Ann Arbor and Ypsi arts venues gear up for return to in-person events

We checked in with several arts presenters in Washtenaw County to hear about their respective plans to return to something more like "normal."
While many of us were grateful to artists (and arts presenters) for offering online concerts, plays, and exhibits while we were cooped up in quarantine, let’s be real: it just wasn’t the same. There’s something uniquely electrifying and magical about sharing space with artists and watching them do their thing live.

So as the world around us reopens, those of us who’ve been jonesing hard for in-person arts experiences can finally get excited. Live local arts events are coming back – and some are already here.

Concentrate checked in with several arts presenters in Washtenaw County to hear about their respective plans to return to something more like "normal."

The Ark

Other than occasionally hosting musicians for streamed concerts in recent months, the Ark, Washtenaw County’s busiest music venue, has been weirdly quiet since March 11, 2020.

But that’s all about to change. Three upcoming shows (Kim Richey on July 29th; the Steel Wheels on Aug. 1; and Adam Ezra Group on Aug. 4th) will be in-person, but limited to half-capacity, inside the club. Starting Aug. 22, when Grammy winner Marc Cohn takes the stage, the Ark will be open at full capacity.
The Ark Executive Director Marianne James.
Executive Director Marianne James is quick to add that as that day draws closer, safety protocols will be determined. 

"I think in general, the Ark’s audiences are thoughtful and going to be respectful of whatever protocols we put in place," James says.

The Ark also recently teamed up with the Ann Arbor Summer Festival to present three ticketed concerts – all of which ended up being streamed from the club due to weather conditions – and offered six outdoor concerts during the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

The Ark’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, was virtual this year, but that allowed viewers from 22 different countries to tune in. 

"That just shows you the power of that format," James says. "We love to do it in person, of course, but it was also amazing to reach people who were so far away."

James says the Ark has stayed afloat not only via Folk Fest, but also grants, donors, memberships, and government funding – all of which allowed the Ark to present most virtual programs for free. (The Ark has offered over 100 livestream events since last April as part of its Family Room Series.)

"Because we’re mission-focused, our two-pronged goal was to get music out to people when they really needed it, and ... support the artists, because their livelihood was threatened by the shutdown," James says. "We found that the best way to do this was a tip jar format."

Will virtual shows be part of the Ark’s programming going forward? 

"We have learned so much about the livestream format, … but the industry is still figuring out where it fits," James says. " … Right now we’re just focused on getting back to live shows."

University Musical Society

The University Musical Society (UMS) has also been presenting a lot of free content online over the past year, but it's now prepping for an in-person season of music, dance, and theater, starting with tenor Jonas Kaufmann on Oct. 12 at Ann Arbor's Hill Auditorium.

UMS President Matthew VanBesien says capacity for that show "hasn't been determined."
UMS President Matthew VanBesien.
"We’ve been mindful, knowing that we may still be dealing with capacity recommendations from the university and public health officials at that point, and we’ve always been guided by that," he says.

Meanwhile, other live UMS events are in the works but have yet to be officially announced.

"We’re exploring an exciting collaboration with an organization in the Detroit area, away from the core venues we generally use," VanBesien says. "And we’re starting a bit later than usual to let the university get up and running in a more normal way and let audiences get re-acclimated. But that doesn’t mean we’re idle. … We’re planning to announce some things that aren’t the normal stuff, but they’re exciting projects that will get us all back to doing what we do again."

Like the Ark, UMS found that digital presentations allowed it to extend its reach, and follow-up soft appeals for donations helped financially bolster the organization during the pandemic. VanBesien notes that UMS' online production of the play "Some Old Black Man" reached 30,000 viewers worldwide. He says online productions will have to be "a part of what we do going forward," but as a way to "enhance," rather than replace, in-person events.

"The new normal is not going to be the old normal," he says. 

Frog Island Jazz Series

A brand new presence within the local arts ecosystem is Ypsilanti’s Frog Island Jazz Series, which offers free outdoor concerts on Friday nights from 7-9 p.m.

But don’t be fooled by the name. Though initially scheduled to happen in Frog Island Park, flooding necessitated the series’ move to Riverside Park. (In case of rain, the concerts will be moved to the Freight House in Ypsi’s Depot Town.)
John E. Lawrence at Riverside Park.
"Riverside turned out to be a better location," says series founder and local musician John E. Lawrence. "It’s more tranquil, with the rolling river and the trees with the green grass. Plus, it has more space, and we’ll need additional space when the word gets out and more people attend."

The location change did double the series’ production costs, however, thanks to the need for a rented stage. But this hasn’t dampened Lawrence’s enthusiasm. He says there will be no masking or social distancing requirements for attendees unless there's an increase in COVID-19 cases.

"One of my reasons for producing the Frog Island Jazz Series is to bring people together, the way we used to come together prior to COVID-19," Lawrence says.

Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra

Thanks to donors and strategic planning, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra (A2SO) managed to complete two concert seasons during the pandemic, including digital presentations, with balanced budgets. It also retained its full staff without a reduction in pay and compensated musicians through special relief packages to offset lost income.

Even so, A2SO Executive Director Tyler Rand is looking forward to getting back to live performances this season, beginning with a performance of Tchaikovsky's "Rococo Variations" on Friday, Sept. 10th at Hill Auditorium.
A2SO Executive Director Tyler Rand.
"It’s an impossible task to capture the incredible acoustics of our venues through standard audio recordings, so we’re tremendously excited to share live music with our audiences again in some of Michigan’s finest halls," Rand says.

Capacity limits and safety protocols have not yet been determined, but A2SO plans to work with its performance venues, as well as the county and state, to adhere to public health recommendations. Rand says the coming season will be "forged around our global quest for the A2SO's next music director," with eight finalists from seven different countries conducting the orchestra. Rand says A2SO has been working "to ensure that all artists' visas are in compliance with current COVID-19-related travel advisories."

22 North

The Ypsi-based art gallery 22 North – also used as a performance and meeting space – went dark for the statewide shutdown last March, but reopened in July 2020 for a masked and socially distanced art show. More masked and distanced shows followed, as did appointment-only viewings, and the gallery’s 2021 schedule was full well before last year’s end.
22 North gallery partner Nan Plummer.
"Artists were optimistic and eager," says gallery partner Nan Plummer. "Visitors were perhaps a bit more tentative. Beginning with our first show in February and March, again with appointments, someone in every time slot says, ‘This is the first time I’ve been anywhere but the grocery store since last March.’ People were very glad to be able to see art again and be in a place that felt safe."

Upcoming shows include "Climate Conversations: All We Can Save" (open now), "Beeline: Festival of the Honeybee Art Exhibition," "Peter Sparling: Moving Pictures," and "Leslie Sobel: there is no other."

"Now things are fully open. We aren’t using appointments, but monitor for capacity limits and ask unvaccinated visitors to mask," Plummer says. "We’ve had close to normal levels of visitation for First Fridays Ypsilanti in June and July … and things are already booking up for 2022."

Theatre Nova

Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova, housed at the Yellow Barn, recently announced its full, seven-show, in-person 2021-2022 season.

"It’s a combination of three plays we weren’t able to produce in our 2019-2020 season, due to the COVID shutdown, and new additions," says Carla Milarch, Theatre Nova's founding artistic director.
Carla Milarch, David Wolber, and Diane Hill of Theatre Nova.
Theatre Nova plans to present its shows with full-capacity audiences, so actors will be required to be vaccinated. Milarch says the "current plan is to require proof of vaccination for those who wish to be unmasked."

Over the course of the last year, Theatre Nova offered 19 livestreamed performances and eight pre-filmed performances. One surprise benefit of streaming was that capacity was a non-issue. 

"You can sell several hundred tickets to a performance that you’d have to cap in a live performance space," Milarch says. "I think it’s safe to say, however, that we’ll be sticking to doing live, professional productions of brand-new plays from here on out."

The online offerings helped support Theatre Nova’s work, but the company also took on subletters at its Yellow Barn space, and that helped financially. 

"Mostly, though, we’re still here due to the incredible generosity of our donors," Milarch says. "We had a couple of large gifts and a sustained Patreon campaign that was pretty robust. We think we have enough of a reserve to weather the transition back to full operations, in case we see reduced attendance."

Theatre Nova's first in-person show since the pandemic – "The Lifespan of a Fact," by Jeremy Karkeken and David Murrell – begins its run Sept. 17th.

"We had a few auditions for ‘Lifespan’ this past week, and everyone is practically giddy at being back in a theater in-person," says Milarch. "I think audiences are going to feel that same way once they return as well."

Ann Arbor Summer Festival

Though many of the events traditionally presented by the Ann Arbor Summer Festival (A2SF) happen outdoors, they draw large enough crowds to cause concern, so A2SF has had to be nimble and open to new ideas.

"We were tinkering with [the 2021 season lineup] right up until it was announced in May," says A2SF Executive Director Mike Michelon. 
A2SF Executive Director Mike Michelon.
A2SF hosted a series of 20 small "Live Here Now" concerts in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti parks and public spaces, two free outdoor movie screenings at Fuller Park (instead of the usual Ingalls Mall), three micro-theater experiences (involving only one or two audience members at a time), and a series of "Tiny TOPs" performances, wherein locals could sponsor a 20-minute outdoor concert on their own property.

"There have been a lot of reunions going on, ... both between the people in the audience who haven’t seen each other for a long time – there’s been a lot of hugging – and between the artists and their fans," Michelon says.

Last year, A2SF scrambled to shift much of its programming to an online format. But in 2021, thanks to vaccinations and a clearer understanding of how COVID-19 spreads, modest, in-person, outdoor shows became the priority.

"They’ve all been successful, but a different version of successful," says Michelon, who hopes ticketed indoor A2SF events can be added back into the mix next year. " … Now our focus is on planning for 2022."

Purple Rose Theatre

Not all performing arts presenters are quite ready to welcome people back in person. Katie Hubbard, managing director of the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, says the professional company will continue to offer virtual play readings into the fall.

"We are still down to just a skeleton crew of staff, but working hard this summer on restaffing and updating policies and procedures," Hubbard says. " … We hope to have our box office team in place, trained, and selling tickets by November. Our first in-person show is slated for mid-January 2022."

That show, per a recent announcement, will be a world premiere production of "Under Ceege," by Jeffry Chastang, directed by Lynch Travis. Set in Inkster, the play tells the story of an aging woman and her 49-year-old son, who face being forced out of the housing project that’s been their longtime home.

Jenn McKee spent more than a decade covering the arts for The Ann Arbor News and is now a freelance journalist and essayist. Follow her on Twitter (@jennmckee) and Instagram (@criticaljenn).

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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