The billboards say what? City arts groups unite during coronavirus

In normal times, it can be difficult to tell whether a leader is truly great. Organizational success might seem like a good metric, but it is not. After all, in normal times, it’s entirely possible for a person to inherit a healthy organization, maintain the status quo and achieve a semblance of success simply by not mucking things up.

Great leaders, I think, are always in crisis mode. They’re the people who are always trying to see what’s just beyond the horizon. For them, there is no such thing as a stable or predictable environment. They thrive on disruptions, and if the world isn’t changing around them, they’re the folks who will make it change. You find these folks in any sphere of life, business, science, politics, public service, education, whatever. But nowhere do you find them in as much abundance as in the arts.

Crisis management has always been part of the job description for the heads of Louisville’s performing arts groups, especially for the major performing arts organizations, which by their very nature require elaborate infrastructure and complex collaborations. At every crucial point in their histories, the major Louisville performing arts organizations have been fortunate to be led by people with a strong urge to connect their organizations to the community.

People such as Robert Whitney (Louisville Orchestra); Moritz von Bomhard (Kentucky Opera); C. Douglas Ramey (Kentucky Shakespeare); Thomas Jordan and Alun Jones (Louisville Ballet); Bekki Jo Schneider and Moses Goldberg (Louisville Children’s Theatre; StageOne Family Theatre); and Jon Jory (Actors Theatre of Louisville) were both artists and mission-driven activists. And all of them were visionaries, competitors and collaborators.

It is hard to find anything good to say about the current crisis. But there is one thing: in this urgent moment all six of those organization have simultaneously gathered together exactly the kind of resilient, bold leaders the time demands. You could not ask for a better team right now than Matt Wallace (Kentucky Shakespeare), Teddy Abrams (Louisville Orchestra), Robert Curran (Louisville Ballet); Robert Barry Fleming (Actors Theatre of Louisville); Andrew D. Harris (StageOne); Barbara Lynne Jamison (Kentucky Opera). These organizations have been collaborating intermittently in one way or another for a long time.

But in the last couple of seasons, they have exhibited a new sense of place that is building stronger connections both among them and across the Metro community. So, the fact that they’ve joined together in a new marketing campaign is both a recognition of the past and a promise for the future. You may have seen some enigmatic billboards — featuring what appears to be a couple breaking up — popping up around town.

This week, that narrative tease is being followed up with a reveal featuring the tagline, “Being apart brought us together.” It’s all part of the arts billboard campaign created by the companies with support from the two Louisville firms that donated their services: Outfront Media (the billboard and signage firm) and Mightily (mightily.com). “It’s a campaign to promote solidarity and visibility between the city’s arts institutions,”said Mightily President Pip Pullen.

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We can, should and must be concerned about the immediate fate of the arts and of artists in our community and across the country. But wherever there are people there are stories, storytellers, musicians and dancers. That’s all of us. For the moment, of course, all the world’s a screen and all of men and women merely pixels… Intuitively, you might expect — as I did — that watching live theater on streaming platforms would suck.

In fact, that turns out not to be the case. For one thing, I can stream live performances that I could not possibly attend. Friends in Canada tipped me to YouTube videos from the Stratford Festival (search YouTube for Stratford Festival on Film). Companies including London’s National Theatre are offering free streams. A wonderful opera company called Beth Morrison Projects is streaming some astonishing contemporary operas. And there are plenty more around the world, of course.

But what I love most is Kentucky Shakespeare’s weekly series: “Virtual Free Kentucky Shakespeare.” Every Friday, the company premieres streaming video of an archived performance. You can view the stream throughout the weekend on YouTube or Facebook Live. How do I love this? Let me count the ways. The grown-up in me — the part that revels in the language and nuance of the scripts and likes scrutinizing the acting and the directing — appreciates the ease with which I can rewind and rewind and rewind… Well, you get the idea.

With or without a script in hand, on YouTube I can conveniently play and replay specific scenes, think about the story and the language and see close up the way this company of actors — people I’ve observed for years on summer evenings at Central Park — are tackling the richest, most challenging dramatic works ever created in the English language. That in itself is intrinsically rewarding.

But for sheer fun, it’s hard to match the experience of watching these plays during the Friday night premieres on Facebook Live. Those premieres have been drawing pretty good audiences — including members of the acting company. As you likely know, if you’re a Facebook user, Facebook Live enables and encourages comments from viewers. Unlike the spell of enraptured silence that is expected from an audience at a face-to-face live performance, the Facebook Live performances always stimulate some great conversations among the audience and the acting company.

I can tell you that it is never a solemn affair — but it is always enlightening. The video and sound quality are outstanding — and yes, you can hear the planes overhead. Also, the intermission only last a couple of minutes on Facebook Live (though you can pause the YouTube as long as you like). This week, the Friday premiere is “Henry IV Part 2.” Never was a play more wrongly named. Although this is to some extent about Henry himself, for many of us this play should have been called “Falstaff,” because here more than anywhere else in his works, Shakespeare delves into the world of the common folks and rustics.

Under the direction of Amy Attaway, J. Barrett Cooper (as Falstaff) and company did a brilliant job with this in the Park. This Friday’s showing starts at 7 p.m. and plays through the weekend. I am told that KY Shakes is still making contingency plans, in case live performances are possible later this summer. Also, they may offer marathon “Bardapalooza” streams. Look for Kentucky Shakespeare on Facebook (or Youtube). It’s free.

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