Tulsa Ballet was preparing for the opening night performance of its final production of the season when the company received news for which it had been waiting 15 months.
It was May 13, the day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement that people who had been fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus did not need to wear masks, even indoors, especially if they were with other vaccinated people.
Just weeks earlier, Tulsa Ballet became the first ballet company in the country to have all of its dancers vaccinated. So the opening night performance of “The Celebration” at the Cox Business Convention Center — the first time in 15 months that the dancers were able to perform without face coverings — could be seen as a symbol that, at long last, normalcy was returning to the performing arts world.
But if there is one thing the American public has learned by now, it is that science is a process to discover answers to questions and problems, not a collection of immutable precepts. What is discovered through this process is constantly changing, just as viruses such as COVID-19 continue to mutate and evolve.
So while the announcement about masks is certainly a harbinger of better days for the performing arts, local arts organizations — no matter how eager they are about getting back on stage together, about opening their doors to audiences — remain cautious about the prospect of “opening up.”
“We really have to take this on a month-to-month basis,” said Mark Frie, CEO of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. “Something could change in a month or so that puts us back to where we were before. All we can do is move forward in hope that the positive trends we’re seeing today are going to continue and do all that’s in our power to be ready to go when things truly open up again.”
The reopening of the arts means much more than the chance once again to experience live performers on a stage. It also means that the city’s economy can also truly restart.
According to the most recent Arts and Economic Prosperity study by Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts and culture industry in the greater Tulsa area generates as much as $288 million in annual revenue and provides full-time employment to close to 8,000 people.
“That is a big economic engine, and it’s going to take some work to get it restarted and set into motion again,” said Todd Cunningham, executive director of Arts Alliance Tulsa, the city’s united arts fund that helps to support some 40 nonprofit arts groups.
“Last year, there was such a great need in the social services area, and people really focused on that when it came to giving, and that was as it should be,” Cunningham said. “But now we’re seeing people turn their attention back to arts. It’s the old saying of not knowing what you had until it’s gone. People are recognizing how important the arts are to the community, to our collective and individual quality of life, to education, to the economy, you name it.”
BEST OF A BAD SITUATION
Although all local arts organizations faced serious struggles this past year because of the pandemic, from canceled shows to staff layoffs, many of them were determined to maintain their connection with their audiences, finding inventive ways to keep the work they do before the public and even attracting new audiences.
This included Tulsa Ballet’s developing strict protocols that allowed them to create, rehearse and perform four productions — most of them featuring world premiere ballets choreographed by artists who worked over Zoom — for live, if severely limited, audiences.
The Tulsa Symphony recorded unique concerts that were broadcast by Public Radio Tulsa, recorded a special Christmas concert aired on KOTV and staged concerts at ONEOK Field, including May's performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
“I don’t know if anyone noticed, but the orchestra was seating much closer together for the Ninth Symphony,” said Keith C. Elder, executive director of the Tulsa Symphony. “We went from 6 feet of social distancing to 3. It might not sound like a lot, but it’s progress toward getting back to normal while still being responsible about safety.”
The Signature Symphony at Tulsa Community College also performed at ONEOK Field in addition to a series of chamber music concerts and educational events that were presented virtually throughout the year, along with two concerts live-streamed from the orchestra’s home theater in the VanTrease PACE.
“Everyone had to be flexible and be willing to try new things,” said Kelly Clark, dean of visual and performing arts at TCC. “That included things like having all our online concerts and programs available for at least a week after they were first presented so that audiences could go watch on their own or even watch something several times.”
Tulsa Opera caught a bit of baseball fever, as well, staging a unique production of “Rigoletto” that incorporated a wealth of baseball tropes at ONEOK Field in October. The company also had the first open-to-the-public performance held at the Tulsa PAC since March 2020, when it presented “Greenwood Overcomes,” a concert of music by living Black composers, in May.
Local theater companies such as Theatre Tulsa and the American Theatre Company also came up with new ways to do theater, from Theater Tulsa’s virtual productions to the American Theatre Company’s showing a filmed version of its holiday classic “A Christmas Carol” at the Admiral Twin Drive-In.
A new group, Blackjack Rewrite Company, was formed in response to the pandemic as a way to provide more local writers, actors and directors with opportunities to create new work in new ways, taking advantage of the flexibility that streaming platforms could offer.
“I think we were able to expand the idea of what a performance venue is,” said George Romero, a writer, actress and director who spearheaded Blackjack Rewrite Company. “We could create environments without building sets. We could present productions that blended live action with film. We could have actors from other places be part of our shows. Everything was an experiment for us; some worked, some didn’t, but we were able to do a lot of neat stuff with a lot of cool people.”
While these efforts helped keep the performing arts before the public, the necessity to limit audiences severely for social distancing meant that organizations were not getting rich — or coming close to breaking even — off these shows.
“When it comes to nonprofit arts groups, especially the performing arts, they usually operate on a mix of 40 percent earned income, such as ticket sales, and 60 percent contributed income, from individual and corporate donations, grants and the like,” Cunningham said. “So immediately they lost 40 percent of their income with the shutdown. Thankfully, these groups had access to other forms of funding, as well as assistance from areas they don’t normally rely on, like the federal government.”
Many local nonprofit arts groups were able to receive funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, as well as subsequent stimulus packages.
“These things did more than just help save mom-and-pop businesses,” Cunningham said. “They helped save the arts. One of the things we tried to do was help our member organizations identify and take advantage of these opportunities for additional funding.“
LET’S GET VISUAL
Tulsa’s museums also took a number of creative leaps during the lockdown. Philbrook Museum of Art and Gilcrease Museum made use of the internet to expand existing, and create new, programs that could be enjoyed at home.
“One of the good things about the virtual programs was that it allowed us in some ways to increase our audience outside of the city,” Scott Stulen, president and CEO of Philbrook, said. “We were getting people ordinarily not able to come to Tulsa taking advantage of our online programs.”
And when the museums were finally able to open, each benefited from exhibits that helped to draw new visitors. Both, for example, presented shows that celebrated the creativity and influence of Indigenous women artists, with Gilcrease’s “Weaving Art Out into History: The Enduring Legacy of Shan Goshorn” celebrating the life and work of the acclaimed Tulsa artist; and Philbrook presenting “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists.”
Philbrook also offered other shows, such as “Tulsa Treasures” and “From the Limitations of Now,” that showed how the museum is working to broaden its scope.
“I think the fact that these exhibits were seen as being a bit out of the ordinary for Philbrook helped attract bring in new audiences,” Stulen said. “I would say, for many of the shows we presented last year, about half the people who attended were first-time visitors to the museum.
“But the real lifesavers for us were the gardens,” he said. “We were able to offer people during the worst of the pandemic a place where they could come and take a moment to recharge. Some times you just need to run on the grass or roll down the hill.”
REGARDS TO BROADWAY
For the city’s major for-profit performance arts company, Celebrity Attractions, which has brought Broadway touring productions such as “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked” to Tulsa for more than 35 years, the shutdown was even more traumatic.
“We’re really just a small, family business, so this has been a pretty dark time for us,” said Kristin Dotson, Celebrity Attractions’ president. “The only way that we make money is by selling tickets to the shows we present, so when everything shut down, and all the touring productions had to suspend operations because they literally had no place to go, 100 percent of our income was gone.
“And in a business like this, it’s really hard to pivot to doing something else,” she said. “I mean, there is no way to do curbside delivery of Broadway.”
Dotson said the company had to furlough many of its employees last fall, but it became inevitable that staff members would have to be laid off.
“We don’t have a lot of turnover in our staff, so I was having to tell people I had known and worked with for 10, 15 years that I had to let them go,” she said. “It was heartbreaking, to say the least.”
The Tulsa PAC also ended up laying off about 90 percent of its staff after its CARES Act funds were exhausted.
“It was devastating for our employees, and it was something I never thought I would have to do,” Frie said. “But we have a phased staffing plan, and we’re starting to hire people back.”
Dotson said Celebrity Attractions also is beginning to hire people.
“I’ve been saying that we’re finally seeing the light at the end of what has been a very long tunnel,” she said. “And instead of it being an oncoming train, I say it’s the spotlight on the stage of the (Tulsa PAC’s) Chapman Music Hall.”
One reason for that light was the announcement by the Broadway League that shows would start to reopen in September, with blockbuster shows such as “Hamilton,” “The Lion King,” “Chicago” and “Wicked” starting up Sept. 14.
“We have all been following the Broadway calendar and making our plans based on that,” Cunningham said. “Because as goes Broadway, so go nonprofit art groups around the nation.”
Celebrity Attractions plans to get the jump on Broadway, presenting its first show at the Tulsa PAC since “Miss Saigon” closed in early January 2020. It will be “Escape to Margaritaville,” the jukebox musical based on the songs of Jimmy Buffett, which is scheduled to open Aug. 31.
“Some entertainment groups have been able to do this at a reduced audience capacity, but Broadway only works when you have 100 percent capacity in the theater,” Dotson said. “And touring productions will only go out when they know they can play enough theaters that make it financially feasible to be out on the road and stay out on the road.”
Other productions planned to come to Tulsa in the coming season include musical versions of the films “Mean Girls,” “Tootsie” and “Pretty Woman: The Musical.” The Tony Award-winning productions of “Hadestown,” a variation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as the reimagining of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” will be here as well.
“Our patrons have been so incredibly supportive,” Dotson said. “We’ve had very few requests for refunds, whether individual tickets or full seasons. They tell us, ‘Just let us know when we can come back to the theater.’”
TAKE YOUR SHOT
Several of the major arts groups that use the Tulsa PAC for its performances have announced their 2021-22 seasons, optimistic that by the fall, when the performance season usually kicks off, it will be safe to gather in groups.
Frie said the PAC has installed air scrubbers throughout the facility and enhanced its cleaning protocols.
“We want people to feel as safe as possible,” he said. “As for masks, our goal is to be as consistent as we can in enforcing whatever will be required. I think the majority of our audiences would be willing to put up with the inconvenience of wearing a mask in order to enjoy a Broadway show, an opera, a concert."
Tulsa Ballet announced its plans for the 2021-22 season, which will include several productions meant for the large stage of the Chapman Hall, such as the long-awaited U.S.premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Vendetta: A Mafia Story” and the brand new production of “The Nutcracker.”
Tulsa Opera may have been the first company to perform in the Chapman Music Hall since the start of the pandemic, but the company plans to take its time returning to the hall in the coming season. Its first production, of Puccini’s one-act comedy “Gianni Schicchi,” will be performed at ONEOK Field in October. The company’s other planned productions — the Tulsa debut of artistic director Tobias Picker’s first opera, “Emmeline,” in February 2022 and an unusual, immersive production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” in April — will be presented at the Tulsa PAC.
“One of the great things about the ‘Rigoletto’ we did this season was that I saw people at that performance that I knew were not regular operagoers,” Executive Director Ken McConnell said. “And we heard from a lot of people that they really enjoyed seeing opera at the ballpark, so we plan to continue to offer that.”
Some groups are taking a slightly more cautious approach to future programs.
“Ordinarily we would have announced our season by now,” Clark said. “But just because mask mandates have ended and people are talking of opening up, that doesn’t mean we aren’t still concerned about the health and safety of our musicians and our audiences.
“We have to figure out, is it safe to have 80 musicians on a stage, or should we only have 40?” she said. “And I may have no problem with being among people without a mask, but my husband might think differently. All these things have to be taken into account.“
Clark said that when the orchestra is ready to announce its season for 2021-22, it will likely consist of four performances in the VanTrease PACE — one concert featuring each of the three candidates vying for the orchestra’s music director post plus the Signature Symphony’s always-popular “Christmas in Tulsa” concert.
The Tulsa Symphony, conversely, plans to open its season in October, with pianist Garrick Ohlsson performing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concert. Ohlsson had been scheduled to perform this work to start the 2020-21 season.
“Our season is going to look quite a bit like the one we originally planned for 2020-2021,” Elder said. “We’re going to be doing the Mahler (Symphony No. 1), we’re going to be doing (Igor Stravinsky’s) ‘Petrushka.’ We’re going to be doing ‘The Polar Express’ for the holidays, and we finally get to do ‘Star Wars’ in January.”
The orchestra had been set to perform that last concert on March 14, 2020, until the city shut down.
“We feel pretty confident that we will be able to get back to our old reality, where we’re back in the theater with a full house, with music uniting us as a community,” Elder said. “We saw a little of that with the Beethoven Ninth concert. I think we all want to see more of that.”
Venues and companies are doing what they can, day by day, to ensure that the performing arts in Tulsa can safely reopen to audiences, but there is one simple thing the public can do to help make reopening a reality.
“Really, it comes down to this,” Frie said. “If you love the arts, get vaccinated. It’s really the best thing for all of us.”