In the Austin arts scene, the coronavirus pandemic darkened stages and closed many creative spaces over the past six months, at least temporarily. How, we asked, did the crisis change the lives of people who work in the local arts scene?


We contacted a few dozen people who work in galleries, box offices, costume shops, assembly studios and such. From those, we selected four workers whose jobs have changed in sometimes subtle, sometimes significant ways.


Unsurprisingly, all four weave Zoom into their long hours.


Along with the darkness, stress and heartbreak of these times, however, each has found fresh creative outlets and new problems to solve. Up to a certain point, these are the lucky ones, because they all have kept their jobs.


Zach Theatre and the Long Center for the Performing Arts, among other arts groups, have gone through layoffs or furloughs. Workers for smaller groups, which often depend on government grants, face different financial threats on tiny budgets. In Austin, those revenues include a share of hospitality taxes from hotels that now sit mostly or partially empty. Arts leaders anticipate a 75% drop in hotel tax revenues, a portion of which is dedicated to the arts.


Yet for those who have been lucky enough to keep their arts jobs, in ways large and small, those roles have transmogrified, some of them for the foreseeable future.


‘To see so many go is troubling’


For Justin Eben "J.E." Johnson, supervisor of the scenic studio for Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas, the pandemic has produced heartbreaking results at work, but at the same time it has engendered bouts of unforeseen creativity.


Some of the shows planned for UT’s theater, dance and music training programs have been canceled — his group does not build the scenery for the touring shows, including Broadway in Austin, although they sometimes help out with repairs — but other shows have been rethought as new projects.


"We have had a reduction in force," says Johnson, 46, who grew up and trained in Kansas, on Aug. 31. "We’ve watched a flood of retirements that seemed to be happening anyway, but some a little sooner because of the pandemic. Today is the last day of work for a lot of folks."


Normally, about 50 people work at Texas Performing Arts, which encompasses shows performed at six campus theaters, recital and concert halls.


"Today is a pretty sad day," Johnson admits. "A lot of people who have worked here 20 or 30 years — I’ve been here 23 years — and nobody is getting a proper goodbye. We’re not taking people to a bar to toast them. That whole thing is hitting us harder than we expected. To see so many go is troubling."


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Before the pandemic, Johnson always started his workday by getting his kid to school.


"Then I would get to work before 8 a.m.," he says. "Every day at about that time, I’d meet with my staff at the studio. We talked about shows that needed to be built, what needed to be painted. I supervise four full-time staff and about a dozen students, just making sure they had enough to do for the day and that they had the resources they needed."


Right behind the Bass Concert Hall stage, one finds Johnson’s very tall scene studio. Another smaller shop in the Winship Building is mostly for training, as well as loading in scenery for the Payne and Brockett theaters inside the Winship.


Johnson also serves as a lecturer in two College of Fine Arts programs: theater and dance and arts and entertainment technologies.


"I spend lot of time preparing for courses I teach," Johnson says. "But also interacting with the studios and taking any number of production meetings. I spend very little time in my office."


The crisis has provided Johnson, who likes teaching online, with an opportunity to offer a completely new course.


"I was slated to teach a hands-on course about performance robots," he says. "We were supposed to be creating large-scale robots for a performance of ‘Hedddatron.’" Elizabeth Meriwether’s critically acclaimed play concerns a housewife who is abducted by robots and taken to the rainforest and forced to perform a one-woman version of Henrick Ibsen’s drama "Hedda Gabler."


"The designers had done a great job coming up with the robots," Johnson says. "And half our students are engineering majors. I knew that they were they were excited about an experience that’s really hands-on."


"Heddatron," however, is one of the scheduled shows that will not be produced — but its spirit will live on, thanks to Johnson.


"Then I had a stroke of inspiration," Johnson. "At a young age, my daughter did a drawing of a robot. My wife made it into T-shirt. That gave me the idea to partner with an elementary school. The students will draw the robots that we will build for an online performance."


Students from Metz-Sanchez Elementary School will produce their drawings in the coming weeks, and then Johnson’s students will turn them into tabletop robots for a Zoom performance. If that were not complicated enough, the robots will be controlled via the internet.


"If you are ambitious, you sometimes find it’s easier to find money for things," he says. "The main goal, though, is that my UT students get a hands-on experience and that we stay connected to the community."


Johnson admires the current leadership of Texas Performing Arts, including new director Bob Bursey, who came on board right before the crisis broke.


"He’s leaning into every opportunity we have right now," Johnson says. "Theater people tend to be problem solvers first. This is a long problem to solve for us. We also like to move on to the next project. So everybody has their good days and bad days."


‘It allows me to escape my own home’


During the months before the pandemic, Carra Martinez found herself on the road a lot.


As director of Fusebox Festival’s "Live in America" project, which links together nine localities across the U.S. and Mexico to present art for and from the people, Martinez bopped from Guanajuato, Mexico, to northwest Arkansas, then spent nine days on the Texas-Mexico border, before heading to Puerto Rico, New Orleans and then back to Arkansas.


"The idea being if you want to be in community with people, you have to go see them," Martinez, 45, says. "Go visit. Build a relationship."


Nowadays, she Zooms.


After she and Fusebox director Ron Berry bonded during an East Austin project in 2014 that sought to dig deeper into the artistic needs of the area, they applied to the Walton Family Foundation to spread this kind of community-based program to El Paso and Juarez; northwest Arkansas; Detroit; New Orleans; Sumter County, Ala.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Las Vegas; and Albuquerque, N.M., the last one in association with the Apache, Pueblo and Navajo peoples there.


In Arkansas, Fusebox partners with the Momentary, a satellite of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which the Walton family created.


"For each of those places, we have a community member to suggest programming, writing, doing outreach and acting as creative facilitators," Corsicana-born, Cayuga-reared Martinez says. "Because we had that facilitator team in place — more than 20 people — before the pandemic, all of that relationship building moved over to Zoom. I’m on Zoom a lot."


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Martinez studied at UT and took part in its English Department’s influential Shakespeare at Winedale program. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota and worked in the Twin Cities at Penumbra Theater and the Guthrie.


Although she misses the human contact — she spoke to this reporter by Zoom from a retreat at a ranch near Dripping Springs — the group she helped to build before the pandemic necessarily became a virtual one.


"This community that we’ve built, it allows me to escape my own home," Martinez says. "I might spend a couple days in a row on calls with artists from Albuquerque putting together a queer powwow. We’re thinking together: How do you queer a powwow?"


They try to keep it light and personal.


"We’re laughing uproariously through most of it," she says. "We’re joking. Learning a rhythm of working, while yes, stuck looking at each other in a particularly forced way. But already we know each other from driving around, having dinner, asking about each other’s moms. We keep that part of it alive in the Zoom space so that we don’t become too officious."


Fusebox, which most years produces a global performance festival that’s free to the public, employs five people full-time and one part-time. While the Walton grant makes possible "Live in America," other sources of income are drying up and Fusebox is tightening its belt significantly like almost every Austin arts group.


"We’re being really mindful about fiscal process," Martinez says. "We mind our pennies closely. We do it weekly, which is not normal for a festival, but we want a transparent processes so everybody knows where we are."


Still dancing


Right before COVID-19 hit Texas, Alexa Capareda’s apprentices and fellows completed their springtime performances at Ballet Austin.


"That’s their biggest deal of the season," Capareda, 29, says. "And the biggest hurdle for me. A week after, that is when it all started."


Born in the Philippines, Capareda trained with Ballet Austin, then danced in Canada and Europe. She returned to Texas in part to be near her family, which had moved to College Station in 2005, but also to expand her career beyond just dancing.


While teaching in the Ballet Austin academy, she was drafted for a leadership position as rehearsal assistant and ballet master. She stages or restages works that have been previously choreographed for Ballet Austin II, the paid apprentice troupe, alongside associate artistic director Michelle Martin, rehearsal director Chris Swaim and artistic director Stephen Mills. At times, her 10 apprentices are joined by some of the 10 student "fellows" from the academy who have earned fellowships funded by mega-donors Sarah and Ernest Butler.


"I call them my wards, because they are under my charge," Capareda says. "They are college age and right on the cusp of starting their careers. In the before times, we took shorter ballets on tour to school districts all over the state."


One technique for reviving the movement of a ballet that had been performed previously is to watch the DVDs.


"In a normal year around this time, I’d be spending a lot of time reviewing video in order to stage a work on the apprentice company," Capareda says. "Of course, in a normal year, all of them would have been in ‘The Nutcracker.’"


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Last week, Ballet Austin’s leadership announced that the holiday classic, which employs 200 people on stage and perhaps as many off stage, would not be performed at the Long Center, but rather a virtual and interactive experience would take its place.


Capareda has not been idle. Besides her apprentices, she teaches students in the ballet’s formal academy and in more informal community health and fitness classes.


"In April, we started creating videos for all the levels that we teach to float on YouTube for families that remained registered," she says. "That was just me in my loft teaching to the camera."


Then Ballet Austin initiated Zoom classes basically every evening until the end of May. They took a little break until the summer session. By then, the video setup in the studios had improved, and the Ballet Austin building was thoroughly cleaned and examined, and work was done on the ventilation system.


With a live accompanist, Capareda and other teachers could run three or four classes a day each in ballet, pointe, stretch conditioning and contemporary. They also gave lectures on dance history and theory.


The next step brought community adults into the studios clearly marked off with 10 spaces.


"They don’t deviate from their spots," Capareda says. "They stay in their own breathing areas."


Simultaneously, students who want to keep their attendance virtual are following along digitally.


Now her main charges are working in health "pods" of five apiece. In a typical class, two from the pod are in the studio while three are watching on a TV in another studio and another pod of five are watching from home.


"We are starting quite slowly, because we know that everyone has been taking ballet classes in their kitchens or living rooms," Capareda says. "We don’t want anyone to get injured coming back. Even the smaller groups need a lot of space to get back into shape. Now, barre work can often be small-scale, but if you need to turn or jump or travel across the stage, that takes energy and requires muscle memory."


Capareda’s versatility has helped protect her job status in a company that has not been forced to reduce its staff so far.


"I’ve felt very fortunate to feel busy and fulfilled and to be able to adapt," she says. "It’s been very surreal. Sometimes I sneak into the studio and do some wiggling myself."


Taking the classical guitar online


Ciyadh Wells moved to Austin from Georgia in January to work for Austin Classical Guitar.


"Yet I’ve been inside my house since March 13," Wells, 27, says. "I’ve now worked at home longer than at the office by almost twofold. I’m super privileged to work from home and to have a job."


The native Tennessean, who is simultaneously earning her doctorate in guitar performance from the University of Georgia and is researching Black women who composed for the classical guitar, thinks ACG has used the pandemic to change in positive ways.


"Before this happened, not too much was done on our online program," Wells says. "We didn’t need to, since people love live music. This is Austin. With the pandemic, there is a need really for great online classical guitar concerts that people can see around the world."


Wells is the development associate for ACG. She focuses much of her time on raising money for the group’s global teaching programs, which have revolutionized the world of classical guitar instruction.


"My job entails two main types of tasks," she says. "My primary task is donor relationships and management. I steward their gifts through ACG and into programs they are most passionate about. My other task is development operations, which is office work, if you will. I sit behind a computer looking at spreadsheets. I’d often rather be out getting to meet people, getting to talk them, and finding out what they are passionate about."


Wells has drafted donors for a new project during the pandemic.


"For our students, learning from home has been a challenge," she says. "That has shown us that we need to do some work. Many students had no instrument. They were using one at school. We have been able to raise money on that. And now we’re actually running a $50,000 matching campaign, thanks to a very generous donor. We’ll be able to buy endless supplies of guitars for our students."


ACG, which in recent years has focused on revolutionizing the way classical guitar is taught and to whom it is taught, has not experienced layoffs or furloughs.


"We’ve been in a fortunate position to not do that," Wells says. "Even in some places, we’ve expanded for a period of time. For instance, we’ve taken on a contractor for the audio-visual online stuff because we didn’t do it before. A few of our foundation partners came to us and said, ‘What do you need and how we can help you?’"


All of ACG’s online programming is free.


"If patrons are able, they can donate to us," Wells says. "We are also in the process of rethinking how we can continue to offer all of our online and in-person experiences for free or as close to as little as possible once the pandemic is over."