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During Crisis, The Show Goes On For Arizona Performing Artists

Many actors would consider Hamlet to be the role of a lifetime. Quinn Mattfeld of Mesa-based Southwest Shakespeare Company recently had the opportunity to perform that part.

“But I did have to do the first speech of Hamlet’s, ‘Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,’ while I am fighting a Weimaraner away from my favorite pen,” Mattfeld said.  

The performance was on the webinar platform Zoom. Actors each performed their roles from their homes, in Mattfeld’s case, alongside his bad dog.

Public health measures important for slowing the spread of the coronavirus mean live audiences are out of the question right now. For Arizona’s musicians, dancers and actors, that’s an unprecedented challenge.

The Southwest Shakespeare Company was forced to cancel two planned productions. Instead, it’s offering free,  live readings of Shakespeare’s plays every Saturday evening while social distancing orders are in place. Mattfeld said his company is trying to make the best of the situation by innovating new ways to bring live theater to audiences.

After all, Mattfeld said, “Shakespeare was forced inside by the plague, and he came out with 'King Lear.'" 

In this unprecedented time, artists across Arizona are now doing what they do best, being creative.

Arizona Opera singers have given  living room concerts, dancers from Arizona Native American communities have joined a nationwide “ social distance powwow,” and  over Instagram, a Ballet Arizona dancer swapped a warm up at the barre for a virtual lesson in front of her barbecue.

Tomas Stanton runs  Phonetic Spit, a Phoenix nonprofit that introduces teens to spoken word poetry. Stanton has been hosting weekly virtual open mic nights  over Instagram Live.

“People need this, right? I needed that," Stanton said. 

View this post on Instagram Phonetic Spit / Project Lit / Young Voices Rise - Writing Prompts A post shared by Tomas J. Stanton (@birdcitypoet) on Mar 25, 2020 at 3:21pm PDT

Stanton’s most recent virtual open mic ended up lasting hours as more and more young poets and performers wanted to contribute.

“That was three hours I didn’t really think about what was going on in the outside world, I was just connecting with people through art and sharing and being reminded of humanity," Stanton said.

But while online options will keep artists connected to their communities and offer new takes on old art forms, livestreams simply won’t be a replacement for the live audience ticket sales many of these performers depend on.

Suzanne Wilson, CEO of the Phoenix Symphony, said the realities of the coronavirus completely blindsided her organization.

“It was a matter of hours from saying, ‘we’re business as usual,’ to saying, ‘we need to cancel this weekend, we need to cancel next weekend,’” Wilson said.

Eventually, the symphony  canceled the remainder of its season. It was a decision that meant it had to lay off its musicians, and make salary cuts among remaining administrative staff.

“It was obvious that this was going to exacerbate our already difficult finances," Wilson said. 

And it’s not just ticket sales. As the economy begins what could be a long and dramatic downturn, the donations, grants and tax dollars that support many arts organizations will inevitably decline too. Joseph Benesh lobbies for arts funding with the organization  Arizona Citizens for the Arts.

“While the arts sometimes does have a very diverse revenue stream, they’re all being affected. And potentially all being affected long-term," Benesh said. 

Benesh is planning a 24-hour arts telethon starting April 3 to raise money for his organization and to help showcase dozens of Arizona artists while they’re physically cut off from audiences. Many other arts organizations are also asking for donations or scrambling to find ways to financially survive.

With so many performers already out of work, Benesh sees a difficult future for artists in the wake of this pandemic.

But, he said, the audiences finding connections to artists online right now give him some hope.

“I think the content we’re seeing right now is a testament to the fact that we have to keep arts and culture alive," he said. "If arts and culture people stopped streaming right now and deleted all their YouTube videos and Netflix was canceled, where would people go to find connection?" 

→  Read The Latest News On The Coronavirus Disease 

Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent reporting on a variety of issues, including public health and climate change.