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Austin arts community finds new stages in coronavirus pandemic

Michael Barnes,
Vince Herrod holds the curtain during a dress rehearsal for Austin Opera's "Rigoletto" last year. As the coronavirus pandemic shuts down life as we know it in Austin, the company is turning its next offering into a film that will be made available to patrons in the coming months. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

It’s much smaller, but Fusebox Festival shares some of the discovery spirit of the sprawling South by Southwest Conference and Festivals. Instead of sharing the latest movies, indie music and digital culture, however, Fusebox is dedicated to innovative, contemporary performing arts that bring together artists and audiences from around the world.

Like almost all sectors of the city’s creative economy, it has been beaten up by the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, Fusebox’s leaders canceled the physical manifestation of its April festival.

Yet Fusebox will not be sitting still next month.

“In this moment it feels important to offer a creative response, and so we are currently re-imagining our 2020 festival as a virtual experience that will take place online in April,” says artistic director Ron Berry. “We’re imagining an experience that is able to be responsive to our current moment, that honors the incredible work of our 2020 artists, that can reach our audiences wherever they are, and that explores what ‘liveness’ can mean online. We believe that creating community is more important now than ever, and though we may not be able to gather in real life, we can gather together online.”

During a crisis, creative people get creative. And the members of Austin’s arts and cultural community are no exceptions.

Government officials have prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people for the near future. Even before that, almost every theater, museum and concert hall had canceled or postponed shows, classes and other public gatherings through April — and, in some cases, through May. Nonprofits are facing a drastic reduction of income. None so far has announced it’s calling it quits completely.

Broadway star Laura Benanti, realizing that this is the season when teens audition and perform in shows (like the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards here in town), has urged youngsters to share performance videos. Her plea has attracted plenty of participants using the hashtag #sunshinesongs.

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Austin Opera is turning its next offering, “Winter Journey (Winterreise)," into a film that will be made available to patrons in the coming months. And at 3 p.m. every Friday, the company will present opera stars in concert from its studio. Those performances will be recorded and shared later via

Many dance companies are drawing back the curtain on their classes or performances online. The “Tapestry Couch Concert Series,” for instance, presents a selection of the Austin rhythm dance group’s past performances, which like Fusebox have attracted an international audience.

“Ironically, (dances) with names and subjects such as ‘Safe & Sound, ‘Rhythm of Life’ and ‘Sign of the Times,’” says artistic director Acia Gray.

Austin Classical Guitar, which has transformed group teaching of its signature instrument across the world, is finding it’s not always easy to duplicate that success digitally.

“Group classes will be hard to continue remotely as large ensembles, but individual and small class instruction we’re looking at continuing by Zoom,” says Matthew Hinsely, executive director of Austin Classical Guitar. “We are continuing to pay all teaching artists. We’re also working on a musical pen pal arrangement with guitarists from Austin and guitarists in Italy, France and Norway. On the artistic side, we sent out a YouTube playlist with a custom intro video. We also started a hashtag #togetherchallenge with this video of me playing a little Scottish folk song that’s getting a little traction.”

Austin Playhouse also is adding daily content to its website, including an online workshop of Cyndi Williams’ “Gratitude Post Project,” as well as “Art in Isolation,” samples of songs, stories or paintings that come with a 10-minute maximum running time.

“Right now all content will be free,” says artistic director Lara Toner. “I'd rather ask for donations from those who are able than restrict access.”

Similarly, East Austin theater the Vortex has moved online.

“We are going to be producing digital programming,” says managing director Melissa Vogt. “A mix of dial-in, chat-style shows, both with artists like Jesus Valles, Kate Meehan and Dillon Yruegas from Howlround, and artistic offerings like play readings, character-driven improv hours and more. I'm also going to be showing archived footage of new plays that we have on hand, including some vintage Vortex shows from the early 2000s and 1990s. At this time we don't intend to monetize these offerings, but we will encourage people to donate.”

Some of Austin’s top arts companies normally tour the country at some point during the year. One of those, Conspirare, the city’s Grammy Award-winning choir, also assembles its main ensemble of singers from beyond Austin’s borders, complicating things further.

“The hardest part is what lies beyond these next few months,” says Ann McNair, the group’s managing director. “Our business model is contingent on flying singers in from all over the country. When will travel return to normal? Will it still cost the same? Rescheduling is challenging with a large number of artists, all with different schedules.”

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Even with healthy endowments, nonprofit arts groups are not prepared to go weeks or months without cash flow at the door. Like clubs and restaurants, many of them depend, too, on the sale of alcohol.

Besides asking for donations, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum has invited its followers to sponsor a sculpture or purchase advance admission. Zach Theatre suggests applying the value of a ticket already purchased to a tax-deductible donation, or perhaps exchanging season tickets for future performances for a Zach gift card.

For public archives such as the Harry Ransom Center, Briscoe Center for American History, LBJ Presidential Library and Austin History Center, it could be an excellent time for patrons to become familiar with their collections from a distance.

“While only a fraction of what is in the Ransom Center’s collection is digitized, we have thousands of manuscripts, artworks, photographs and books online,” says Elizabeth Page, head of communications and marketing for the University of Texas humanities treasure trove, “and we are sharing those on our social media channels, along with a call to creative action as we ask our followers to get inspired and share their own creative undertaking.”

Many nonprofit arts and cultural groups are simply still in shock.

“There are a lot of broken hearts right now,” says Jim Ritts, CEO of the Paramount Theatre. The venue, home to many SXSW headliner films, initially hoped to fill its seats in other ways after the festival’s cancellation, but eventually had to shut its doors due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“But there are even more folks who are performing small heroic acts that will have long-term positive ramifications for our hometown,” Ritts says. “And there are people across this city who are striking the balance between the professional needs of their organizations and the more personal needs of the individuals who are not full-time employees, yet are dependent upon our businesses for paying rent and paying for healthcare.”

Some of the best new practices, too, are generated by arts and cultural peers elsewhere.

“Theaters around the country are forming online groups to share information, talk about how we can support each other, and are creating platforms like Keep It In Play to educate and encourage folks to support,” says Drew Nebrig, director of marketing and communications for Zach Theatre, referring to a nonprofit website that links audiences and theaters. “Quite honestly, we are in the throes of trying to keep Zach strong and stable by supporting our team of artists, staff and technicians during these unprecedented times.

“We’re taking it one day at a time. Currently, there aren’t enough hours in the day to stay on top of it all.”


Fusebox Festival:

Austin Opera:

Austin Classical Guitar:

Tapestry Dance:

Austin Playouse:

The Vortex:


Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum:

Harry Ransom Center:

Paramount Theatre:

Zach Theatre:

Keep It In Play: