2020 leads Kalamazoo arts groups to discover how the show can go on and in 2021 it will

How is the arts scene doing in Kalamazoo during the pandemic? What do arts organizations hope 2021 will bring?
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

During a December virtual "Artist Happy Hour" discussion on what 2020 has taught the arts community, Ben Zylman got to the core of why the year was a miserable one for creators, performers, and audiences.

The long-time Kalamazoo Civic Theatre member, now interim executive director, said the results of the pandemic reminded him of the true importance of the arts. 

"We've been faced with all of this negativity throughout this year, and the situation has been exacerbated because what we would do to escape this negativity, whether it's going to the symphony, going to the theater, going to an art exhibit  -- we can't do it. So there's no relief," Zylman says.

Ben Zylman, Civic Theatre interim executive director He expanded his thoughts in an email to Second Wave: "Historically, the arts have served as a welcome and cherished escape from our daily stresses. Theatre, dance, music, and the visual arts provide us with a brief reprieve from our troubles while recalibrating our thoughts and feelings. The forced closure of arts organizations brought on by COVID-19 and the risks associated with mass gatherings, forced all of us to deal with negativity and fear in isolation; with no real way to divert our attentions."

Facing 2021, he's determined that the show must go on. "As we move into 2021 and all of the promise that it holds, the Civic will work diligently to re-engage volunteers, patrons, and students in the most meaningful, life-enriching ways possible."

The show must go on 

2020 was a time of great stress, and 2021 so far feels worse. We've got a still-growing pandemic that we're struggling to tamp down with vaccines. There's renewed civil strife, with citizens going through the painful process of defining or redefining what our society needs to be and how it should change. 

Pierre van der Westhuizen, director of the Gilmore International Keyboard FestivalWe asked various members of the Kalamazoo arts community two general questions: What did you learn from 2020? What are your plans for 2021?

In any other year, this might be just a rundown of box office examinations and promotion for next season's shows. What we got was a reaffirmation that "the show must go on" is not just an old showbiz cliche.

Kristen Chesak, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, says that last spring shows were canceled in a way "we haven't seen in a hundred years. We canceled whole series and seasons, which is unheard of."

"It was almost like a personal failure to them to have to cancel," she continues. It is "ingrained in the arts community that the show must go on at all costs." 

From Chesak's vantage point, "watching that was a little painful, in terms of people feeling, personally, they had failed their community." But soon, they realized "these cancellations were out of a deep caring concern and respect for the health and wellbeing of our community." 

The past year also showed how everyone needs to be invited to be involved in the arts, as artists and audiences. "We learned that there's still a lot of disparity, in terms of privileges and access to resources in our community, even in the arts community," Chesak says. "

"But we also learned -- maybe we already knew it, but it was reinforced -- that creative expression is a great healer, and that it opens communications. It develops empathy and celebrates us as human beings. And when it's missing, it can be really difficult." 


"We learned to pivot," Chesak says of 2020. "We learned that a great deal of things are actually out of our control."

The arts community did what they could virtually, which meant they had to learn a whole new skillset.

The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival was on the verge of its biannual national/international series of concerts last spring when they canceled. 

Pierre van der Westhuizen, Gilmore director, says "many people questioned why we canceled so early. The answer was quite easy for me. The science was clear and the scientists were clear that this was a pandemic and serious, and will be here for months or years."

Kalamazoo Black Artists Initiative created an anti-gun violence mural in Lacrone Park in October.The Gilmore turned to virtual production, "and boy, did we learn a lot." They had to learn "what is essentially TV production, right?" He says that "the unexpected, really delightful outcome of this is, we grew that so much."

One of the board's goals "was to expand our global reach with the Gilmore. And boy, what easier and better way than with the digital world, on the digital platform. We saw unbelievable growth on our YouTube channel." 

The channel is up to 5.27 thousand subscribers, and a recital by Seong-Jin Cho has the most views at 958,000. "We had 104,000 hours of watch time just in that season, which is exponential with whatever we've done before," he says. "We received new users all the way from LA to New York, and across the waters in Europe." 

Van der Westhuizen says he's stayed positive throughout 2020. "Yes, it's been challenging and tough year, and we miss seeing our audiences, nothing will ever come close to that. But I tend to focus on all the good things we've learned."

Not crawling under a rock, not staying silent

As an independent equity theatre, the show has to go on for Farmers Alley Theatre

Artistic director Jeremy Koch remembers the work they put into their production of Neil Simon's classic "Lost in Yonkers," the thrill of the final dress rehearsal March 12, and the disappointment when they realized they needed to cancel opening night March 13.

"Really heartbreaking," he says.

Farmers Alley went virtual and outdoors for the spring and summer. Artistic Director Jeremy Koch performed outdoor revues with "Backyard Broadway." His fellow performers were his family taking the safest route. From their perspective onstage and backstage, staging a show is "exciting, it's exhilarating, it's thrilling."

But the audience is also missing something when the theater goes dark, he says. "We didn't want to just crawl under a rock or stay silent." 

For an audience, being at the theatre, or at a concert, or at an art exhibit, "it allows us to put ourselves into other people's shoes, and develop a deeper sense of empathy for the people that we share this great big Earth with, and that empathy is crucial right now. It helps us fight fear and hatred and ignorance that is so prevalent in the world, and it lets us spend time enjoying music, love, peace and harmony, and art. That's what I'm hoping for. We gotta get back."

Farmers Alley went virtual and outdoors for the spring and summer. Koch performed outdoor revues with "Backyard Broadway."  His fellow performers were his family -- since belting Broadway tunes involves strong exhalations, being of the same household was the safest route, he says. The theatre also held "Broadway Battles"  and talked about the arts in "Koch Corner" online.

The theater is most-proud of their summer partnership with Black Arts and Cultural Center's Face Off Theatre, he says. They collaborated on the young audience's musical, "Three Little Birds," featuring the music of Bob Marley. With the help of local foundations like the Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation, the two theaters were able to hold the production for free at Bronson and La Crone parks. 

Farmers Alley produced "The Conviction of Lady Lorraine," a one-woman show written and performed by Western Michigan University theatre professor Dwandra Nickole Lampkin, filmed cinematically and shown as a virtual event late October. "It felt really good to do something live, to partner with Face Off and to do something to bring the Kalamazoo community together especially in the wake of the tragedy of the murder of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement," Koch says, "to try to heal the community and feeling like we were a part of uplifting black voices and black artists." 

The events of last year show that "the arts and theater should be inclusive," he says.

Moving into the fall, they produced "The Conviction of Lady Lorraine," a one-woman show written and performed by Western Michigan University theatre professor Dwandra Nickole Lampkin, filmed cinematically and shown as a virtual event late October. 

The year reinforced the feeling that theater needs to include people and organizations outside of Farmers Alley. "What theater is all about. It's collaborative, uplifting," Koch says. "We're in it together, is what I'm trying to say." 

For 2021, Farmers Alley plans to continue what they've been doing, with virtual shows and outdoor events once the weather warms-up. 

If vaccinations become common and the pandemic subsides, Koch is hoping for a live, on-stage, and in-person season starting the fall of 2021. "Fingers and toes all crossed for that!"

We have to work together

The year was dominated by a pandemic, but also by Black Lives Matter and issues of inequality. Did Nicole Lee, founder and director of  Kalamazoo Black Artists Initiative see things change in Kalamazoo last year?

"I feel like there have been a lot more city-wide organizations coming together for the greater cause of their community, from city leaders to community members," Lee says. There's been a lot of work and discussion on "topics like housing or Black Lives Matter and the protests. (As well as) art and ways to fight against things such as gun violence." (The KBAI created an anti-gun violence mural in Lacrone Park in October.)

Nicole Lee, founder and director of Kalamazoo Black Artists Initiative"Kalamazoo, although we do have some work to do, we do pretty good as far as making sure our community stays up to date with information, trying to work well with one another. And making sure we're well educated on, not just one specific culture, but all cultures. Just to make sure we're a good, functioning city."

What she and KBAI have learned from 2020 "is not one person can fix a situation. That in order to fix problems or change narratives of the past that we have to work together as a community. It's not the task of one individual, but the task of many. In order to achieve those tasks we have to educate and be receptive in the eyes of one another."

For 2021 Lee hopes that "as a community, or as a nation as a whole, hopefully, we can gather what we learned, what we witnessed and what we went through, and make better policies, continue to navigate systems, continue to build laws and systems that accommodate every individual."

The KBAI will be working to "create more art that speaks to issues in society, or locally," and "bring more artists into the loop." They are also working to officially change their name to Artists of Color Incorporated, "to represent all artists of color."

The Roaring '20s

The idea of a return to some sort of normalcy brings about an almost-giddy yearning for many.

The Gilmore's next festival is the spring of 2022. "I'm fully planning on it being an in-person festival," van der Westhuizen says. "All indications are, even Dr. (Anthony) Fauci says by the end of this year life will be back to normal. So we hold onto that."

But it may be a slow transition into limited in-person performances this fall, he says. Some audience members might not be ready for the risk, and for them, the Gilmore will always provide virtual coverage of events -- online and streaming performance "is here to stay," van der Westhuizen says.

"At the same time I think people will be so hungry for live events that we may see a huge influx," he adds.

"I keep telling people we have to stay positive, focus on 'when we get out of this,'" he says.

He brings up the 1918 flu pandemic, which caused fear of public gatherings and shut-downs of entertainment venues. Once people felt safe as cases dropped in 1920, there was a burst of life on Broadway, leading to "all of the theaters that sprung up, and this renewed energy in the Roaring '20s." 

Similar will happen this time, he predicts. "Coming out of this there will be a great sense of energy and excitement. I think as an arts community we have to be mindful of that, and prepare for that and be ready for when that happens."

So, we'll have the Roaring '20s, without Prohibition?

"Exactly! Prepare for that, make sure you're ready!"

Moving from 2020 to 2021

We reached out to Kalamazoo's arts community, asking what they learned from 2020, and how they hope to continue into 2021. These are their replies: 

Kama Tai Mitchel, artistic director and queen doula of Rootead: 

They learned in 2020 "that we are an organization that loves being with the community, practicing community care in-person, and having one-on-ones with clients is our favorite. We experienced a lot of grief and a lot of growth. Because we focus on healing arts we were in a great position to respond to community needs." 

For 2021, "We will create innovative virtual programming for connecting and revenue, we may become content creators that uplift all aspects of healing for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+. We will continue to learn and respond to the community."

Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo's program director/theatre manager Bianca Washington Ciungan: 

"What I personally learned as Program Director, is that it is important to look at these moments of change as a learning opportunity. Some of the ways that we have had to get creative with our programming have opened up so many other possibilities and have provided new paths of reaching out to the public and creating new relationships. I think that is the silver lining in all of this.
Belinda Tate, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts Executive DirectorRecovery in 2021 means, "Re-establishing relationships with our partners, developing and reviving foundations for our programs. In particular Art Hop -- I really miss the in-person experience, so we are looking to slowly bring that back in. Our goal was to reintroduce that component to the public in December 2020 with a hybrid experience but needed to hold off due to the Governor’s orders for the safety of our participants and the public. There is a lot of strategizing still in the works in regards to how things will look in 2021, so that continues to be reshaped." 

Kalamazoo Institute of Arts executive director Belinda Tate:

"In 2020, the staff of the KIA focused on staying flexible and responsive. In a year of so much uncertainty, our team was resilient and filled with gratitude for the generosity and care we saw in our community."

"In 2021, I expect that we will keep building on our strengths from last year. We will continue to deepen our level of engagement with the community using a nimble strategy that includes a number of different access points that help us connect with people throughout Kalamazoo, Southwest Michigan, and beyond."

Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra executive director Jessica Mallow Gulley:

The KSO learned in 2020 that, "despite the many boundaries and challenges imposed by the pandemic, creativity itself has no bounds. Music (art) can overcome any challenge. The KSO exists because of this great community and the people who lift us up, and we have spent the last season focusing on how to be the best symphony we can be to lift up this community in return, through music. The joy that the shared experience of music can provide fills a need that we've all greatly missed during this time in quarantine—connection to something greater than ourselves, to one another, to our community." 
For 2020/2021, "The KSO has adapted serious safety protocols. While summer has been a quiet time for the KSO over the past several years, this year we will be looking to perform outdoors often while the weather is nice. We also are prepared to adapt our 100th anniversary season to as many people as we can safely present to indoors during the remainder of the 2021-2022 season. Safety is paramount, and we will do everything we can to deliver our mission, and our 100th-anniversary celebrations, in whatever way we are able to at that time."
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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.