Minnesota performers gear up for pandemic comeback: 'My hustle has changed'

Performers are beginning to book gigs and banter with audiences again. But they're rethinking what they do and why they do it.

Annie Mack adjusted the microphone Sunday at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis, her hands shaking. It had been a year since her last sound check, her last show.

A loud pop burst through the speakers.

"Well, it is my first time," Mack said, smiling at the sound engineer. "It really is."

After a year of lost gigs and living-room livestreams, performers are preparing for a cautious return to stages with rehearsal bubbles and backstage masks and distanced seating.

Most major plays and mega concerts are months off, still. The Guthrie Theater isn't planning a big in-person show until "A Christmas Carol" in November. But other stages are being set: The Minnesota Orchestra will welcome limited audiences in June. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres will pick up where it left off with "The Music Man" in July. First Avenue will resume indoor shows at its venues in September.

A year into a pandemic that's battered the arts scene and many artists' livelihoods, performers are beginning to book gigs and banter with audiences again.

Returning to live music feels like reuniting with an old lover who got away, Mack said, making the same sorts of fervent promises. She hopes that venues will value anew the energy performers bring. That audiences will respect the sacredness of what's being offered. And that musicians will show up on time for sound check.

"Oh, my goodness, I will cherish you," she said, chuckling. "I will not take you for granted."

But Mack, like other performers, will show up differently this time. After a powerful set during Billy McLaughlin's weekly "The Church of the Lost Souls," she told the socially distanced crowd how this year apart has shaped which gigs she plays.

"My hustle has changed," Mack said. "I move with more intention."

Many actors and artists, musicians and fans have used this pause to rethink their industries and their art forms, from how people are paid to how big institutions wield their power.

They don't just want to return to stages. They're demanding that those stages better reflect their communities.

"My great hope is that the theater industry, when it comes back, looks very different from when we left it," said AnaSofía Villanueva, a theater producer, director, writer and activist.

Since George Floyd's murder last May spurred a broader cultural shift, she's seen theaters across the country tweak their programming, "which is important," she said. "Representation does matter."

But Villanueva fears large theaters will "continue to hide behind a facade of displayed diversity onstage," as she put it in an essay last year, rather than doing the deep, foundational work that's needed.

A life-altering hiatus

The arts and culture industries have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, leaving many artists — especially performing artists — suddenly unemployed.

During the quarter that ended in September, the national unemployment rate averaged 8.5%, but 55% of dancers, 52% of actors and 27% of musicians were out of work, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Those figures improved during the past quarter, said Sunil Iyengar, the NEA's research director. "We're hopeful that's a trend," he said.

Artists and arts groups have been scrambling and hustling, he said, shifting to virtual performances — something they say they plan to continue after in-person events begin again. (Streaming can be costly for a nonprofit, Iyengar noted, with less obvious income streams.)

A recent NEA webinar on reopening started with remarks from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who pegged a return to movie and Broadway theaters "sometime in the fall," adding "this is no guarantee."

"Even when things open up again ... you're still going to be dealing with limited seating capacity," Iyengar said. He's hopeful that federal funding for the arts, including the $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program co-authored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., will help fill the gap.

Chanhassen was nine shows into "The Music Man" when concerns about COVID-19 forced venues to close. A three-week pause became three months, then became a year.

"I don't think any of us realized how life-altering this would be," said Michael Gruber, a theater veteran who earned raves for his role as Prof. Harold Hill. Each week since, the cast has held a Zoom happy hour. On the one-year anniversary, they gathered in the theater's parking lot.

Gruber, 56, has used the time to deconstruct and rebuild his singing voice, an exercise he couldn't have fit between eight shows a week. He's given vocal lessons via Zoom. He's performed in senior-center parking lots.

"Music Man" is set to reopen in July. Rules worked out with the Actors' Equity union include a requirement that each person backstage be vaccinated, said spokeswoman Kris Howland. There will be face masks and air purifiers. The theater is upgrading its air filters.

Most of the close-knit cast is returning. One actor, though, has switched careers. One youth has left for college. But Gruber's options are limited, he joked: "What else could I do? Nobody wants a 56-year-old who sings and dances."

"Luckily the theater I'm working at is in a financial situation that there is a job to go back to when we're ready to go back," he said. "Many people don't have jobs to go back to. Even Broadway shows have closed.

"I'm really going to savor it."

Some arts groups are moving outdoors. After a year of digital shows, the Schubert Club will hold five concerts at the State Fairgrounds in early June starring cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han.

The State Fair itself is hoping to return in August, but several big outdoor events have been nixed, including Rock the Garden.

Northern Spark, the dusk-till-dawn art festival, hasn't ruled out in-person programming but so far has announced only June events online and by mail. Amid a speedy vaccine rollout, fans might expect an in-person extravaganza, said executive director Sarah Peters. But planning started last year, when the public-health picture was hazier.

Funding, too, has been in flux. The Minnesota State Arts Board has canceled project grants in favor of smaller, more flexible grants, and corporations have pulled money from the arts to other aims.

"Just because the vaccine is here, and it might be safe to gather again, doesn't mean we can," said Peters. "We've all gone through hell in our budgets."

Showing up 'in full'

In March of last year, "everything just stopped," Mack said.

Small gigs and big moneymakers disappeared from her calendar. She sat and ate and grieved. Then George Floyd's murder prompted a new round of grief. Mack, who lives in Rochester, recorded an EP, "Testify," rooted in blues, gospel and Americana, as a "humble offering."

She baked and gardened and cared for her kids. She also studied to become a death doula: "I want to walk that journey with people." But because of COVID restrictions, for now she's volunteering in the kitchen of a hospice center, making meals.

"I put whipped cream and chocolate sauce on everything," said Mack, who is fully vaccinated.

Music, though, keeps calling. And the pandemic has taught her new ways to respond. She won't do stuff "that doesn't serve my spirit and my community." Many of her performances are educational, connecting with young women of color.

She shows up now, she said, "not in fragments, but as a full Black woman who has found a medium, a tool."

On a gray, drizzly Sunday, after weeks of livestreamed shows, she took the stage before about 50 people spread out among the Parkway's 365 seats. She was a guest in a series, also streamed online, led by McLaughlin and his group SimpleGifts.

As Mack sang, her voice rich and low, about being "no longer afraid to take up space," women in the crowd nodded along.