Will the show go on?

The pandemic shut down all performance art, leaving creatives to find new paths.

“It’s basically about a bunch of people, mostly artists, some from the younger generation, some from the older generation who are trying to find answers to these huge questions throughout life. As they go through it, they find that life can be pretty disappointing a lot of the time, but at the end of the day, the important thing is to just keep going.”

When Grant Bowman chose his senior project in the fall of 2019, he had no idea how relevant it would be in a year. 

Bowman, a senior BFA acting student at the University of Colorado Boulder, was supposed to direct a live performance of Aaron Posner’s “Stupid F***ing Bird.” The show loosely follows the same plot as Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” However, after the school shut down in March, Bowman had to come up with a different plan. Through the changes, he stuck with his original show idea, as he felt it was relevant to the times.

Bowman explains why Stupid F***ing Bird was so appealing for his project.

Bowman explains why Stupid F***ing Bird was so appealing for his project.

“I was bouncing back and forth between a lot of different things this summer, thinking about if I still wanted to do a live theater show of it and have performances of each act outdoors, that’s what I was going with for a while,” he said. 

Eventually, he decided to have the performance filmed, teaming up with students from the CU Department of Cinema Studies & Moving Image Arts.

Since the state of Colorado shut down on March 13, the performing arts world has taken massive losses. In early October, Broadway announced that it will remain closed until at least May 2021.

This also meant the cancellation of Broadway shows on tour, many of which were scheduled to come through Denver. These popular shows are key to local performing arts centers across the United States, and Colorado is no exception. The Denver Center of Performing Arts canceled or postponed 25 shows and two fundraisers.

The Colorado Symphony announced in September that it canceled all shows through the end of 2020. The University of Colorado Boulder closed in the middle of a run of a student production of “Spring Awakening,” canceling dozens of other stage plays and recitals.

The artists involved in the shutdowns had little to no warning about what was going to happen. Many of the performance art professionals were furloughed for the rest of 2020. This left thousands of creative people all over the state wondering what they should do next. Some still found ways to be creative, others had to completely shift gears. Either way, the world looks far different than anyone expected, yet life goes on.

The characters in “Stupid F***ing Bird” have a similar realization as they decide how to deal with disappointment and loss. Con, the main character, received an unexpected critique at one of his shows and struggles to process it. In his struggle, he finds himself isolated from the people he cares about most. This isolation and confusion are eerily akin to the feelings of many in the arts community this year.

Meghan Anderson Doyle is a costume designer living in Denver. She works as a freelance artist and has been a costume design associate with the Denver Center of the Performing Arts for 14 seasons.

Doyle has worked on countless shows and proven herself as a talented designer. She has an MFA in Costume Design and Technology from the University of Florida, adding to her qualifications. But when COVID hit, no amount of expertise could help with finding a job, and she had to leave costume designing behind.

“When it became clear that the furlough from my full-time job was going to be extended, and was going to be a total of 18 months, it was just something that in my household, we couldn’t afford to go without an income like that. So I started applying for jobs,” Doyle said. “Applying for jobs was unreal. I cannot tell you how many retail fashion, clothing oriented jobs I was not qualified for. It gets to be a little draining.”

Basil Vendryes works as the principal violist in the Colorado Symphony and is a faculty member at the University of Denver Lamont School of Music.

The pandemic wiped out the remainder of the symphony season, as well as the opportunities Vendryes had for residencies at summer classical music festivals. The abrupt change leveled the industry in Denver, leaving symphony members scrambling to find a different track. 

“It was a lot,” Vendryes said. “All stages have been quieted, so it’s not like I’m an exception. … There was certainly the birth of virtual formats, so there was some making up for it.”

Vendryes was able to continue at the University of Denver through those virtual formats.

“One of the things I didn’t give up was my ability to teach my students. Even though it was a brave new world for so many of us,” he said. 

The pandemic hasn’t calmed down in the U.S., and each rise or fall in local cases came with changing guidelines. Bowman had to adjust his project plan for each new set of restrictions from both CU and the city of Boulder. “One of my biggest lessons throughout this process is that no matter how much of a meticulous plan you try to come up with, or how much you really hope that things will come through the way you’re hoping, it just doesn’t happen that much of the time,” he said.

Bowman and his team ended up filming act one of “Stupid F***ing Bird” outside, with actors put six feet apart for every scene. The entire cast and crew had on masks until right before action was called, when actors would take them off. The distanced blocking and shooting caused some challenges, but they produced a show that beautifully captured the story while keeping everyone safe.

The performance art losses of 2020 were unavoidable, but artists tried their best to find some kind of positive outcome.

Meghan Doyle talks about the impact of COVID on the arts. Photos provided by Doyle.

Meghan Doyle talks about the impact of COVID on the arts. Photos provided by Doyle.

Bowman said the opportunity for CU Boulder film and theater students to work together was a unique and fun experience.

“I know for them [the film students], being able to work with more experienced, trained actors in this way has been a really special part of the process too. Because they can really focus on their thing of being behind the camera, doing their work from there, and the actors can do just what they’re used to, like crafting a really good performance, so I think obviously it’s been really mutually beneficial,” Bowman said.

Doyle eventually found a position working for Denver Public Schools in an elementary school. “They took a huge risk on me and took a look at my transferable skills and gave me a shot and I’ve been very fortunate to find a place with them for at least the next school year,” she said.

The artistic side of Doyle hasn’t gone away completely, though, as she’s found little ways to be creative in her day to day life. She made Halloween costumes for her cousins and finds that working with elementary school kids requires a lot of imagination.

Vendryes used the time to chase a goal he usually wouldn’t have time for. He said pre-COVID, he would often work far more than 40 hours a week without blinking an eye, but the pandemic cut him back to a mere fraction of that. 

“I practiced a lot,” Vendryes frankly said. “With that extra time, I took better care of my own personal chops and revisiting with repertoire. One of the big projects for me was I decided to finally take on doing a series of solo recordings.”

The future of the performance arts world is extremely uncertain, if a little grim. Performers are looking to the future not knowing when the arts world will get back to “normal,” or if it ever will. Similarly, the conclusion of “Stupid F***ing Bird” isn’t exactly a happy one. The audience gets a glimpse forward in time, to see where the characters have ended up after four years. Some have found love, others heartbreak. Some found more success in their art than others. Some characters are doing really well, and some are narrowly hanging on. But while Chekov’s “The Seagull” ends with a tragedy, “Stupid F***ing Bird” narrowly avoids it. 

Instead, Con surveys the audience and so eloquently tells them to "Stop the f***ing play.”