Warren Miller Performing Arts Center performed a safe and successful pivot for the winter season
Pandemics and the worst that humanity can muster have never had the power to quash the artistic drive to create. From ashes, from war, destruction and loss, artists have stepped forth as vehicles of reflection and inspiration.
As Patrick Moore, director of the Andy Warhol Museum told the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh: “During times of crisis, artists become conveyors of emotions that go beyond what can be read in textbooks or newspapers. Art plays a role, perhaps similar to religion, in that it helps us understand things that are too big to understand.”
Artists are now discussing what Warren Miller Performing Arts Center (WMPAC) Executive Director John Zirkle describes as one of the worst years to hit the performing arts in a century. Many venues simply shuttered to await simpler – and safer – times.
Yet historical evidence shows that performing artists have consistently risen to the occasion during times of tumult. Art has served as a messenger: Slaves sang in the fields, sharing clandestine directions to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Novelists wrote as artists painted and photographed The Great Depression. Entertainers have long traveled the globe to share talents with fighting forces – an act performer Bob Hope described as a sacred honor.
Orchestras performed melancholy melodies in concentration camps and in the rubble-cluttered streets of World War II.
Art, in all its various forms, has consistently stood against forces that seek to silence it – and provided the means for depth and understanding or the relief of escape.
When decisions regarding WMPAC needed to be made, Zirkle attributes his determination to figure things out as a kind of stubborn will to create “because I’m an artist and I have to make art.”
He, staff, and the board of directors brainstormed, planned, discussed options with Gallatin County Health officials, circled the wagons again, had nearly countless conversations with performers – and rallied.
"That’s what we do in Montana, we roll with the punches,” he said. “We have to – what other option is there?”
What was a challenging and exhausting year also proved that small groups of dedicated people are capable of accomplishing incredible feats. Adaptation and collaboration became the key words of survival.
WMPAC essentially morphed into a television station – and a radio station. A hybrid model was created that allowed limited in-person seating and unlimited virtual attendance. A pianist performed in a field of snow as cross-country skiers circled him – In a Landscape. An immersive live-theater experience was created – 71 groups of people safely navigated “Through the Fourth Wall.”
There were challenges and it was not always perfect, he explained, but they wanted to find a way to continue to serve. More people enjoyed WMPAC performances during a global pandemic than in any other year of WMPAC’s history.
“We did it, we survived. We did the same amount of projects and served more people. We went crazy with innovating – and we kept people safe. I’m psyched about that,” he said.
Continuing community partnerships were reimagined and the shows went on.
Zirkle is grateful the community supported WMPAC and believes that residents were thankful to still have unique entertainment opportunities. He also noted that the artists were incredibly grateful for the chance to perform, since so many were out of work due to COVID-19.
Social distance was maintained, and safety preserved all while audiences were able to share experiences.
“The fact that we were able to bring in or engage more patrons than any other year tells me that we are going to come back stronger,” he said. “The future is bright, I’d say.”