John Zirkle, WMPAC executive director, and Andrew Blessing, WMPAC tech director, experimenting with socially distanced theater spring 2020. Photo COURTESY JOHN ZIRKLE

The show went on

What Big Sky’s Theater learned from the pandemic

Amazingly, during Covid, when Broadway itself closed its shows- -Warren Miller Performing Arts executive director John Zirkle never stopped doing what he’s done for nearly a decade--bringing the most diverse, interesting performing arts he could imagine to audiences in Big Sky. For the entire year, the shows at WMPAC went on: Except that for a good percentage of the time, the audiences didn’t come to the theater--and a lot of times the performers didn’t either.

In fact, in the beginning days, Zirkle put on a suit and sat alone in the green room as he coordinated with tech director, Andrew Blessing, in another room, to present the first live streaming events to the public, with artists located thousands of miles away. At first, video seemed like the wrong approach for a live theater. But Zirkle quickly realized it arguably made sense, “Warren Miller [the theater’s namesake] was a filmmaker so the virtual access honors Miller’s legacy in a special way.”

Looking for ways for WMPAC to connect to and continue its mission was Zirkle’s most creative challenge during 2020, and although it isn’t an experience he’d like to relive, he says he finds himself using his Covid experiences daily in planning post-pandemic productions.

For example, the pandemic made gathering safest outdoors. So Zirkle brought a classical pianist onto the golf course last winter, and the socially-distanced audience skied around him--a sold out event even during a bitter cold snap. The result, “We are definitely interested in doing things outdoors and around Big Sky. This can help people be really into the music and the art that is being created.” In fact, this summer, the Grammy-award winning choir The Crossing will hold concerts in two different Big Sky locations, surrounding the audience in a performance in a high alpine open field, and allowing the audience to walk through the music in a forest in the other.

Zirkle is excited about the possibilities. “ I’m personally interested in learning how we can create mobile low-impact experiences environmentally but high-impact experiences socially. We’re looking into how performing arts can complement the environment. It is difficult because nature is distracting and unpredictable. So that’s an ongoing discussion that takes a lot of flexibility.”

Another pandemic discovery: You can run shows for a handful of people. Zirkle, who often found himself focusing on audience numbers in the past, had to undergo a dramatic shift when these numbers were required to be reduced. “Covid caused me to reflect on how we can make the theater feel full even if it isn’t physically full....when an audience can’t come to the theater in person?” Zirkle sought out the answer to this question in creative ways like making the audience and performers the same people in the “Through the 4th Wall” experience. Next winter, expect to see more intimate small scale experiences where audience members become actors at WMPAC as a result.

Finally, Covid taught Zirkle to embrace technology and video more fully and creatively, lessons he will continue to utilize. “The virtual viewing option is definitely something that I think I would like to keep exploring,” he said. “We are obviously still learning. The performing arts industry has been fighting against virtuality for a long time but things like sports have taken full advantage of the internet. The idea of watching a concert or a play or something live like that online has never really taken off but it may be time to explore that again. I think that will change moving forward. It’s certainly more convenient.”

As much as the pandemic stretched Zirkle’s creativity, he’s looking forward to returning to a more normal theatrical experience this summer. “There’s something magical about being in a physical space with other people. In that environment, we become nicer versions of ourselves. When we’re in a space with others, when a performer makes a mistake we don’t immediately criticize it, instead, we encourage them to keep going. It is a positive social experience that brings people together.”

The Warren Miller Performing Arts Center’s regular summer season begins on July 11, where “Keep Your Head Down” a musical in development, will be performed. WMPAC will continue providing an online option for anyone who is interested. Tickets are available for purchase online, and while masks are welcome they are not required.

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