Fall in Wisconsin brings many predictable things: The gradual loss of daylight, the cooler temperatures that will eventually bring our famous Wisconsin winter, the beautiful colors as the trees change, and the ever-earlier complaints that holiday decorations are already in stores. My how things have changed. Many of us wish that we could just look forward to this predictable time of the year. But as we’ve found, the year 2020 is anything but predictable.
The vibrant arts scene in southern Wisconsin is often a refuge for many looking to escape the cooler/rainy weather as fall slowly dissolves into winter. And often, it’s one of the best times of the year for that. The theater season traditionally kicks off in late summer/early fall and brings great variety, both big and small, to the area. Museums and art galleries offer a time of beauty and reflection as the year comes to a close. And dance, like theater, starts their season, which often leads into the biggest time of the year (at least for money-making shows): Christmas/family classics like The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol.
Enter COVID-19. The curtain (and the axe) fell in spring. Many organizations saw, with shocking speed, their spring shows delayed, then postponed, and finally cancelled. Many turned to makeshift fundraisers to help cover the expenses incurred and the never-sold ticket income. But there was a glimmer of hope that the pandemic would be gone by fall. We thought, “Just limp through the spring and summer, and the curtain will rise by the fall and patrons, bored from staying home all summer, will return in droves.” June was looking hopeful, but the post-Fourth of July spike in cases has put the fall plans into a whirlwind of uncertainty. If someone was planning a production of The Wizard of Oz, that tornado was going to whisk companies into a land much scarier than Oz. Ah, fighting a witch with a bucket of water would be a breeze to fighting off the coronavirus and the uncertainty it brings.
A 2015 economic study by Americans for the Arts showed that the arts generate close to $250 million a year in Dane County alone. This includes almost 6000 jobs directly related to the arts and a tax revenue of close to $25 million. Factor in hotel stays, restaurants, alcohol sales, tickets, and merchandise dollars pretty much all on hold, and the level of disaster to the industry becomes much clearer. While there was strong business in the first quarter of the year, it’s assumed that 75% or more of these dollars are gone for 2020.
A theatre production or an artistic show takes months of pre-planning, and the bigger the show, the farther out the planning needs to be. A Broadway-level tour playing at Overture is actually in production months, if not a year, before it arrives in Madison. Same with a traveling art exhibit at a museum. A show doesn’t just come to Madison, it must be booked at several cities over months, or even years, in order to be successful. And all those professional organizations are on hold. Broadway may not be even back in New York until next spring at the earliest. And the spin-off tours need to be rehearsed, but only after they are booked into cities all over the United States. Even a local community theater production at the Bartell or Broom Street needs six-to-eight weeks of rehearsals, set and costume builds, and promotion. Then add in the new safety rules/guidelines like ticketless entry, barriers at concession stands, cleaning the seats between shows, and many other small details yet to be worked out. And there are currently no set standards or advice on how to safely present a show. Even movie theatres, thought to be up and running by late summer, haven’t figured out how to convince patrons it’s safe to sit in the dark and laugh (and breathe and cough) in a room of strangers.
So that’s the bad news. But companies are still hoping they can return sooner than later. And plans are being made, with the caveat that they could change on a moment’s notice. And all eyes are going to be on the first organization that goes up. Out there in the dark…
Here’s a partial list of some area arts organizations and their very tentative fall/winter plans. Please note, these are current at the time of publication and may change drastically. We encourage readers to contact the organizations directly before making plans to attend or visit.
Their first show, Hir, had been set for November. They also have an all-female production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It planned for February, and their big show, A Chorus Line was scheduled for March. Both are still on the calendar for now, as is Laced, their final season show in April. Follow them on Facebook for updated info.
Encore Studio for the Performing Arts is the only professional theatre company for people with disabilities in the state of Wisconsin, and one of the very few in the United States! Encore offers an innovative, inclusive, and professional environment where all people work together in the pursuit of artistic and theatrical excellence. Regarding their season, they are still redeveloping it. It just so happens to be their 21st season; their 20th anniversary season. They had big plans, but they have vastly changed. What they do know is it will be virtual. Perhaps, if they are lucky, there might be a Spring 2021 show, but who knows. They will use streaming and live video. Again, they are still working on the presentation. They may not have a live, in-person audience, but there is much to say; perhaps now more than ever. The best way to follow them is on Facebook, but their website (which is being revamped) is also a good place to see what’s happening: encorestudio.org.
Broom Street Theater
Madison’s all-original avant-garde and locally produced theater has been entertaining (and sometimes shocking) audiences since the 1960s. But people looking for something unique on their small black-box stage will have to wait until 2021. All shows are on hold for now. The theater is small, so basic social distancing rules would be very difficult to pull off. Better safe than sorry.
Bartell Community Theatre (Five theater organizations working together as a co-op)
The Bartell is closed for the remainder of 2020, with all shows that were scheduled to open this fall now on hold. The facility is available for rent on a case-by-case basis, and the marquee is available to rent to display personal or community messages.
Madison Theatre Guild
The oldest theater company in Madison, founded in 1946 and has produced over 400 shows. This season was to be their 75th, so they are very hopeful it will happen eventually. Their first show was scheduled to be The Realistic Jones by Will Eno, directed by Suzan Kurry. Their next production is scheduled to be Ripcord by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Sean Langenecker. Then, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang. Directed by Betty Diamond. These are all detailed on their website: MadisonTheatreGuild.org.
Mercury Players Theatre
Their comedy Clue: The Movie on Stage was postponed from its intended October slot to sometime next year. They had hoped to do their family friendly Panto (comedy spoof) of Snow White and the Seven Superheroes the week of Christmas. Their Ball Drop Blitz scheduled for New Year’s Eve, is tentative. The good news is this show is written, rehearsed, and performed in a 24-hour window. So they have until December 30 to decide.
Another Madison company that’s been doing shows for 60 plus years, they’ve already posted their production of the comedy The 39 Steps twice! It was slotted for last spring and was already in rehearsals when it had to shut down. They then moved it to this September, and again had to postpone. They still hope to put it up in the spring. What was to be their second show of the fall, Emile: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight is currently on hold. The rest of their season is on pause as they hope to get both of those shows up before committing to future productions.
Professional local theater
Children’s Theater of Madison
Artistic Director Roseann Sheridan of Children’s Theater of Madison announced in late May the cancellation of Peter Pan, the night before it was to open, as well as scrapping plans for the final show of the season: Beat Bugs. Now, CTM has a plan for how to come back together safely to experience the magic of live theater again including two fabulous shows offered next spring: Stellaluna February 27–March 21 and Peter Pan April 24–May 2. Go to ctmtheater.org for more information.
Forward Theater Company
Their first production of the season, The Lifespan of a Fact, will be rehearsed remotely, performed and recorded on Zoom (or a similar platform), then shared with ticket holders online in September during its originally scheduled timeframe. Overture’s closing wasn’t the only factor in this choice. Actor’s Equity Association (AEA), the national union of professional actors and stage managers, is not currently allowing most of their members to rehearse shows in person. Experts throughout their field are working out protocols to keep theater artists safe in a rehearsal room and onstage, but they do not yet know how long that process will take. They share AEA’s commitment to safety, so are glad they have the option to present this particular play remotely. With a stellar three-person cast, a brilliant director at the helm, and their full design team working their magic, they have every confidence that The Lifespan of a Fact will remain a robust and entertaining experience for you. And fear not—they’ll be offering lots of live online talkbacks so you won’t miss out on that essential part of your Forward experience! Their second production of the season, 45 Plays for America’s First Ladies, will be rescheduled from its November 2020 timeslot to May 2021. They are really grateful that they were able to reserve an additional spring slot in the Playhouse at Overture to have that option! Unlike Lifespan, this particular play relies so much on a live, interactive experience that they felt it best to postpone it until they can truly celebrate it with you, in person. (All subscribers will still have the option to choose to watch a filmed version from home, as will be the case for the whole season.) And who knows—since this is a world-premiere script, maybe by the time they present it there’ll be a 46th play!
At present, they still hope to be able to produce the remainder of the 2020-21 season with in-person rehearsals, and the opportunity for audience members to choose whether to attend in person or watch a filmed version of each production from home. If conditions in the Madison area do not allow for that to happen safely for any of those productions, they will pivot to doing them online as necessary.
Since late March, Artistic Director Jen Uphoff Gray has been hosting weekly live conversations on Facebook, to communicate about COVID-related planning and to shine a spotlight on arts organizations and artists across the community. Those events are streamed live on YouTube and Facebook at 7:00 p.m. every Tuesday night. Past “Tuesdays with Forward” guests include leaders from American Players Theatre, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Madison Opera, IATSE, Madison Arts Commission, and Overture Center. They are also continuing to produce a twice-monthly podcast, Theater Forward, which offers a broader regional and national focus on issues impacting the field.
From Artistic Director Jen Uphoff Gray: “Despite all the uncertainty facing performing arts groups in this time, we are committed to producing a full season of plays for our audiences, and fully paying all contracts for our season’s artists and technicians. We are fortunate to be able to do so, thanks to the over 2,400 patrons who have subscribed for the upcoming season, and to the past eleven years of careful fiscal management that allowed us to build a reserve fund that we can use to cover the substantial financial losses we are up against.”
TNW Ensemble Theatre (formally TAPIT/new works)
TNW Ensemble Theater, founded by Danielle Dresden and Donna Peckett in 1985, creates, produces, performs, and presents original works of art and cultural practice, collaborating with artists and scholars working in the disciplines of theater, social justice, visual arts, music, and tap dance. The Company brings arts and culture to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, encouraging participation in arts and cultural activities, while promoting inclusive understanding of other cultures and enriching the lives of individuals and communities.They are in the process of changing the name of our 35 year-old arts organization pending approval of the powers that be.
They are embracing the “new normal” of live presentations for the near future. Sundays on the Balcony – A Parking Lot Preview. Featuring multi-talented performer, Kiki Moritsugu, this vignette (15 to 20 minutes) offers a taste of the postponed in-person production, A Woman Is … premiering in 2021 or 2022. Kiki explores mother/daughter relationships, cultural divides about race, and a life in the theater through monologues and music. Playing on the balcony of TNW Ensemble Theater Sundays, September 13 and September 20, 4:00 PM, 1957 Winnebago Street, in the rear. Reservations required, wearing of masks is mandatory, social distancing will be honored. Maximum audience size is 6 to 8 people. Contact [email protected] or 608.244.2938 for information and reservations. Sundays on the Balcony is free. Donations are accepted. Next up: TNW presents: THE FLORIDIANS, an online Zoom series about mayhem and money laundering in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida in 2020. Singing Russian spies, a cunning detective, two impossible and incorrigible elderly Jewish residents, and a playboy son. To be seen on Zoom in October 2020. Stop Time – Workshops in creative writing, public speaking, and creative movement for seniors in memory care. Times and dates to be announced. We dedicate this season to the memory of Jeffrey Golden and Kristin Kastner.
Their spring production of When You’re Falling was in its final rehearsal last spring when it was postponed. This original show with choreography by Lyn Pilch and produced by OUT!Cast Theatre is currently on hold until after the pandemic. The dancing is very intimate and with a large 30-person cast, attempting any social distancing is prohibitive for the production.
Their season for fall and winter is cancelled and will resume performances in May of 2021. This fall as part of their “distance”class program a special highlight will be learning legendary choreographer Anna Sokolow’s signature work “Rooms,” a powerful dance about loneliness featuring music composed by Kenyon Hopkins for a jazz ensemble. As part of that project, students from Kanopy Academy, Williams College, and Loyola University-Chicago will collaborate through the fall with the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble NYC and create a virtual signature performance of that work with a date still to be announced. During the first quarter of this fall, Kanopy Academy’s classes will remain virtual, following the protocol of the Madison School District as well as suburban school systems. They will re-examine in person classes and perhaps a hybrid program after that time. Class selections will include: creative modern dance, ballet, choreography & improvisation and dance history, as well as “intensives” in the premiere modern dance techniques including those of Lester Horton, Anna Sokolow, Doris Humphrey, Erick Hawkins and Martha Graham. At the end of the first quarter session, students will have an opportunity to video and showcase their creative work. They will also orchestrate Pop-Up classes and programs throughout the fall as they did this spring, but scheduling for those is still to be finalized.
Chazen Museum of Art
The museum is open on a reduced basis with safety practices in force. Current hours are Tuesday–Friday, 12–5 p.m., with free ticketed 45-minute admission that keeps occupancy at 25. Visitors can make appointments from the website at chazen.wisc.edu. For the fall, they plan to respond to the pandemic situation and decide about expanding hours and galleries as it becomes safe to do so (or not). The Chazen website’s event calendar lists all our events both IRL and virtual (everything is virtual for now) and Events are also listed on Facebook under the event tab.
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA)
The museum recently reopened with the following revised hours:
Monday and Tuesday: galleries closed
Wednesday: 5:00–8:00 p.m.
Thursday and Friday: 12:00–8:00 p.m.
Saturday: 10:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m.
Sunday: 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. (10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. reserved for adults age 60 and older and persons with compromised immune systems).
For more information, go to mmoca.org.