Home News & Events Recap: Creative Performing Arts Responses to COVID-19

Recap: Creative Performing Arts Responses to COVID-19

COVID-19 has profoundly changed our world, our lives, and the arts. Arts Midwest and The Alliance of Performing Arts Conferences (APAC)* gathered voices across the performing arts field on May 27, 2020 to share how they’re innovating during disruption. Here’s some key takeaways from that conversation.


After COVID-19 hit, Minneapolis-based vocal ensemble Cantus pivoted to record the COVID-19 Sessions, held the Cantus Idol Online competition, and created a virtual gala, all which helped raise over $150,000 for the organization. Development Manager Kelly M. Turpin spoke on behalf of the organization.

“Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius, the first installment from Cantus’ COVID-19 Sessions, courtesy of Cantus’ YouTube Channel

An important point I want to make is that this is not a time to adapt your mission and vision but instead lean into it. The only thing changing now is the “how,” not the “why.” Now is an opportunity to get creative within your organization. Be honest with what resources you have to create that new “how,” but lead with the “why” of your mission.

One of the unique things about Cantus is our collaborative model. All of our eight singing artists make up the artistic director as a whole. In this instance, it allowed us to act quickly to take action together. We started with an artistic call to action resulting in the COVID‑19 sessions. These were created over a 3-day period before offices and commercial spaces were closed. They resulted in 24 new music video recordings that so far have reached 2 million views worldwide.

While the artists put those together, we thought through where the financial gaps would be due to our tour season cancelling as well as postponing our 25th anniversary gala and concert. This is where the online project “Cantus Idol” came in. Cantus Idol is just like American Idol, but you have the option to donate to vote. We had four rounds, made up of the current artists as well as wonderful alumni that wanted to be part of the project.

This was our first big fundraising push since COVID‑19 reared its ugly head, so we didn’t know what to expect other than just doing our best and putting it out there. Within the very first 24 hours, we raised over $20,000. Across all rounds of Cantus Idol, we raised almost $60,000 in donations from voting.

The other benefits we saw was an automatic increase in social media engagement. People were enjoying the feeling of being a part of something. We got a lot of great comments about how refreshing it was to have something to look forward to every week.

The people that already love you want you to be there when this is all over. So be thoughtful in your messages but honest in what you need. Ask the question: In this moment, how can you offer greater accessibility or reach more people to connect to your community in a different way?

“This is not a time to adapt your mission and vision but instead lean into it”
– Kelly M Turpin, Cantus

Geffen Playhouse

After LA theater hub the Geffen Playhouse closed its doors due to COVID-19, staff launched an online project called Geffen Stayhouse and premiered The Present, a theater piece that takes place on Zoom that is performed by Helder Guimaraes and directed by Frank Marshall. Associate Artistic Director Amy Levinson spoke on behalf of the organization.

“I Am Nothing” by Helder Guimarães­, part of Geffen Stayhouse, courtesy of Geffen Playhouse’s YouTube Channel

At the Geffen Playhouse, we are very artist driven. We found at this time that what we needed was to collaborate with the artists with whom we worked previously. Last year we did a show called Invisible Tango with Helder Guimarães, whose work is sort of a theater/magic hybrid. He proposed an idea of doing an online experience with a small group of people that would be completely interactive.

Prior to every performance, every person receives a box – “The Present,” hence the title of the show. And within the box are materials that you utilize throughout the show. There are only 25 attendees for every performance, so everybody is on screen at all times. Helder communicates directly with the audience, so, in a way, they are another character in the show.

From the moment when we started thinking about this show to our first preview was about just shy of 3 weeks. We took what we have normally do in the span of six months – designing, casting, marketing, everything it takes to put a play together – and crutched it into a 3-week period.

It was probably much easier to create this because it was with one person. In general, the art came together quickly, but most of our time was spent how to execute the show electronically. Just like regular tech for a play, you have to deal with figuring out where the picture looks better, how to make it sound good, and what will be the best overall experience for the audience. There were also scenic elements to consider, including building and mailing the boxes, because needless to say everything we have done has been done with social distancing in mind.

I don’t think we could have anticipated the response. The show sold out immediately within two hours the first time, then sold out immediately again. We recently extended the show for another six weeks, and we sold out in 26 minutes. I only say this to say as you are thinking about creating online content, part of why the show is working is because we created the show specifically for this medium.

We were not necessarily trying to recreate the experience that we have in the theater. My hope is that when we are interacting with the show, people feel like they have stepped out of their own quarantine for a moment and into a shared experience with 24 other people.

I am sure many of you are artists and trying to figure out what the best path is forward. There is no one size fits all for this. I encourage you to find the medium that works for you until we can get back into the theaters with our audience and colleagues.

“There is no one size fits all for this. Find the medium that works for you until we can get back into the theaters.”
– Amy Levinson, Geffen Playhouse

Dancing Alone Together

Dancing Alone Together is a website and Instagram account launched in response to COVID-19 that aims to be a central resource for finding digital dance opportunities such as virtual classes, streamed performances, and more. Creator Katherine Disenhof spoke about the project’s origins.

Let’s rewind back to March 13. I am a full-time professional dancer. I was suddenly told in the middle of my day in my morning dance class to pack up and isolate for two weeks. I walked home thinking, how I keep my momentum going? How can I not feel isolated, and how do I stay engaged, so I can hit the ground running again whenever we return? It dawned on me that every dancer is going to experience a disruption, if they haven’t already.

Dance is about sharing experience to me, and this pandemic felt like an ultimate shared experience. All over my Instagram, I saw livestream dance classes from renowned dancers, opportunities to watch dance shows online, and new creative prompts challenges being posted. I thought, wow. This is new. Look at all of these amazing opportunities. Look at this unprecedented access. I wanted people to be able to access this content quickly, and to support the teachers that are bravely adopting to virtual classes. That is how Dancing Alone Together was born. It is a central resource for finding opportunities in the new digital dance world.

Dancing Alone Together is run by me and funded by donations. I don’t host classes – it is just a way to support existing opportunities out there. The project is organized into three different content streams, or ways to engage with dance, which I call Move, Create, and Watch. There are two main online presences. The first is the website or the “library.” It is a community fed database of resources and dance classes. The second element is the Instagram account, which I call my “giant megaphone.” It has 37,000 followers as of a couple of days ago, starting from 0 on March 16.

Consistency was key to find an audience and to be a source for people. At first, I was reposting all of the class opportunities I was seeing on Instagram, but I soon realized it’s no good to just be contributing to the noise of social media. I started to build digest posts, which are daily posts batching the classes while tagging the instructors.

The snowball effect of social media, if you can hit at the right time, is really powerful. The community really took this and ran with it. I had 10,000 followers I think in five days, and it has just been growing from there. People were tagging friends to take class, sharing them, and instructors took this on and shared their networks. I have also been adapting materials as trends have changed.

The response has been really amazing. It has been great to see the dance world and audience grow in a time where we are suddenly without space and without studios to hold on to. I have heard the audience is growing. People are returning to dance, and new people are trying dance for the first time. I hope to keep Dancing Alone Together alive in the new phase of what comes next, while keep it nimble and responsive to trends I see.

“I have heard the audience is growing. People are returning to dance, and new people are trying dance for the first time”
- Katherine Disenhof, Dancing Alone Together

Download the Webinar Resource Guide

This resource guide is intended to help you navigate disruption. Part one walks through the specific technology used by each featured project in the webinar, part two is a worksheet intended to help you or your organization connect your “why” and “what’s next” in order to help you innovate creatively, and part three is a curated list of resources we’re finding helpful in this moment.

Download the Guide

Photos: Disruption and Innovation panelist Katherine Disenhof. Photo courtesy of Dancing Alone Together​