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For St. Louis artists, 2021 was a year of improvisation and adaptation

Audience members gather on Art Hill in Forest Park for a free concert by St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in September. The annual event was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Its return this year was a sign to some that local arts organizations, hit hard by the pandemic, are on the rebound.
Caitlin Custer
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Audience members gather on Art Hill in Forest Park for a free concert by St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in September. The annual event was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Its return this year was a sign to some that local arts organizations, hit hard by the pandemic, are on the rebound.

Throughout 2021, St. Louis-based artists and arts organization leaders improvised their way past roadblocks created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Shows moved outdoors. Masks went off briefly, then on again. Proof of a COVID-19 vaccination became as essential to entry as a ticket. Artists, performers and arts organization leaders continued to find new ways to adapt to an arts world that changed month by month.

A big change was the widespread return of live events after months of inactivity because of crowd restrictions and public health measures. Old Rock House, the Pageant, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and other venues resumed concerts in the spring with limited audience size, social distancing and strict enforcement of masking.

For arts organizations and artists, 2021 was a year of renewal and a chance to return to what they love. That was clear when more than 60 regional and national musicians gathered Sept. 10-12 for the first Music at the Intersection festival at Grand Center.

Returning to the stage

The three-day event organized by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation featured performances from jazz, R&B, blues, rock and soul musiciansthat aimed to get music fans back into venues while highlighting the city’s musical influence.

“Having a festival in our likenesses is not something a city like us should be living without,” said Chris Hansen, Kranzberg Arts Foundation executive director. “It needs a festival that's sustainable, civically supported and something that puts our regional heritage and our regional artists and industry to work front and center.”

The festival was planned for 2020, but organizers postponed it because of the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 iteration wasn’t everything planners originally had in mind — the city wouldn’t issue a permit for an outdoor stage, and social distancing plus masking guidelines were a telltale sign of the ongoing pandemic.

But it was still a step forward, Hansen said.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra prioritized old and new events to get people back to see live music performances. The symphony returned to Forest Park for its annual fall outdoor concert after the symphony’s 2020 show was canceled.

“Being back at Forest Park in September, we think we had close to 20,000 people on Art Hill,” St. Louis Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard said. “That alone will probably remain one of the most memorable and moving experiences of our 2021 calendar year.”

The symphony also hosted its first Juneteenth show at the Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church and continued its On The Go series of short concerts in outdoor spaces.

“I think the sense of serving our community and connecting through music and bringing joy and really healing and having people from all walks of life connect with the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony outdoors in a community was truly the most powerful endeavor of the season, and probably the one component that we're the most proud of,” Bernard said.

Somi Kakoma stars as Miriam Makeba in "Dreaming Zenzile" at the Repertory Theatre of St Louis
File Photo/T Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St Louis
Somi Kakoma stars as Miriam Makeba in "Dreaming Zenzile" at the Repertory Theatre of St Louis.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis closed its doors in 2020 on the day its production of Somi Kakoma’s “Dreaming Zenzile” was moving from the rehearsal room to the theater. The Repertory Theatre opened its season with the delayed production.

The year-and-a-half hiatus allowed the playwright and creative team to focus on aspects of the play over a longer period of time, Artistic Director Hana Sharif said.

“New plays require a deep investment, you don't know what you have until you put a new play on its feet when you get actors in the room and musicians in the room and it all starts to come together,” Sharif said. “One of the benefits, I think, for ‘Dreaming Zenzilewas that we had this entire rehearsal process to discover what the play really was in practice when you put this beautiful story and its gorgeous music on its feet. And then to have a year of reflection between the unexpected closing of the theater and the next rehearsal.”

Like many organizations, Dance St. Louis decided to skip its 2020 festival. Organizers worked to find ways to bring its annual festival back to the masses this year with a show at the Big Top in Grand Center. The decision was a big change for the organization, which typically hosts its festival at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

“We thought that it was time to bring ourselves back to the audience,” said Michael Uthoff, artistic director of Dance St. Louis. “By creating this we were able to put forth an idea that other companies could take advantage of if they wanted to.”

The venue allowed for only a smaller incarnation of the annual event, and rain on the final day meant that some performers had to adjust their routines to avoid injury, but overall the event was a much-appreciated return for the dance presenter.

Connecting with online audiences

Several local performing groups made tentative forays into online streaming in 2020. This year, with the pandemic seemingly here to stay, many expanded their online efforts.

Metro Theater Company filmed a bilingual production of Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” complete with audio description for the visually impaired. The show was performed live and outdoors in May and April and was filmed to stream online.

Metro Theater Company put on a performance of The Very Hungry Caterpillar this spring.
Jennifer A. Lin
Metro Theater Company
Metro Theater Company put on a performance of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" this spring.

“What was great was that that allowed us to be able to get this production out to so many more people than we might have been able to otherwise have reached in a pre-pandemic time,” said Joe Gfaller, the company’s managing director. “We were limited to a 10-state region for streaming, by our rights agreement on the piece, but every state we were permitted to stream to we were able to reach school children or families during that run, allowing us to really, I think boost the impact of the production and help kids and teachers for that matter access great theater.”

Gfaller said online content can help the company reach people internationally.

“It also speaks to how much this pandemic has kind of democratized access to programming from companies anywhere in the world,” Gfaller said. “We are excited that there are audiences out in Ontario and in Singapore and in Japan that are watching our work.”

He said these new international viewers may not support Metro Theatre Company long term in the way that St. Louis audiences do, but it’s good to have them “in the mix.”

Other producers took their work online. Dacia Polk, also known as InnerGy, held her open mic night WordUp and streamed it on Facebook and YouTube. Polk said the show has been a huge success and will stream on a Roku channel next year.

“As soon as we rolled out the gate, we were averaging 1,000 views,” Polk said. “It was just super dope to see so many people tuned in, so many people engaged, lots of comments, lots of shares. So that was big, that was major. And 10 episodes, that was work.”

Online expansion helped arts organizations reach audiences beyond the St. Louis region. St. Louis Symphony Orchestra streamed a live concert for the first time, purchased video recording and editing equipment and even hired a staff videographer to help it create professional videos of educational programs and orchestra performances.

The Center of Creative Arts also expanded through virtual tools that allowed the organization to work with artists outside of the region. The expansion was something that couldn’t have happened years prior, said Delaney Piggins, artistic producer for COCA.

“This was our first opportunity to work with a playwright not from Missouri,” Piggins said. “That opened up the opportunity for us to apply to work with a playwright that we wanted to work with that might not be in our city that might be across the country in this case and create a virtual process that then allowed us to expand the amount of time we were working on a play before they came in person to create the production with us in a five day rehearsal process.”

Adjusting priorities and career paths

Like a lot of people around the country who are leaving their jobs, artists are also questioning things.

Singer/songwriter Javier Mendoza, known asHobo Cane, returned to St. Louis to play a string of shows and celebrated the 20-year anniversary of his album “Beautiful” at the Blue Strawberry.

“It took me back to 2001, which was all we ever did,” Mendoza said. “Everything was a spectacle, every show was like a moment.”

But Mendoza said the past two years continue to be difficult for artists, especially artists who rely on tours.

“I have a lot of touring friends that are in touring bands and some of these budgets have gone down,” Mendoza said. “They're putting these artists that before were on buses, now they’re in vans. And I know friends of mine that are like, ‘I'm not getting in a van anymore, I’d rather teach from home.”

Drangus keyboardist and vocalist Tom Pini performs at the Kranzberg Open Air Concert on April 16. Pini started Drangus in 2016 after performing in the groups Family Might and Foxing.
File Photo/Chad Davis
St. Louis Public Radio
Drangus keyboardist and vocalist Tom Pini performs at the Kranzberg Open Air Concert on April 16. Pini started Drangus in 2016 after performing in the groups Family Might and Foxing.

A lot of musicians asked themselves this year if they wanted to keep at it.

“Musicians who aren't doing music full time or professionally, completely, you know, maybe this is a moment where they kind of question whether or not that's the best path for them,” said Drangus keyboardist and vocalist Tom Pini. “There's, unfortunately, less and less opportunities so I'm seeing a lot of people kind of second-guessing.”

But even with fewer shows, Pini said the year allowed him and the band to prioritize performances in a way they couldn’t in 2020.

“This year we got to play like three or four shows, and I think that's actually really good for most bands,” Pini said. “So I feel really blessed, I know, my team does too. And I think a lot of people are still trying to find opportunities to play shows. Since our show in April, I think we played The Foundry and then we played Off Broadway. And that’s it, but four shows in 2021 is good for me and where I'm at. And I know, a lot of people want to be playing more shows right now so all I feel is gratitude.”

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.