The West Shore Community College Performing Arts Series had just completed a successful winter 2019-2020 season. An audience of 1,400 had welcomed the holidays at the festive Nashville Family Christmas in December, and in February, the musical Mama Mia played 10 sold-out performances. Preparations for the spring season were in full swing when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March and changed everything.
“We could have decided to just take a break and regroup when the pandemic was over,” said Ted Malt, West Shore’s director of performing arts and professor of music studies. “But I didn’t want to let the performing arts series become just another casualty of COVID.” As social distancing protocols were instituted, performance venues across the country closed their doors and events were canceled, but Malt took a different approach.
“Putting a plan in place early in April and throughout the summer would ensure the continuation of our strong performing arts programs,” he said. “It was my goal to do that without missing a beat.” He and his team spent the next six months reinventing the program.
With the full support and guidance of West Shore’s COVID-19 Task Force, they developed a new way of presenting arts programming at the college, keeping the health and safety of the arts community as a top priority. Through the spring and summer, Malt and members of the performing arts staff and crew brainstormed ideas and worked to put their plan in place. “We sat around the table and thought of the craziest thing that we could achieve and then tried to achieve it,” said Adam Knudsen, performing arts production manager. “We wanted to give people something to be excited about. The question was, how do we keep live music and community music relevant through all of this?”
The mission was three-fold:
• Ensure that all academic music classes could be taught online
• Acquire and master the necessary technologies to digitize and distribute performances of the college choir and instrument ensembles and of visiting artists
• Ensure that the West Shore Performing Arts Series continue uninterrupted in a virtual format.
“COVID has been tough on everybody,” said Malt. “It’s been especially hard on artists and performance venues. But, I believe that something good can come out of a tragedy. This has forced all of us who care about the longevity of our program to really think outside the box and use new tools, new resources and technology. Until we return to normal, we want to have a strong program.”
Malt and his crew developed a pilot project in May to test their plan to create performance videos. Sheet music and backing tracks were sent to nine musicians and vocalists with roots in the college arts program. They performed their parts and recorded them using their iPhones. The college’s audio and video engineers then mastered the audio and aligned the individual videos. The result, a virtual cover of Tower of Power’s “What is Hip!” [https://youtu.be/6UaNSC1S8Dc] was a success and convinced the team that creating virtual performances was indeed doable.
With a click of the mouse, audiences will continue to enjoy performance projects by the college’s 80-member community choir, 100-member wind symphony, and theater troupe. “When you watch our virtual choir, you’ll see multiple frames on your computer screen of all the people singing or playing in concert,” explained Malt.
The Living Room Series
Since West Shore’s founding, renowned acts have performed at the college, and the technology ensures the tradition will continue. The West Shore Performing Arts Series will kick off on October 18 with a new format and a new name. From the comfort of their favorite easy chairs, the Performing Arts Living Room Series audience will attend a livestream performance of the Boston Brass at the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts via www.westshore.edu/performingarts, along with other artists presented throughout the season.
To comply with social distancing protocols in the time of COVID, the seating capacity of West Shore’s Center Stage Theater has been reduced from 250 to only 47, but the Living Room Series offers performances to an unlimited audience, all at a safe social distance. “We’re trying to do the right thing here,” said Malt. “As presenters, we have to be mindful of where we are within the pandemic in respect to both the audience and the artist.”
The season’s lineup includes Michigan jazz artist of the year Fred Knapp, nationally renowned mandolinist and country/bluegrass artist Sierra Hull, guitarist sensation Frank Vignola, WSCC’s own Chloe Kimes and more. West Shore’s audiovisual team is working with each artist to produce an original, one-hour performance video tailored especially for West Shore audiences.
April will see the first face-to-face productions the college has hosted in over a year: Grammy-winning bluegrass fiddler Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts and the music group The Accidentals at the Ramsdell. Tickets for these performances will go on sale after the new year and will be available at www.westshore.edu/performingarts Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, live audience events are subject to change.
“Part of my agreement with the artists was that I would archive all the performances,” says Malt. “We’ll maintain an archive on our website, where anyone can see the performances at any time.”
Seven months after Malt began rethinking the college’s arts programming, that plan is going live. Artists and engineers are working on their virtual projects. Students have enrolled in online music courses and choir members and musicians are rehearsing their digital performances.
“Some of tour members have been in our groups for quite some time,” said Malt. “Twenty-eight students are on scholarship in the performing arts program. None of that has stopped.”
West Shore’s innovations also create a resource for students in K-12 Michigan schools. Video links have been shared with members of the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association and the Michigan School Vocal Music Association – enabling students across the state to utilize the videos for various projects and music critiques.
Malt envisions a hybrid version of the Living Room Series approach in the post-COVID world when the tools and skills developed during the pandemic will continue to enhance academics and performances. “We’ll always have a virtual component for this series and a livestream option,” he said.
Funding for the Living Room Series is provided by the generosity of donors and by the college, whose commitment to the arts has been a priority since its founding.
“Art is one thing that can take our mind off of the reality,” Malt said. “In May, when I was working on tracks for the pilot project, I felt normal again. I had my horn in my hand. I was engaged with people. I do want to go back to the way we were before. But until we get there, we’re going to do things differently. Safely.”