The arts are alive again in the SF Bay Area

By Ande Jacobson

Since California’s reopening on 15 June 2021, the performing arts in the San Francisco Bay Area have come alive. Over the 4th of July holiday weekend, picnics were accented with live community band concerts galore. Most of these bands had very limited outdoor rehearsals to prepare, but many of the musicians have enjoyed meeting in person to play together again, and in addition to the larger concert bands, several smaller ensembles have been cautiously resuming rehearsals in person over the last several months.

Local theater companies are planning for new seasons beginning later this summer or fall with auditions and rehearsals in full swing, and several local groups have already resumed live performances. The local theaters vary in which precautions they are continuing. Some are requiring all of their company members to be vaccinated, while others aren’t. Some are limiting the number of audience members as well as requiring vaccination and/or masks, while others aren’t imposing any restrictions. A few are even continuing to offer some streaming options for those patrons who aren’t ready to brave the wilds of society in person just yet.

For performers eager to get back on stage, this is a long-awaited and welcome development, and they are enjoying the comradery of gathering with their fellow performers and making art. More than that, they are enjoying interacting with audiences again, feeling the energy of audience responses that strengthen their performances. For many performers, receiving that auditory and visual feedback from the audience members in the room with them is what drives them. Without that feedback, they feel as though they are missing important elements and energy. Rehearsal is a crucial part of the process, but without audience interaction in performance, it feels empty to them. To others, it’s all about the material they are performing, and whether or not a live audience is present, they can lose themselves in the music or the script and get satisfaction from honing their personal skills.

At some of the early rehearsals, musicians have had to work out some kinks from months of not playing. Their fingers and tone were there, but for the woodwind and brass players, sometimes their stamina was not. Playing instruments can be a workout when one isn’t really in shape, so a number of players have had to spend some time practicing again just to make sure their mouths and lungs worked properly for long enough to get through a rehearsal or performance.

For those less eager to resume in-person interactions, this evolving reopening is sometimes posing some consternation. Whether it’s from friends and family members pushing them to attend a social gathering of some kind, or their theatrical or music community trying to entice them to come back into the spotlight, it can be a tad awkward. In some cases, those originally scheduled to play have found replacements to avoid being in close quarters this soon while others might never return.

Concerns go beyond just the risks associated with COVID-19. For many who have been able to isolate through the pandemic or at least stay securely masked when around others outside of their households, the one benefit from the last 18 months or so has been not catching frequent colds and flus. Going back to rehearsals, even if everyone is vaccinated against COVID-19, will undoubtedly bring back more colds and flus with people gathering in large groups more regularly. Before the pandemic, there were almost always periods when the majority of a given production got sick because once somebody brought something in, it was close to impossible to not catch it. Given the various precautions surrounding COVID-19, it will be interesting to see how that situation evolves.

Pre-pandemic, “the show must go on” meant that people performed if they could stand, even when that meant they inadvertently infected those around them. Rather than pushing through illness with the increased stakes of COVID-19, it is possible that understudies will be used more often within the local theatrical communities both on stage and in the pit when performers get sick. Time will tell how this evolves, and also how strictly precautions will be enforced. For some positions, even in rehearsal it’s not possible to wear a mask. This is especially true in pit orchestras for the woodwind players and some of the brass players who have to play multiple instruments that require different embouchures (i.e., how a woodwind or brass player uses their mouth to play their instrument). There are some single instrument/embouchure masks available, but if somebody is playing clarinet, some kind of sax, and flute, there’s no one mask that would suffice. In pit music, for the woodwinds there are often fast instrument changes that don’t even allow time for the player to safely switch horns and not miss any notes. To try to switch masks too would be impossible.

The question of risk also arises for audience members. Often in the past, patrons would attend performances if they could, even if they were sick, often infecting those around them with whatever bug they happened to have. With the fact that many of the symptoms of COVID-19 can appear much like those of a common cold or flu syndrome early on, many of the companies are offering lenient policies for exchanging tickets for a later performance if a ticket holder falls ill. For those companies that are continuing to offer a streaming option, a simple solution would be to shift an in-person ticket for a remote one even for the same performance in case of illness.

The performing arts are an important facet of human interaction that has suffered severe restrictions over the course of the pandemic. No matter whether somebody is a performer, a staff member, a volunteer, or an audience member, they need to consider their own medical situation and comfort levels before deciding to return to the theater or concert hall. Even if a particular group isn’t enforcing any specific restrictions, the responsible thing for anybody considering such a return in any capacity to do is to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before entering the crowd. It’s important for one’s personal safety as well as for the safety of those around them. Music and theater can pull people together if everyone plays their part responsibly.

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