Corona corona, where you been so long?

Dispatch from the social distance: The great shutdown begins. What’s next?

Well, what a week it’s been. It began ordinarily enough, although of course we all knew the coronavirus was lurking somewhere back there, not quite out of sight. Italy was looking nasty, and things were picking up steam in Seattle, a little too close to home. But here in Oregon, life was going on pretty normally.

For me, business as usual meant jumping from this to that to the other thing, trying to find connections and tie them together. A little over a week ago I went to see Blood Brothers, the revival of Willy Russell’s 1981 musical, at Triangle Productions. Marty Hughley, ArtsWatch’s theater editor, and I talked about it and decided it’d make a good pairing with the newest version in town of The Odd Couple, Neil Simon’s evergreen comedy, at Lakewood Theatre: How would this pair of nostalgic shows hold up in a time when theatrical eyes have largely moved on to other styles and concerns? I caught the Simon play last Sunday afternoon, then let the two shows simmer in my mind overnight.

Meanwhile, I was juggling a lot of other things for ArtsWatch. I edited a few stories and conferred with some writers on a few others. I created some posts for our Facebook page. I made some phone calls and exchanged a lot of emails. I tracked what was opening and closing, spent some time talking with other editors and writers (some virtually and some in person) about a long-range statewide project we’re keen to do. I okayed a couple of story pitches, and gathered information for my next ArtsWatch Weekly column. I forwarded a lot of emails and press releases to writers or editors who I thought might be interested in them. I talked a bit with Laura Grimes, our executive director, and Barry Johnson, our executive editor, about budgets.

On Tuesday afternoon I went downtown to the Portland Art Museum for my second walkthrough of the expansive and fascinating exhibition Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, this time in the company of Dawson Carr, its curator and the museum’s curator of European art. It’s Carr’s final large show at the museum before he retires at the end of the year, and a labor of love, and we spent a long time touring it and talking about it. On my first visit, on a previous Saturday, the galleries had been packed. This time a smaller crowd was ambling loosely through the show; Carr mentioned that things had been busier that morning with a lot of school tours going through. When we greeted each other we laughed a bit about what decorum we should adopt considering the COVID-19 threat, and decided to elbow-bump rather than shake hands.

In the meantime I’d been slowly putting together my essay on Blood Brothers and The Odd Couple. Then, late Wednesday of last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a statewide shutdown of all public gatherings of more than 250 people. A day later, Brown also ordered all public K-12 schools shut down. No more school tours of the art museum, and no more Volcano! to see, anyway, at least for a while: The museum also decided to close its doors.

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Nora el Samahy in “9 Parts of Desire,” one of many shows canceled because of the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy Portland Center Stage at The Armory

SUDDENLY EVERYTHING CHANGED. For the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, touring Broadway shows, all sorts of concerts in any hall of size, dance concerts and plays in moderate-to-bigger-sized halls like The Armory, Lincoln Performance Hall, and the Newmark Theatre, things came to an immediate halt. As the days swiftly ticked down more and more closures were announced, many by companies that performed in spaces smaller than 250 seats but decided the health risks were too great to go on. Art galleries called off a slew of artists’ talks and other events; some shifted to appointment-only status. Museums assessed the meaning of the state order and what “250” actually meant: If they spaced out their crowds and limited the number of people admitted at any one time, could they keep their doors open? Soon most decided “no”: In addition to the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Eugene’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, the Maryhill Museum of Art in the Columbia River Gorge, and the High Desert Museum in Bend all decided to close their doors. In Portland, some independent movie houses – Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre – elected to close down. A little later the live-music venue Aladdin Theatre went on hiatus.

The city and the nation and, indeed, large swaths of the world were transforming at a startling pace: new normals came and went, each one a step beyond the one before. Late last week I emailed with writer and photographer K.B. Dixon, who was preparing a photo essay on downtown Portland street musicians: With spring around the corner, we thought, they were bound to start striking up the music more and more, quickening the rhythm of the city streets and giving it a little extra bounce. But public life was suddenly slowing to a trickle, and we rethought the story. Dixon rewrote the piece slightly to reflect the dampening effects of COVID-19, and on Monday morning, under the headline Eine Kleine Straasemusik: A Little Street Music (or, Remembering Portland as It So Recently Was), we published it. What had been meant as an anticipation of Portland’s lively street-busker season became instead a kind of elegy, a sweet reminiscence of a slice of the city’s character before everything shifted, and a hope that it will shift back to its “old normal” again.

Things were swiftly moving from unlikely to possible to plausible to undeniable. On Saturday, the coronavirus took the life of its first Oregon victim, a 70-year-old patient at the Portland Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center. All of it was happening with an utter lack of national leadership, which seemed vastly more concerned with image and the state of the stock market than public health, downplaying the very urgent medical dangers for political and economic purposes. States, municipalities, sports leagues such as the National Basketball Association, and businesses large and small, finally realizing that the federal government was remaining mostly uninvolved, began to take the lead in the vacuum. But crucial weeks had been lost. And without federal leadership responses were piecemeal, differing from city to city and state to state.

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TWO SIGNIFICANT THINGS HAPPENED on Sunday, one macro and one micro.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a national recommendation that, in the New York Times’s words, “no mass gatherings with 50 people or more — including weddings, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events or conferences — be held in the United States for the next eight weeks.” That recommendation, if followed – and there will be extraordinary peer pressure to do so – would eliminate almost all performances.

And in Portland, as Michael Russell reported for The Oregonian/Oregon Live, the prominent restaurant group ChefStable declared it would shut down all 20 of its bars and restaurants. Kurt Huffman, the group’s owner, told Russell that he had “a crisis of conscience” when he saw his restaurants were packed with customers: “Just looking in there, and seeing it so full, I realized that people were not taking this seriously, and that all restaurants were somehow contributing to that. … We need to shut down now because it’s the right thing to do, not shut down because there’s nobody in our restaurants.”

On Monday morning, many expected Gov. Brown to follow the lead of several other states and shut down or severely limit operation of restaurants and bars: Among other things, a state order would unlock loss-of-business insurance for owners. She declined to do that. By afternoon, everything had changed once again: Restaurants could remain open, but only for takeout and delivery service, the governor said in a sweeping announcement that also included detailed plans for hospital and emergency coordination; and gatherings in the state would be limited to 25 people or fewer – effectively putting the kibosh on virtually any performance, and scuttling nights out at popular watering spots and neighborhood bars. On Monday, President Trump also warned of a recession and urged that people gather in groups of no more than 10.

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Grant Byington (left) as Felix and Don Burns as Oscar: odd men out in Neil Simon’s postponed “The Odd Couple” at Lakewood Theatre. Triumph Photography

THROUGH THE LANDSLIDE of crisis responses, Blood Brothers and The Odd Couple took a back seat. I just looked through my nearly completed essay, which now won’t run. I noted that several musical-theater people I know were enthusiastic about Blood Brothers, Russell’s “odd duck” of a twins-separated-at-birth musical, and added: “When people who do the same thing praise a show, it means something. My own enthusiasm is a little more measured. Russell’s tunes are melodic and pleasant enough without being, it seems to me, especially memorable; and his lyrics, while workmanlike, are often obvious and almost never witty. … Yet despite the play’s odd structure and almost Grecian fondness for the dark and thrilling inevitability of fate, Triangle’s production has surprising charms. They come mostly from the appealing cast itself, and from (director Don) Horn’s sharp and steady approach to guiding the story along. After all these years, this duck still quacks.” 

I was more taken with Lakewood’s Odd Couple, suggesting that Simon’s brand of sometimes over-the-top American comedy can now be seen as a historical style: “After 55 years it becomes possible to see it a little less as a boffo Broadway crowd-pleaser and a little more as a mid-20th century American updating of the comedies of manners of William Congreve or Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Like their plays it’s intentionally brittle and caricatured and glossy on the surface, but with surprising internal resonance and awareness of human foibles and the unease that comes with social convention. Turns out, Simon the funnyman who never met a punch line he didn’t like was also Simon the keen social observer, capable of puncturing pomposity and revealing the vulnerabilities huddling beneath the swaggering surfaces.” Lakewood’s cast, I added, was something of an all-star lineup, in midseason form.

As it turns out, Lakewood has suspended performances through March 29 and won’t pick up The Odd Couple again at least until April 2 – a situation that obviously could change yet again. Triangle had hoped to get in its final weekend of Blood Brothers performances this week, but has halted sales. Truth to tell, I hesitated to publish my reviews, anyway, because the crisis is real, and isolation is crucial: It’s more important right now for people to stay home than to go out to any show at all, even if it were a miraculous revival of Katherine Cornell in The Barretts of Wimpole Street or Laurence Olivier in Henry V. And that turns everything on its head.

***

Carlos Kalmar and the symphony players: The music goes on hold. Oregon Symphony photo

“EVERYTHING ON ITS HEAD” is a pretty apt description of where we find ourselves now. No matter how the health crisis sorts itself out – and it’s unlikely to be pretty – the economic picture’s bleak. As always in national crises, the working poor and homeless and unemployed (a category that is about to get much bigger) will suffer the worst. Workers who can’t do their jobs from home will struggle to stay working and also care for their children, who won’t be in school. Some will be forced to give up their jobs. Some will slide into debt and bankruptcy. Savings will be eaten through; people will find themselves in at-risk jobs if they can find a job at all. People in the service economy – waiters, cooks, hotel workers, baristas – will be laid off. In those circumstances it’s hard to get too upset that a few concerts and plays are called off.

Yet the artists and staffs who perform in and produce these shows are workers, too, perhaps the majority of them with no health benefits and little savings: Without work, they’re living on the edge. What do they do? A few weeks is one thing. A few months is something entirely different. In times of crisis it’s natural for people to want to gather together, and music, dance, theater, art provide natural gathering places. But this time gathering together is precisely the wrong response: To stay together in the long run, we need to stay apart in the short. For audiences, this is an inconvenience. For those who make their living in the arts, it’s a crisis.

It’s also a crisis for the groups that produce the art. Most arts organizations are nonprofits that exist on very tightly drawn budgets, with projected outlays and anticipated income carefully calculated before each season. Something unanticipated – lost income from a show that has to be canceled, for instance – can send them spiraling into disaster. An extended disaster can put small arts organizations out of business. But the bigger ones with larger budgets (the ones the smaller ones sometimes think of as the “fat cats”) usually exist on margins just as tight. What does it mean to the long-term health of the Portland Opera when an entire production has to be canceled at the last minute; or to the Oregon Symphony when whole series of concerts, and the ticket sales that go with them, bite the dust; or to an art museum when an expensive exhibition is hanging in the galleries but no one can buy tickets to see it because the museum has shut down? Things teeter. Things might fall. In a city like Portland, moreover, the relationship between big and small is interwoven and complex: Workers at Portland Center Stage might also be actors or directors or designers at a small theater, their big-theater salaries making it possible for them to do creative work elsewhere. The city’s energetic contemporary-music scene is largely driven by musicians in the Oregon Symphony who count on their symphony contracts to allow them to do smaller work that feeds their passion. What of the playwrights and novelists who suddenly don’t have access to research materials because the public libraries have shut down? And what of the audiences, who suddenly find themselves with no place to go, even if they should be going someplace, which they shouldn’t? In the large picture of the coronavirus crisis, these things seem less important. In the small picture, they matter deeply.

We’ve entered unfamiliar and uncertain territory. Where will this go? How long will it last? How serious will it be? How will it end? Will we get back to the old normal, or will normal become something entirely new? How will artists and cultural organizations adapt? One thing to consider: If you have the resources, now is an excellent time to contribute financially to an arts group you believe in. It’s tough times for all of them. They could all use your help. In the meantime, stay home. Wash your hands. Drink water. And hang on. As Bette Davis put it in All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

One Response. Have your say.

  1. sandi kurtz says:

    “I hesitated to publish my reviews at all.” Please don’t hesitate. Among the other things that reviews do, they act as a part of the historic record, evidence for future readers that this thing happened. And right now, with so much of our world up in the air, documentation will be very valuable. San Francisco Ballet had to close their production of Midsummer Night’s Dream after one performance — Rachel Howard’s thoughtful review is the only way I’ll know anything about the production. I would be sorry to lose that connection. And at some point, I want to hear more about your Neil Simon thoughts (Simon as inheritor of Congreve) — I think you’ve put your finger on something particular.

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