O.C. Arts Are Back, But Changes Are Certain

After about 18 months without many live performances, Orange County audiences and organizations are eager to connect.
Photograph courtesy of Casa Romantica

If spring is for lovers, then fall is for arts lovers. It’s the season when culture takes the spotlight in O.C. One night, a symphony launches its season, while the next a theater premieres a new play. There are gallery receptions to mingle at, dance concerts to attend, museum lectures to listen to and learn from. We feel a pulse of excitement not just from watching a coloratura soprano or concert pianist dazzle us with their artistry, but from experiencing it in community with fellow audience members. That thrill has been gone, and we’re ready to have it back.

But this fall, despite the hunger for live events, they’re still a work in progress. COVID-19 has changed things, and the delta variant continues to keep plans in flux, sometimes from one day to the next. In late August, eight of the county’s major arts groups—Segerstrom Center for the Arts, South Coast Repertory, Pacific Symphony, Pacific Chorale, Musco Center for the Arts, Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Irvine Barclay Theatre, and Soka Performing Arts Center—announced they will require audiences to be fully vaccinated and wear masks indoors. There’s only one guarantee amid the uncertainty: Things will be different.

“It’s clear to me change is here to stay,” says Jerry Mandel, chairman and president of the Irvine Barclay Theatre. “The pandemic caused us to rethink who we are and what we want to do. Before COVID-19, we were a building that presented the performing arts. Now we are an organization that presents the arts inside and outside of the building.”

For the Barclay, that means mounting shows at local sites ranging from Bayside Restaurant in Newport Beach to the Great Park, and developing an outdoor plaza and a full summer season. There’s also a drive to draw new audiences with a lineup of shows studded with big names (such as Pat Metheny and David Sedaris) as well as performances from new groups, such as Trio Barclay, the theater’s resident classical music ensemble.

Programming presents a range of pandemic-related challenges. Some are financial: Festival Ballet Theater cut its staff to the bare minimum to fund two productions this season (including its popular “Nutcracker”) instead of the usual four, says Elizabeth Farmen, assistant to the artistic director, Salwa Rizkalla. 

Other issues are logistical. Andrew Brown, president and CEO of Pacific Chorale, says concerts through the fall are scalable, designed by the artistic director, Robert Istad, to be performed in small ensembles of 24 singers up to 80 singers, depending on how the county is faring. Because singing presents unique risks, potential mask mandates add a new wrinkle. “We can perform masked if we have to, but it’s not the same sound quality,” Brown says. Pacific Chorale is one group mandating vaccinations and masks for concertgoers.

Renee Bodie, general manager of Soka Performing Arts Center, likens planning the venue’s 10th anniversary season, which starts in January, to doing a jigsaw puzzle. 

“We postponed and rebooked shows several times during the pandemic, and then had to fit those shows into the schedule for the upcoming season,” Bodie says. “It’s also changed aspects of how we present shows, and many of these parameters we still don’t know as the landscape shifts. Do we have intermissions, or run straight through to avoid crowds mingling? Do we allow concessions? This is an unprecedented time for venues, and we will need to adapt quickly to changing scenarios.”

That flexibility will manifest in different ways. Some groups are exploring new venues. Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble’s regular home, Grand Central Art Center, closed for performances. So the company presented shows online and at alternate spaces such as Alta Baja Market in Santa Ana. Backhausdance is in residence at Sherman Library and Gardens in Corona del Mar developing a site-specific work that will be performed Oct. 16. 

Safety is a primary concern at all the venues, with heightened attention paid to changes in local, state, and federal guidelines. How that will look depends on the venue, the show, and the county’s infection numbers. For instance, Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills offers “Vaccinated+” shows: audience members must be fully vaccinated and wear masks. All shows have socially distant seating so patrons don’t share an armrest with anyone not in their group.

Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens has the advantage of 2.5 acres of outdoor space, where socially distant performances are easier to manage. The San Clemente center is also bringing back its in-person arts education and wellness programs with social distancing—but is ready to convert to take-home pandemic kits if needed. That ability to turn on a dime is now part of doing business. In August this year, Leslie Eisner, artistic director of the Camino Real Playhouse, kept a wary eye on the county’s infection rate as the San Juan Capistrano venue prepared to reopen. 

“I’m hesitant to claim a direction because the minute I do, it veers off another way,” she says. “Our position was no one can perform who is unvaccinated because we didn’t want to put people onstage with masks if it wasn’t necessary. But if even vaccinated people have to wear masks indoors, I’m not sure what we’ll do. I think all theaters are in the same boat—we’re trying our best to follow regulations, but we’ve also been shut down for a year and a half. People are eager to get back to the theater, and we’re eager to have them back.”

The drive to serve audiences has powered O.C. arts organizations through these times. The result is a strengthened commitment to community. In the wake of America’s intensified racial reckoning, local audiences will see diverse programming that represents a broad swath of the county’s demographics. Pacific Chorale’s Oct. 30 concert features works by Korean American and African American composers, Casa Romantica has upcoming series focused on Indian and Chinese culture, and Backhausdance founder Jennifer Backhaus is one of many arts leaders exploring equity and issues related to Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the community.

“My work is driven by humanity and connection; it’s being honest about what’s happening in our world,” she says. “Speaking to all the different populations of our community is interesting to me. I want to do things that serve and reflect the community.”

Sara Guerrero, Breath of Fire’s founding artistic director, is being cautious when planning live events in Santa Ana, which has been hit hard by COVID-19. 

“We’re being careful and not trying to rush anything,” she says. “We’re still weathering storms and watching our community suffer. And with numbers going up, as a mom and a director, I need to think about what a project means to my home and theater. We’re putting ourselves out there, too.”

What the community needs, more than ever, is the connection arts provide.

“We recognize the value of what live artists mean to those in our community,” says Casey Reitz, Segerstrom Center for the Arts president. “We rely on the arts to help us through difficult times, connecting individually but also collectively on a deeper level. Coming out of the pandemic, we will never take what we do for granted ever again. We are reenergized to embrace better than ever before how we bring joy, peace, and connection into people’s lives.”


The pandemic called for digital innovations; here are some that will stay

Orange County Center for Contemporary Art will continue to offer self-guided virtual exhibit tours filmed with a 360 camera and available via links on the venue’s website.

Philharmonic Society of Orange County plans to offer virtual and livestreamed concerts that will be separate from its in-person season.

Chance Theater moved its post-show audience engagement series online and created Chance Cyber Chats. The theater’s Veterans Speak Up program also went virtual, allowing people across the country to participate on weekly Zoom calls.

Casa Romantica turned its lecture series with academics and cultural experts into podcasts.

Writers across the country develop new plays during Breath of Fire’s online incubator workshops. “I just renewed my Zoom account,” says Sara Guerrero, founding artistic director.

Bowers Museum continues to offer virtual programming for its exhibits, as well as docent-created themed online tours of the Santa Ana museum’s collections that aren’t on public display. “From a creative perspective, it’s given us wings to come up with out-of-the-box ways to serve our audience, and it exposes the Bowers to visitors around the world,” says Victoria Gerard, vice president of programs and collections.

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