time the guys gave,” Baugh said. “Going from that amount of time to zero was a pretty traumatic thing. The chorale is their musical and social outlet and a central place of joy in their week. These guys have so much passion as volunteers, so it was definitely an adjustment.”
Baugh likened rehearsals to a three-hour therapy session. In lieu of physical company and in addition to rehearsals, TCC members try to make up for it with virtual game shows, cooking demos and other types of socials.
“None of it equals coming together as a family and singing, Baugh said. “We kind of understand it’s totally fake. We try.”
He does say that without the performances and the live rehearsals, the group sees exactly who they are and what they provide.
“I’ve been thinking about what it feels like when something has been taken from you. It’s interesting to see all these things unfold in the news and not sing about them. It makes it very clear the importance of a mission-based choral organization,” he said. “Now we see the power of that, and I don’t think we’ll ever take that for granted after this.”
One parallel that strikes TCC as well as the entire queer arts community is the effect of another virus wreaking havoc. TCC has often tackled HIV/AIDS in song and performance, and now the population is suffering under another virus.
The group has compared what people are going through now with COVID-19 to the AIDS crisis. There are massive differences, but it’s also the cloud of a virus that affects everyone.
“We’re not seeing the same number of deaths as we did then, but it’s equally painful. The big difference is that we could get together before and be around each other,” he said. “I think singing about solidarity and coming together out of conflict and sadness is all very pertinent.
“The garage concert was going to be all about that.”
Baugh adds that each time they sing addressing an issue, the goal is to show the light on the other side.
“We believe there’s no situation that can’t be tackled through community or brotherhood,” he said.
The show must go on
Co-producers and Uptown Players founders Jeff Rane and Craig Lynch were overseeing rehearsals of the musical Fun Home when the pandemic struck. The show was set for an April opening, but everything came to a halt for the company, and it has been on perpetual pause.
Uptown Players, a favorite among LGBTQ audiences because shows primarily revolve around queer topics and themes, took their stage to the screen with past performances and two new shows.
“We have been able to do the virtual thing,” Rane said. “In September, we got permission to stream an archival performance video of Pageant from 2014. But right now, our other three shows of the season are on hold.”
In the meantime, Uptown will wrap up its stream of Helen Holy’s Holiday Streaming Spectacular on Sunday and will open the streaming one-man comedy Application Pending with BJ Cleveland in January. The hope is, though, that the season can resume by May 2021 following vaccine updates and safety protocols.
Really, for the company, they are behind schedule at the moment.
“We should have already been selling another season,” Rane said. “We’ve taken a pretty substantial hit, and over 50 percent of our revenues are gone. We’ve relied on minimal revenue from the streamers but we were able to retain our subscription funds.”
Uptown Players relies on revenue not only from its approximately 1,000 subscriptions but also single ticket sales, concessions and merchandise.
If there was a highlight for 2020, it’s that Uptown was able to do its annual Broadway Our Way fundraiser in January, which also provided what would become much-needed funds. Those funds aren’t all for putting on shows. They keep the lights on and pay the rent. And Uptown is determined to keep its limited staff of three full-timers and two part-timers.
“We did receive some CARES Act money, which was $1,000, and there are grants and emergency funding out there. But the demand exceeds those limited funds,” Lynch said.
Rane added that any city funding dollars are currently on hold. Needless to say, Uptown is stressed because of the pandemic.
Now, they are learning to live with the situation with alternative entertainment.
“There’s so much uncertainty but not just with the virus. We could never get clear messaging as it progressed,” Lynch said.
“As we became more educated about everything, it feels like we may be on the other side of the hump. The morale at first was shock and awe and fear. It’s better now with vaccine news and a new president.”
Almost a year into the pandemic, now Uptown can bring something to its audiences, and that offered some relief to its company. After being isolated, cooped up or on Netflix overload, actors, musicians and crew were put to use.
“The 13 actors and five orchestra members and the crew we hired for the virtual projects are so grateful just to be able to perform,” Rane said. “I think that helped them. After all these months, they had something to look forward to.”
Rane and Lynch took extra measures to ensure safety for the cast and crew. Strict guidelines called for participants to be tested; there are temperature checks, and only one to two people can be on stage and, of course, six feet apart.
Uptown Players have shared at least one bonus effect with the other arts organizations: Now they are also audio/visual techs as well.
“We knew nothing about the technology when we brought actors in safely to film. We learned through doing these that is a skill we now possess,” Rane said.
Rane and Lynch mentioned that it was immensely reassuring to know and see their patrons have had Uptown Players’ back this whole time.
“One hundred percent,” Lynch said. “Our subscribers can’t wait for us to be back, and they’ve let us know they are behind us with their donations. We’ve had two North Texas Giving Days where we matched our goals both times. It’s nice to know that they are there when we’re in need, and I think it’s testimonial to our mission of telling our life stories on stage.”
Uptown Players has the luxury of being both a theater for everyone and a niche theater for LGBTQ voices. For their patrons to offer such support shouldn’t come as a surprise then. Lynch describes Uptown’s subscribers more as a family.
“At our theater it’s a fellowship. You see groups of friends or partners come and hug and kiss and greet each other. They know our actors. We’ve had the same box office and concessions staff, so they know them. There really is that human connectivity there.”
When they look to the future, they have a vague idea of what it looks like. They have secured rights for some 2021 shows, but there are no definite dates. For now, they are keeping flexible about the future and getting through the next few months as best they can.
The bigger challenge for the professional theater is working with its unions. Whatever the future may look like is determined by those unions’ stamps of approval. Rane explained that a vaccine itself doesn’t automatically mean shows will magically reappear.
“That would be positive news, but it’s about reducing the case count. Those numbers would determine if our unions would give us the go-ahead,” he said.
Fans of Uptown Players can continue to help the company. Although volunteers can’t be used at this time, Rand and Lynch remind that Uptown is still selling merchandise, including Uptown Players face masks and 2021 calendars. In conjunction with the holiday special, Uptown is hosting an online auction that includes items such as a cabin getaway in Fredericksburg and a wine tasting.
“We’d love for people to help promote us in any way through the auction, wearing our masks and just tell us about their experience with Uptown Players,” Rane said.
On the forefront
TITAS/DANCE UNBOUND Executive Director Charles Santos has been on the frontlines of advocating for local arts organizations. He’s on the steering board of the Dallas Area Cultural Advocacy Coalition which mobilizes support for arts and cultural groups. He’s also on the board of the Dallas Arts District, and both have given him insight to the struggles across the arts landscape.
“What we do at DACAC is a lot of advocating and organizing voices. Joanna St. Angelo really leads that charge, and Chris Heinbaugh, who came to us from the mayor’s office, has the most experience with advocating government officials,” Santos said. “But we’re pushing to write letters to congressmen and to the city for funding and to Save Our Stages.”
Santos has also led a roundtable of talks with other arts CEOs to discuss how to navigate today’s pandemic challenges as they received updates and guidelines. He took that information to open up a forum to other arts groups.
“We were getting information that was helpful to developing protocols that others weren’t so we’d have a discussion every other week to share that and rebuild our community,” he said.
Those talks will resume in January.
With TITAS, Santos was able to create an opportunity both for his organization and local performers. Normally, TITAS presents touring companies, but in October, they looked to their own backyard.
“People want to go to stuff. I started to think about other opportunities I could put together, and so we did a drag show,” he said.
Initially, TITAS was going to present a new series of edgier, adult performances called TITAS Unfiltered which boasts the slogan “If you’re easily offended, don’t come.” The original idea had to be scrapped though, because shows couldn’t be brought in. So Santos looked to the Rose Room.
“These are performers who make a living as performers but are often forgotten. It was a big success, and people had such a good time.”
Held outdoors in the Annette Strauss Square, Santos saw a big audience enjoying the entertainment. He also saw that the queens were thrilled to be onstage. It was such a success, they repeated it earlier in December, giving the Winspear Opera House stage over to the drag queens. Not only did TITAS step in to help the community, those events likely did more bridge-building.
“There were a lot of people who I bet it was their first time there. And it was a first for the queens to be on such a stage. Cassie Nova was such a professional. Kennedy Davenport went to Arts Magnet, and her teacher came. They signed the show wall backstage. It was such a good show,” Santos said.
For now, TITAS is keeping its schedule with a new performance in February. They hosted Parsons Dance in November following the company’s guidelines and their own. Santos knows it can be done.
“Right now everyone says ‘yes.’ We have six more shows, but we’ll see,” he said.
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