by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) leaders recognized that many of their company members have been facing financial obstacles during the pandemic. “Because most of them are in the theatre industry, the entire industry was shut down, and so a large section of the people that we work with have been completely unemployed,” GRSF Managing Director Aaron Young said. To boost morale and keep communication open, they began reading plays virtually with company members on Monday nights. They have focused on reading the works of Black and Indigenous playwrights and read company members’ pieces, all while enjoying the opportunity to stay connected with one another and do something new.
As the leaders of local arts organizations navigate the challenges of staying funded and remaining connected with community members while not being able to operate in person for a second year, they continue to plan programming and discover the ways they can engage with community members. They are finding bright spots in being able to do work they would not have been able to do in a year without a pandemic.
Next month, the Frozen River Film Festival (FRFF) will take place virtually. Films will be available to stream for one week after they premiere, so attendees won’t have to choose which films to see as they would during an in-person festival, FRFF Managing Director Eileen Moeller said. “We always hope people will find something in at least one of the films that helps them learn something new about the world and helps them get inspired,” Moeller said. This year’s festival will feature virtual question and answer sessions on topics related to the films and workshops on subjects such as screenwriting, as well.
The Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) is currently open in person with capacity limitations. MMAM staff are also offering virtual programming, such as online exhibitions and audio tours, and finalizing plans for activity boxes. “We’re really acting and operating out of an abundance of caution with everything we’re doing right now,” MMAM Executive Director Nicole Chamberlain-Dupree said. “We don’t want to contribute to any pandemic … surge in our community.” She added, “We’re there to serve the art community, the parent community, the kid community, whoever may need art, and however they need it.”
Mid West Music Fest (MWMF) organizers are hoping to hold an outdoor event in May. “We’ve been around for 11 years and have been bringing up-and-coming artists to town for a long time … Our intention is to keep doing that,” MWMF Creative Director Parker Forsell said.
GRSF organizers are considering whether to produce plays indoors or outdoors for this year’s festival. If they produce plays outdoors, the performances may take place at Levee Park. “And I think right now, because we’ve been so isolated, the opportunity to hear words that ring true is so important,” Young said. Young continued, “So being able to gather again as a community and listen to words, I think is just … an exciting opportunity.” They are also working through how to produce pieces like costumes and props, given capacity limitations in the spaces they normally use to create materials for their plays.
In addition to planning events and programming while managing the hurdles the pandemic presents, leaders of local arts organizations are striving to stay in touch with community members and enjoying the ways in which they are still able to interact with the public. “[Arts festivals] focus on specific art and art forms, but at the end of the day, they’re about bringing people together with similar interests … The challenge is just to be creative and find other ways for people to find that sense of togetherness,” Moeller said.
GRSF has held online readings and discussions of plays and continued to distribute its newsletter. Staff added a “Dear GRSF” column that is similar to “Dear Abby” to the newsletter, and through the column, they have discussed topics with the public such as how GRSF decides to change the time period, setting or characters’ genders in productions. “It’s been a really good opportunity to have some meaty dialogues with the community,” Young stated. “Even though we can’t gather in the same room, we’ve still been able to continue that engagement.”
Leaders of local arts organizations are persevering, but the arts as a whole are facing reduced income. “We’re a nonprofit that depends quite a bit on ticket sales,” Forsell stated, noting that MWMF is keeping track of grant and funding opportunities.
The most substantial challenge the MMAM has encountered since the pandemic began is having to close twice last year and losing revenue at those times, Chamberlain-Dupree said. “When you’re closed to the public, your biggest challenge is your income,” she stated.
The leaders of local arts organizations expressed their gratitude for community members’ continued support and described work they accomplished that they may not have been able to get to in a non-pandemic year. At the MMAM, staff created virtual content and tackled items on their to-do lists like organizing and cleaning while the museum was closed. Amid ongoing discussion of inclusivity in the theater industry spearheaded by Black and Indigenous artists, GRSF staff and board members developed an anti-racism plan that is slated to be released in the coming days. “I don’t know if we’d have time to dive into this issue if everything was operating as normal, so I’m grateful we’ve had time as an organization to look at how we operate, how we can be more compassionate and humane in the way that we work,” Young said, adding that GRSF artists come from throughout the U.S., so the training they get in Winona impacts the broader theater industry.
More information about the FRFF may be found at https://www.frff.org/. Further details about the GRSF may be found at http://grsf.org/. More information about MWMF may be found at https://midwestmusicfest.org/. Further details about the MMAM may be found at https://www.mmam.org/.