Live from quarantine: Local arts organizations adapt to social distancing

Live from quarantine: Local arts organizations adapt to social distancing
The Birchmere had to cancel or postpone all shows through May and let go of the majority of its staff after the coronavirus hit. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

On Tuesday evening, the night singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton was scheduled to perform at the Birchmere, the seats and stage at the venerable music hall were empty.

Due to social distancing measures put in place to combat the coronavirus, live music venues across the country have been forced to push back or cancel shows and let go of their staff. Theaters have stopped performances halfway through their seasonal runs. Audiences have struggled to get refunds for tickets they purchased months ago.

In the age of social distancing, the figurative thousand miles of Carlton’s biggest hit are suddenly a harsh reality.

The global pandemic is hitting hard across the entertainment industry, and local theaters and live music venues are feeling the effects even more acutely.

“There’s a lot of small great clubs that are not gonna make it through this,” Gary Oelze, owner of the Birchmere, said. 

“I just started my 54th year at the Birchmere and I’ve had some ups and downs and whatever, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Oelze continued. “I don’t know how long I can keep my management staff together. There’s absolutely no income.”

Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

Oelze is confident the Birchmere will make it through these tough financial times. He owns the building and has no debt to pay off, and, besides that, he doesn’t plan on giving up on a place in which he’s invested more than 50 years.

“Birchmere is not going to go out of business. That I can promise people,” Oelze said. “I’m scared, but I’m not gonna hang it up though because I’m too proud of the place.”

At first, Oelze cancelled shows two weeks out, but soon the reality of the sit- uation set in. He cancelled every show through the middle of April. Then Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay at home order until June 10, and Oelze had to drastically reconsider a meticulously planned tour schedule.

“If your restaurant [re] opens, you can call your staff and maybe have your place ready in a week or so,” Oelze said. “But we’re dealing with bands that have tours, so it takes sometimes a month to get a tour together.”

The Birchmere’s full May schedule will now have to be pushed back, and Oelze still isn’t certain if his June shows are safe either, he said.

The Birchmere is enough of an institution that artists have remained loyal to the venue, even in these trying times. Some artists, including Gordon Lightfoot, have called to reschedule shows for dates in the fall, winter and even early in 2021.

Oelze’s main concern is his employees, many of whom have been at the Birchmere for upwards of 20 years.

“The secret to the Birchmere’s success is my staff,” Oelze said. “Everybody’s been there 20 years and that’s what the bands like about the club, is that they come in and nothing’s changed. It’s like a routine, you know?”

Unfortunately, the coronavirus has done nothing but disrupt routines, and that’s forced Oelze, like a lot of venue owners, to make tough decisions.

“The first two weeks I kept [my employees] on, although we weren’t open, because I figured nobody was really panicking,” Oelze said. “Then I had to let everybody go.”

Although Birchmere owner Greg Oelze is confident his venue will weather the storm, he’s concerned about small local venues in the area.
(Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Oelze started a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money for his wage staff, tip staff and “kitchen kids.” As of press time, the campaign had raised $41,850 of its $50,000 funding goal. Contributions can be made at

Although he has managed to keep eight managers on his payroll, they are not going into work at the venue every day “because I really don’t want them to,” Oelze said. Instead, they are doing odd jobs that “should’ve been done a long time ago.”

Like live music, theater venues are also suffering right now, as the live theater experience is based around forging in-person connections. There’s the emotional connection built between performers and the audience and a communal one built among audience members.

On March 23, the Little Theatre of Alexandria notified its patrons that “Moonlight and Magnolias” was cancelled halfway through its run on the stage. Two other upcoming shows – “Blue Stockings,” which was in rehearsals and set to start on April 25, and “Neil Simon’s Rumors” – were cancelled as well, along with upcoming classes.

Unlike the Birchmere, LTA is primarily volunteer-run, which presented challenges for the board.

“I have a full-time job … most of the people who are in charge of managing LTA all have other full-time jobs, and now suddenly this has pushed its way to its own full-time job,” LTA President Russell Wyland said.

Fortunately, LTA has been somewhat able to adapt its process in the age of social distancing.

Teachers and camp counselors have already started offering classes and camp programs online. And LTA still plans on moving forward with its summer musical, “Sister Act,” which is set to run from July 25 to Aug. 15.

“It seems like it would be much more dire in a lot of ways because it’s a live performance venue, but it’s kind of fascinating watching the way people have sort of adapted without completely giving up,” Rachel Alberts, head of public relations for LTA, said.

The global pandemic hasn’t diminished actors’ enthusiasm for the Little Theatre of Alexandria’s summer musical, “Sister Act.” (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Instead of auditioning in person, actors have been auditioning through Zoom calls, and although it’s been a new experience for LTA, Wyland was surprised to learn that, for many actors, remote auditioning was already the norm.

“Several actors have told me they audition for things by Zoom up in New York all the time, so converting has actually been more painful to us than to the actors,” Wyland said.

Once there is a cast in place, the team behind “Sister Act” will have to figure out what they can and can’t do remotely. Rehearsing songs and doing early character work can both be done remotely, which will give the team more time before it has to consider drastically altering its processes. Wyland hopes to start small group rehearsals in the theatre by mid-June but acknowledged that circumstances could still change to the point where that wouldn’t be possible.

“First and foremost we want people to be healthy, and if that means – heaven forbid – at some point we have to cancel our summer musical, then that’s what we have to do,” Wyland said.

Wyland and Alberts noted that due to a sizable investment account, LTA is not struggling to keep the lights on at the moment. It has been able to retain its three full-time employees – all of whom are working remotely.

The LTA has offered patrons three different options when it comes to tickets for cancelled shows. Patrons can donate the cost of the ticket to LTA, get a total refund or get credit to put toward an upcoming show. So far, about 50 percent of patrons have donated the cost of their tickets to LTA, Wyland said.

The city’s Office of the Arts has also creative solutions in trying times, including an Arts at Home series that features weekly performances from local artists streamed directly on Instagram.

The idea came out of necessity, Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of the Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities Department, said. 

The Eric Byrd Trio performs a set streamed live on Instagram. (Photo/Office of the Arts)

City staff had planned on recording and broadcasting a performance from David Schulman at the Torpedo Factory, before Northam’s stay at home order halted those plans. The Office of the Arts worked with Schulman, who didn’t even have an Instagram account, to create an account and stream his performance remotely, Ruggiero said.

“We kind of have two agendas with this: One was to give our community a chance to engage with quality arts programs because that’s what we do. That’s kind like our mission. But the other one was to pay artists,” Ruggiero said.

The series produces simultaneously intimate and inclusive performances, broadcast directly from the artists’ homes to local audiences and music lovers across the country. A performance by the Eric Byrd Trio reached more than 1,000 people.

“Artists have been so amazing of sharing their time and their talent and their homes,” Ruggiero said. “This is now becoming a very personal experience that folks are seeing where people are living and where they really do their work a lot of the time.” 

For weekly schedules and details on where to find each program, follow @alexartsoffice on Instagram. 

One question remains: After the coronavirus, will audiences want to return to theaters and live music venues? Storm clouds are still overhead and the state isn’t anticipated to hit its peak until later this month, but local venue owners are hesitantly hopeful. 

“Theater has always been something that can touch on or trigger emotions, help people understand the world around them, and maybe we’ll come out of this and we’ll realize how important that is. I hope,” Wyland said.