How the arts during the pandemic evolved and flourished
When the art world stopped, artists did what they always do: find new ways to express themselves.
Here’s how six Philadelphia artists adapted and thrived when the world stopped.
Concert: Visual and performing artist, educator, advocate for mental health and wellness
Pandemic pivot: COVID-19 and the events of the Black Lives Matter movement transformed his artistic practice
In March 2020, Coatesville visual artist Shanina Dionna was on the cusp of her greatest success to date. His ninth annual exhibition “Embryo” – an exhibition of his visceral paintings inspired by his work as a mental health advocate – had just opened at Vox populi. She was preparing the second part of the exhibition at the Barnes. And she had booked her first international show, in Athens, Greece.
You know what happened next.
“My job has taken a hit,” she says. “All of my travel expenses were non-refundable. Barnes’ show has been postponed. Things were changing in the nation. I needed to maintain the stamina to create.
She therefore deepened her practice of art and well-being. “I aspire to solve the mystery and the healing power of the visual arts,” says Dionna, who says the art has helped her save her in her own struggles with mental illness. Following the George Floyd uprising, she created Arrive, a painting inspired by this moment; it’s now part of the National Freedom Museum“Philly’s Freedom” exhibition.
Dionna’s 10th “Embryo” exhibition took place last March as a virtual / in-person hybrid event at Icebox project space. She made her first fresco, in the fashion district. She reopened it ARTbuds arts program for young people and started mentoring black girls Only You Summit.
“The late and great Nina Simone said that the artist’s responsibility is to reflect time,” says Dionna. “I wanted to think about how I could contribute to the cause.”
Concert: Playwright; co-artistic director of Wilma Theater
Pandemic pivot: Reimagined how a theater can make an impact
James Ijames has been featured as one of the Wilmathe three new artistic co-directors of February 2020. The pandemic was an immediate opportunity to reexamine the foundations of theater. “What the pandemic has created,” says Ijames, “is a real questioning of how we do things, why we do things.”
For Ijames, whose plays dealt with themes of social justice, the June 2020 protests after the police murder of George Floyd catalyzed this thinking. “In theater, our activism is a combination of what we put on stage and how we structure our organization,” he says. “We wanted to make sure we could do something that could have a direct impact.” This is why Wilma opened its doors to demonstrators.
“We knew we wanted to open the lobby but not requisition or take over,” he says of the dark theater’s decision to provide hand sanitizer, bathroom sanitizer and other essentials to those who took to the streets. “Often, white organizations can feel the impetus to take over. It should be about retaining space and amplifying a message. “
La Wilma also had to quickly rethink the way she tells stories. Ijames’ new play, Fatty ham, a contemporary account of Hamlet in the southern United States, was produced as a staged digital production and filmed on location in Virginia; ticket buyers receive unique digital access anytime through May 23.
“We’re watching a barrel of a year without live theater,” says Ijames. “But I think we’ll get back to that. This is not the theater’s first pandemic. It is a resilient art form.
Concert: Artistic and Executive Director, BalletX
Pandemic pivot: Brought his dance company online and broadened its reach and impact
With the closure of performance spaces last March, BalletX Co-founder Christine Cox knew that if she and her company wanted to continue producing art, they would have to think differently. This is how BalletX Beyond, a subscription streaming platform, was born. Cox hired 10 choreographers from all over the world to focus, not on performing on stage, but on creating short films in city locations. The company created new movies every month that could be streamed 24/7.
“Choreographers are used to creating new ballets in front of an audience,” Cox says. “I asked them to completely change their way of thinking. I asked them to explore how their movement could be used in cinema.
BalletX has spent the entire summer and fall of 2020 preparing for this new streaming platform. The heavy investment in time and resources has paid off. As of April, she had subscribers in 29 states and nine countries, and Cox says she expects BalletX Beyond to be part of the company’s repertoire even after the pandemic has ended. This has broadened the reach of the business, she says, and it can also demystify ballet, making it more accessible to new audiences.
Concert: R&B singer
Pandemic pivot: A shift towards home recording and COVID secure video production
Saleka had plans for 2020. The rising R&B singer was going to enter the studio and start touring. Then came the pandemic, which gave the 24-year-old a chance to collaborate with her father, director M. Night Shyamalan: Her Apple + Servant show, which is currently filming its third season in Philly, needed a song for a poignant scene, which leads to it “The sky is crying” a sensual groove that evokes Amy Winehouse.
It was a complete experience for a young woman who grew up watching her father work on film sets. “Even though he’s my dad, I had this level of anxiety to work with someone so high and who has been doing it for so many years,” she says.
In addition to working with her father, Saleka has found ways to stay creative. She recorded new music – which is due to be featured on her debut album this summer – in her basement and has filmed three music videos.
“We have backstage footage with everyone masked,” she said. “I worked so intensely with these people, and I didn’t even see their faces. If I met them on the street, I probably wouldn’t recognize them. It’s amazing to still be able to create. “
Concert: Actor and artistic consultant
Pandemic pivot: Become the go-to person for artistic organizations that suddenly need a virtual production
When the pandemic began, Betty Smithsonian faced instant uncertainty. During the day, the actress, aka Beth Eisenberg, consults with nonprofits and small businesses, and several clients were unable to renew their contracts. In eight weeks, she hasn’t had one.
Thankfully, Smithsonian was already a go-to person for managing and solving digital events, so when the world of the arts went virtual, she pivoted. “I started doing Zoom comedy and little shows here and there,” she says. “I was hired not only to host, but also to direct shows. For some of my clients, that meant asking, “Do you know how to use Zoom or WebEx?” Within six months, I was hired as a technical director and designer for various companies. “
When she wasn’t helping organizations like Theater Horizon, Germantown United Methodist Church, and Franklin & Marshall’s Department of Theater and Dance run their Zoom sessions, Smithsonian honed her acting skills at the weekly. Nacho Mic virtual open mic. She and other local comedy luminaries opened each session by highlighting an organization in the Philly area focused on issues such as poverty and racial inequity.
“Comedy is important. Making people laugh feeds my soul, ”says Smithsonian. “This year has shown me how my voice and my energy can be used more than ever to make a fuck-ton – that while still making jokes, I can use my voice and my passion to grab attention and l energy on less than funny shit at the same time. Make them laugh, then launch into the truth while their mouths and hearts are open.
Concert: President of the Philadelphia Opera
Pandemic pivot: Transforming opera from the stage to the small screen
When the pandemic hit, David Devan knew Philadelphia Opera House had a very specific challenge. Six feet is the social distancing guideline we’ve all come to know and hate, but opera singer droplets have been shown to travel 12 feet. Which meant the live performance was going to be a non-starter.
This is how the Philadelphia Opera Channel, the company’s streaming subscription channel, was born. Using Over The Top, the same software used to distribute content on services like HBO Max and Netflix, Opera Philadelphia set out to produce opera specifically for the screen. Soldier songs, the society’s individual piece exploring the trauma of war, has received praise from no less than the New York Times.
“Watch him on the biggest thing possible. These are not simple things in your study, smaller than life. Enjoy it the way you enjoy it The queen’s gambit», Says Devan.
For this season, Opera Philadelphia is producing its first live opera in a year in May – a series of outdoor performances by Puccini Tosca at the Mann Center. But the company will continue its groundbreaking digital work (next season’s offerings will be announced in May) as part of its efforts to expand its reach to BIPOC communities and others that have not traditionally been exposed to opera. .
At a time when the world seems to have shrunk, the Philadelphia Opera House has opened its doors even more.
Published under the headline “Big Pivots” in the May 2021 issue of Philadelphia cream magazine.