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How Big Sky’s performing arts center responds to new barriers

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BIG SKY – The most unsettling thing about producing virtual shows, according to Warren Miller Performing Arts Center Executive Director John Zirkle, is ending them. After a theater performance, you usually applaud, look around at your friends, family and neighbors, and filter into the lobby to grab a nightcap and revel in the energy of the evening. After a Zoom performance, Zirkle ends the meeting, the screen goes dark and there is silence.

This disconnect is the price being paid in order to do the very opposite—keep people connected during a time where theaters are forced to darken their stages and postpone and cancel performances. WMPAC, an artistic staple of the Big Sky community since it opened its doors in 2013, has grappled with adapting their marquee in an industry that usually thrives on bringing people together.

Zirkle, who is familiar with remote communication from working with artists and industry leaders around the country, reached out to friends and colleagues to see if they might be interested in his proposed adaptations. He cited his frustration toward the barrage of contrived corporate sympathy emails that went out after the pandemic began, feeling that they didn’t do much to alleviate the issues people were facing. Instead, fueled by positive responses in the community, he devised a plan.

Despite the novel challenges brought about by the pandemic, the theater is adapting and has presented a handful of successful Zoom shows so far, including a poetry reading with Billy Collins, which gathered 250 people virtually, and a performance by the Portland Cello Project, which brought in over 500 viewers from all over the country.

“We check in with people by presenting engaging, artistic content,” Zirkle said. “Rather than asking how people were doing, we said ‘Here is what we do. If you’d like to engage, here’s how.’”

The positive feedback has kept him and WMPAC’s communications manager Rikka Wommack going. After each show, attendees are encouraged to leave a token of their thoughts through a feedback form on WMPAC’s website, and the outpouring of support has been phenomenal.

“I’m a critical care nurse, so this pandemic is technically what I signed up for years ago,” said one commenter. “But it’s the selflessness of artists who share their talents in an effort to buoy humanity that makes me tear up lately. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

It was clear to Wommack that a 45-minute break from the world is a welcome break for many. Zirkle referenced a recent article about musicians performing over the phone for patients in Intensive Care Units across the country, providing perhaps what is most needed these days: comfort. 

“Now that we’re in a world that exists in a binary of essential and nonessential workers,” said Zirkle, “we have to ask ourselves, in our own lives ‘Are the arts and the release from tragedy and crisis essential to me?’”

Art, said Zirkle, is not necessary for immediate survival. Not up against food, water and shelter, at least. 

“As far as I’m concerned you can accomplish those things without art,” Zirkle said. “You can’t eat paint and [art] is hard to sell right now. But as someone who works in the arts, I need a purpose.”

Zirkle is working with a group of ninth through 12th graders to stitch together, from individual Zoom clips, a rendition of “Sing” by the a cappella group Pentatonix, which describes as “pushing the extremes of what virtual technology will allow us.” WMPAC is continuing their virtual performances as well: Saturday, May 9 they are hosting a pop musical based on the true story of America’s first Congresswoman, Montana’s Jeannette Rankin and next Saturday, May 16, they are broadcasting local high schooler Emma Flach’s senior recital, ensuring that she gets the opportunity to perform for her community.

He likens their virtual shows to parlor concerts, when people would attend intimate piano concerts in the musician’s or a host’s home. This negates the need for a venue, something Zirkle does struggle to accept. According to Zirkle, venues are what make these artistic experiences personal, and people care more about what’s happening in their immediate community, an element the virtual world removes.

“This is just a room,” he said in a Zoom interview with EBS on May 6 from the theater itself, gesturing to the empty rows of seats behind him. “It’s the people in it that makes it special.”

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