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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Artists Shine On The Virtual Stage During The Coronavirus Shut Down

Actress RyanNicole performs during a virtual open mic.

Toni Morrison once said that in chaotic times is when artists must go to work. Theaters, concert halls, and other event venues are shut down. But that isn't stopping Bay Area artists from shining on the virtual stage.

Click the play button to listen to the full story.

On Wednesday evening in West Oakland, right around happy hour, artist Brotha Bankh is dropping rhymes at an open mic. It's the Bay Area's first week of sheltering in place. Over 80 guests are there to see tonight's lineup. Actress and hip hop artist RyanNicole is the host. (Full disclosure: In the past, she's worked as an event planner for KALW.) 

"I just want to continue to sprinkle out gratitude for everybody in the room, everybody coming to share different artforms," says Ryan to the audience. "Be it poetry, music, prayer." 

This is The Quarantine: Virtual Open Mic. And the venue is Ryan's home. She's dressed comfy, yet cool. Her large hoop earrings sparkle as she introduces the next act while sipping on a "quarantini" out of a martini glass. 

People are joining in from the Bay, Southern California, even Mexico. Most of the audience is at home too or in their cars, relaxed, having a good time. They're watching the show on a video conferencing app and posting comments in the chat bar.

"Beautifully done I love it. I love it," Ryan exclaims while clapping with others after a singing performance.

Ryan was cast as an understudy for the lead role in the American Conservatory Theater's production of "Toni Stone." It's about the first woman to play big league baseball. The ballplayer lived in the Bay Area. A.C.T. shut down "Toni Stone" at the end of opening night due to the coronavirus.

Ryan recalls, "I was sent home with my bag and my last check. I was depressed and really upset about it."

I need to gather, I need to connect. I need to feel the pulse of the people and know that I'm not isolated in my emotions.

After a few days, she pulled herself together knowing other artists will soon take a hit too. So she partnered with her friend DJ Champagne and turned to a special source for upliftment — the community.

"I need to gather, I need to connect," Ryan says. "I need to feel the pulse of the people and know that I'm not isolated in my emotions." 

Ryan has brought the arts and community together during other tragic events such as the killing of Oscar Grant and the passing of Prince. The coronavirus is no different, except this gathering isn't in-person. But she notices that being online drew a broader, more diverse audience. 

She says, "I've done events and done my best to create safe spaces for everybody but I think people feel most comfortable at their house."

RyanNicole is like many artists in the Bay Area and around the country who are using technology to bring their craft to audiences while sheltering in place. They're hosting live streaming concerts like Garth Brooks, leading dance classes, giving virtual tours of museums. Did you hear about the huge DJ D-Nice house party on Instagram? Stocks for the video conference app Zoom have soared. Artists are logging on to create and reach out to people during this crisis, but also to survive. 

Theater Seats In Your Living Room

After The A.C.T. canceled their shows "Gloria" and "Toni Stone," they decided to bring the playhouse, to your house. 

"Before we closed those productions, we made recordings of each of them," says Jennifer Bielstein, the theater's executive director. 

Current ticket holders can watch the show online. They're also selling virtual tickets to others who are stuck at home and missing the theater experience. 

"For people for whom the live performing arts are important to them, this is just what the doctor ordered in a way," says Jennifer. 

Jennifer says recording archival videos of plays is common in theater. They don't normally charge people to watch them. But exceptions are made in a pandemic. Jennifer says so far they've sold hundreds of additional tickets to the virtual production. I ask her how this will help financially. 

She answers, " It costs much more to produce a show than we ever generate in ticket sales because we strive to keep our prices accessible to the community at large. So this will help us make back a little bit of money that we're losing, but it will be very modest.

Still, she says what's primary is for audiences to see the production that the theater worked on for years to bring to the Bay Area. (Although, with the shows being online, just about anyone, anywhere can watch them. Until we get back to our normal daily lives, will A.C.T. stream other archival recordings? 

"We don't have the permission from all of the creators of the work that we've done before to share it," says Jennifer. "It's certainly something worth exploring. I know some theaters are exploring that across the country, but right now it's not an easy, immediate thing that theaters can do."

Using the web for supporting artists 

What can artists do to weaken the blow of this crisis? That's a question stressing many who are out of work. Choreographer Sean Dorsey is helping people to calm down and take deep breaths on his YouTube channel.

Sean is the founder of Fresh Meat Productions in San Francisco. He hosts performances and programs that support trans and gender non-conforming artists. He canceled his spring season of live events, but he's helping his employees to breathe a little easier at the moment. 

He says, "So the first thing was reaching out to folks, asking how people were doing and saying, ‘We are going to pay you in full regardless of all of these things being canceled or converted to be online.'"

For Sean, he says his organization's response to the virus right now 

"has to reflect our core values, which for us are racial justice and trans justice and disability justice. Most of these folks are gig workers. So it's contract to contract. It's living on very little income."

Some artists have a donate button on their pages, or Venmo info for viewers to make contributions. Sean and his team are planning to convert their live events and workshops online. And offer them for free. 

"You know, we are definitely being financially impacted by the virus," he says. "We're going to lose 100 percent of our box office for this fiscal year. It's still more important to us that we offer wellness resources to our communities who really need them right now." 

For now he's using tech to help his artists stay in touch and work on their craft as they try to figure things out during this shakeup. 

"We're committed to staying connected to the project and the creative process," says Sean. 

One thing every artist in this story mentions is how this shift is increasing access. People who can't attend shows for health and disability reasons, or because of family commitments, can see and hear artists through their devices. This is all building individual artists' platforms. 

The Community Greenlights The Show

Back in West Oakland, RyanNicole's quarantini glass is empty and her virtual open mic is winding down. She reminds people of the artists' financial resources she posted on the Facebook invite. Then she places a Negro League ball cap over her curly hair and transforms into the character she rehearsed for months — Toni Stone.

"Yesterday, really just yesterday, I'm doing circles with my arm just trying to make it warm and loose and I throw the ball and it's gone. And I miss it."

Ryan says performing her monologue on the virtual stage is redeeming. She's going to continue shining the spotlight on artists, online every Wednesday during this ordeal. And possibly after this sheltering in place is all over. 

Another Quarantine: Virtual Open Mic is tonight and goes down every Wednesday. Find details for A.C.T.'s video streaming on their website. And, information about Sean Dorsey's future online workshops and performances will be available on the Fresh Meat Productions website.

Jeneé Darden is an award-winning journalist, author, public speaker and proud Oakland native. She is the executive producer and host of the weekly arts segment Sights & Sounds as well as the series Sights + Sounds Magazine. Jeneé also covers East Oakland for KALW. Jeneé has reported for NPR, Marketplace, KQED, KPCC, The Los Angeles Times, Ebony magazine, Refinery29 and other outlets. In 2005, she reported on the London transit bombings for Time magazine. Prior to coming to KALW, she hosted the podcast Mental Health and Wellness Radio.