Throughout the country, the performing arts have taken a huge hit as their venues have been closed down during the pandemic. This six-part series, inspired by the Reading Musical Foundation, will visit our own performing arts community—theaters, musical organizations, presenters, and educational/performing institutions—to see how they have been coping, and what their plans are for 2021 and beyond.
BCTV is collaborating with local journalists to bring you the stories of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic. This media partnership is made possible in part by the support of The Wyomissing Foundation.
Kutztown University and Reading Area Community College have both built performing arts series which have provided unique opportunities for both their student bodies and the public at large to experience diverse artists they might not otherwise see.
Like many colleges and universities, KU and RACC have considered community outreach part of their mission. Their events have included not only performances but often extras, like master classes and other special events for music, dance or theater students in the area.
With the arrival of Covid-19, presenters of these series have been faced with the shutdown of their venues and the cancellation of most of their 2020 season and at least the first months of 2021. And the uncertainty surrounding the question of when reopening can happen prevents them from planning ahead to book their 2021-22 season.
This series, which began in 1988 as the KU Performing Artists Series, was established to bring world-class performing arts to the college and the surrounding community. Founding director Ellen Finks developed the series, beginning with three performances (the Hungarian Radio Chamber Orchestra, Murray Louis Dance Company and The Acting Company) the first year, and adding at least four additional events, as well as a children’s series in later seasons. Schaeffer Auditorium was renovated after Finks’ departure in 2008, reopening in 2013, and the series continues under the direction of Bryan Zellmer.
The final three events of the 2019-20 season—Irish tenor Emmett Cahill, the Fabulous Equinox Orchestra and Broadway star Laura Benanti—had to be canceled because of Covid-19, and Zellmer said the 2020-21 season, which he had already booked, has also been canceled.
Schaeffer Auditorium is now being used as a classroom during Covid-19 protocols. Zellmer has been managing the technology and helping the professors in any way he can; longtime production manager Greg Kokolus has retired.
“I’ve been attending virtual meetings with other people in the industry (presenters), and I’ve worked with the music department, which has been presenting outdoor performances and live-streaming from Schaeffer Auditorium,” Zellmer said. “Being in proximity to the live music lifted my spirits. It was so healing.”
In his talks with other presenters in Pennsylvania and across the country, he has found that “there are many differences among regions, such as how many people can gather. Some people didn’t shut down. One presenter from Tennessee asked, ‘Why don’t you just do what you need to do? We’ve been selling out shows.’”
Others talked about having drive-in concerts, or having alternate events such as exhibits, pre-paid, with limited access. But “over 40 percent of our industry is unemployed right now,” Zellmer said.
Zellmer said he has met with KU president Kenneth S. Hawkinson, and they talked about other possibilities, such as outdoor concerts as the weather gets warmer, by KU music students and local artists.
“He has been very encouraging and supportive of our program,” Zellmer said. “I’m very thankful to have a supportive administration.”
While KU provides salaries for the KU Presents! staff, the shows are self-funded through ticket sales, sponsors and donations, and grants from the PA Council on the Arts (this year’s grant has been cut by half), he said. In spite of having less money to work with, Zellmer said he is hoping to invite back at least some of the shows that were canceled in the fall of 2020 for the next season.
Zellmer attended the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) Conference, held virtually this year from Jan. 8 through 12. In normal times, this is an event held in New York City in which presenters and producers from all over the country can make connections with each other and with artists in all genres, agents and managers. Over the five days, there are sample performances for presenters to see as well.
“We had an hour-long meeting with Dr. (Anthony) Fauci to address the questions we have in regards to Covid-19’s impact on the performing arts industry,” Zellmer said. “We received a lot of encouraging news, and most importantly gleaned a tangible timeline for how and when we can return to welcoming audiences back into our venues, and at full capacity.
“Most of us intuit there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, but it really helps to finally see its glimmer in the distance so we can truly believe it.
“So while I don’t know any of the details about our next season (2021-22), I now know with certainty that there will be a next season.”
For information and updates on the KU Presents! series, visit www.kutztown.edu/about-ku/administrative-offices/ku-presents.html.
Miller Center Series
RACC’s series began in 2006 as the Downtown Performing Arts Series, in the newly built Miller Center for the Arts. Under founding director Cathy Stephen, the series emphasized modern and international dance (from Martha Graham and Momix to flamenco and Indian dance), music of all genres, and theater (Aquila, L.A. Theater Company and others), and children’s theater. Offerings also included independent films and travel lectures. In January 2016, the Reading Eagle chose the series as its “Newsmaker of the Year” in the arts, for the excellence of its programming and its community outreach (workshops, master classes, and school programs).
Like KU Presents!, the Miller Center Series had to cancel its spring and fall 2020 performances, and it was decided by the college that, for safety’s sake, the theater would be shuttered until fall of this year.
Anthony J. DeMarco, Vice President for College Advancement and Executive Director of the RACC Foundation (which oversees the Miller Center) since August, said, “We have to be extra-careful; our students are our number-one priority. When it comes to bringing people on campus from outside, we have had to be very restrictive.”
This has meant the other performing arts groups in the area, such as Berks Ballet Theater, Reading Community Players, Reading Civic Theater, Berks Opera Company and the Reading Pops Orchestra—all of whom regularly use the Miller Center as a venue—cannot have performances there until this fall.
DeMarco said Stephen is no longer employed by the college, and that he will be overseeing the theater, with technical coordinator Brett Buckwalter, who is still part of the staff. DeMarco is planning to work with Michael Rathfon, VP of creative and paid media for Crescent Strategies, a Harrisburg-based consulting company, to book performances for the 2021-22 season. (Rathfon was formerly the director of sales and marketing for the American Music Theater in Lancaster.)
“We will focus on events that will appeal to the whole community,” he said. “There won’t be a film series anymore; we want to focus on live concerts.”
He said he hopes to have four celebrity standard concerts each season, along with dance, Americana, and perhaps a standup comedy series.
He added that RACC “hopes to open rentals of the Miller Center again to RACC’s community partners.”
Prior to coming to RACC, DeMarco was VP of Institutional Advancement for Alvernia University from June 2016 to April 2020, and prior to that was VP of the Lancaster Barnstormers professional baseball team from 2011 to 2016.
“I’m very much looking forward to the end of this pandemic,” DeMarco said. “I think when we come out of this, the majority of this community will be desperate to see live events.”
For information on the Miller Center and its programs, visit www.millercenter.racc.edu.