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In COVID-19 Quarantine, Artists Find Audiences Online

Man with guitar and girl in front of green screen
Richmond artists have had to adapt to social distancing - and some have found inspiration in it. (Photo: Tony Corsano)

*This story was reported by VPM Intern Alan Rodriguez Espinoza

As the battle against COVID-19 escalates in Virginia and calls for social distancing grow louder, Richmond’s performing artists are turning to online live-streaming platforms for a stage.

In an effort to lift some spirits, Chandler Hubbard and his roommates started the Richmond Quarantine Theatre, a Facebook group that has since become a virtual gathering place for artists and creatives.

One of the first productions on the page was Hubbard’s comedy “Aletheia,” which he wrote for the stage.  Instead, over 100 audience members tuned in to Facebook Live to watch the premier online.

“Aletheia” tells the story of two couples gathering for a dinner party. The actors bounce lines of dialogue off each other, but miles apart, as the production takes place over a video call.

Video call with four participants
The Virginia Quarantine Theatre - which performs exclusively online - emerged as a virtual gathering place for artists.

Hubbard says the coronavirus has been a major disruption for the city’s growing theatre community.

“There's never a dearth of theatre in this town, and I think it was very shocking to people, how quickly it all could go away,” he said.

Hubbard is a full time actor and playwright for the Virginia Repertory Theatre, which had to cancel the rest of its 2020 season. In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, government officials have forced recreational and entertainment services to close their doors, and ordered would-be patrons to stay home. Hubbard says this has disrupted the livelihoods of many fellow artists.

“A lot of them got hit really, really hard immediately, you know. They just immediately were either let go or fired or their jobs closed,” he said.

On their Facebook page, Hubbard says some people contribute a daily dance or lip synching; others read books. “People are contributing in all their own ways. And I think that's all you can ask people,” Hubbard said.

The Richmond Performing Arts Alliance  took a similar approach when the third season of the association’s cabaret series, Legends on Grace, was cut short.

“That got us thinking, what can we do for our artists that perform and our patrons that are stuck at home and needing a creative outlet and a little bit of hope and light and joy?” said Jacquie O’Connor, programming coordinator for RPAA.

The answer was “Legends at Home,” a series of 30 minute performances streamed on Monday, Wednesday and Friday by local artists.

“These little moments where we can just sit around our computer screens or our phones and just sing along and watch people express themselves and connect with each other, even though we're not physically in the same room together, I think we are connecting in that moment,” O’Connor said.

For one of the Legends at Home performances, Richmond singer Desirée Roots invited viewers virtually into her home as her and her son shared their rendition of “Blackbird” by the Beatles.

“The arts give you hope,” Roots said. “Music makes the world go round, and this is the first time I've actually seen it halt.”

Screenshot of facebook livestream
Desirée Roots, a local singer, took part in the "Legends at Home" series.

Roots says a large part of her income comes from performing, so when theatres and venues began shutting down, she felt like she’d been knocked off her feet.

“I literally sat down looking at my calendar crossing out dates and was like, okay, there goes $1,000 there, there goes $2,000 there,” Roots said.

RPAA is normally housed in the Dominion Energy Center for the Performing Arts, another venue where most shows had to be cancelled or rescheduled. O’Connor says the closings and cancellations have been detrimental for non-profit arts organizations.

To help those artists, the RPAA created the Performing Artists Support Program, a fund that has raised more than $8,000. The money will be split up between the different Legends at Home Performers.

“To know that people are willing to give that much to support the arts, it was overwhelming,” Roots said. “My heart was just full to see that bar continually grow.”

Advances in technology and live streaming platforms have enabled artists to adapt to this unprecedented crisis in new ways. Artists who teach, like Tony Corsano, have been able to move their classes online.

Corsano has been teaching children’s music for 20 years, and he says the transition was smooth.

“With Facebook and Zoom and Venmo, all of these platforms have made it easier than ever to convey my music productions to the public,” Corsano said.

He’s started posting videos of himself and his daughter singing on his Facebook page, TonyTunes. He says his music brings people joy, something the world needs at this moment.

One of Corsano’s clients is Sami Hutchinson. She can no longer take her two year old son Lincoln to Corsano’s in-person classes, but she says the TonyTunes videos on Facebook have been a great way to break up the day.

Kid watches video on laptop
Lincoln Hutchinson enjoys the videos posted by music teacher Tony Corsano, as does his mother, Sami, who says they're a great way to distract from the stress of quarantine.

“I can tell that he really likes music the way he moves his head and everything to it, so I think it’s just a good outlet for him to maybe feel like he’s expressing himself,” Hutchinson said.

She says the music videos on Facebook have been good not only for Lincoln, but also for her and her husband as they cope with living in isolation.“I really get, ‘oh my gosh we’re stuck inside the house’ and it’s the same thing over and over,” Hutchinson said. “But for thirty minutes at least, we are really just dancing and singing, having fun and not really worrying about anything else.”

Corsano says as soon as he saw people had to stay home to help fight COVID-19, he put up a green screen, set up his home studio, and got to work. Like many other Richmond artists, he hasn’t been discouraged by all the bad news.

“This pandemic can take away my live performance, it can take away my revenue stream from live performance. However, it cannot take away my joy from sending my music out into the world,” Corsano said.

For many, the coronavirus has brought about fear, frustration and uncertainty. But for these artists and musicians, it’s also been a chance to highlight the important role that art plays in bringing together a community during a time of hardship.