PEMBROKE — Like many theaters across the country, the Givens Performing Arts Center on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke had to go back to the drawing board and rethink its way of producing shows for an audience.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused the theater to end its 2019-20 season early after the virus spread throughout the United States early this spring, shutting down concerts venues, arenas and theaters in its wake.
“Our last in-person event was ‘The Color Purple’ on March 2,” said James Bass, GPAC’s executive director. “We had to cancel our spring 2020 performance of ‘An American In Paris,’ the Broadway performance scheduled for April.”
Through the summer, this trend continued with the cancelling of several events including Lumbee Homecoming and the three-day event’s Lumbee pageants, which are typically sold out each year at GPAC.
“I think each day we were forced to reassess where we were,” Bass said. “This was unprecedented, and I think it was hard for people to wrap their minds around the ever-increasing reality that things were not going to be ‘normal’ for some time.”
The new normal for GPAC and many other theaters became going virtual.
“Over the summer, it became apparent that the only way we could continue to provide entertainment to our audience is via the internet, and that is when we began planning our series of virtual events,” Bass said.
The transition from producing live shows to editing pre-taped videos became the new struggle. Bass said he and his team, more familiar with staging live productions, had to learn how to switch to operating cameras, editing videos and producing captions and effects.
The concept for the series was having each performance filmed on the GPAC stage and through editing and effects, creating the feeling of sitting in the theater and watching a live show.
Finding performers for these shows became another task.
Bass said concerts and Broadway plays typically depend on tour routes throughout the U.S. If there are states with spikes in COVID infections, these tours cannot pass through them. Luckily, being on the campus of a university prevented them from looking too far, Bass said.
“Since we can’t work with touring productions, we had to rely on the talent we had at hand, which is a blessing because at UNCP we have so many talented faculty members,” Bass said.
Tuba player and euphonium expert Joanna Ross Hersey became one of the first performers Bass reached out to for the series. He said after speaking with her, he learned that her vision was greater than what he had in mind.
“Joanna wrote a piece of tuba music, and she displayed it in a map of a convent,” Bass said. “So, the musician who plays this music can begin the piece anywhere on the map — it doesn’t matter because the melodies sync from any place and you can somewhat play the music differently each time.”
The video showcases closeups of the sheet music so audience members can see the effect for themselves, Bass said.
With each video, came more knowledge of creative ways to set themselves apart from what the theater has traditionally done.
“We are still perfecting that process but it’s getting much, much better,” Bass said.
For the first time, the theater featured spoken word with Fayetteville-based, national award-winning slam poet LeJuane Bowens, which opened the door to new audience. Also featured in the series is a virtual reading of the Lumbee children’s book “Whoz Ya People?” by Brittany Hunt.
Now, six films on the art center’s website are available for the public to view, and more are coming soon.
The positive response so far to the changes has been growing, according to Bass, but is still an adjustment to people accustomed to buying a ticket and watching a live show.
“I think it’s still hard for some people to imagine life without live entertainment, but I also think more people are getting used to the concept of digesting short entertainment videos at home on social media,” Bass said. “Some people have applauded us for pivoting during these unusual times, and we’ve had some great comments about our content.”
The theater is taking a “wait-and-see” approach for when live shows will return to the theater because state restrictions still prevent the theater from opening at full capacity.
“We don’t expect GPAC to open for audiences until 2021,” Bass said. “We do have some live performances contracted but some of them have asked to reschedule in 2021.”
Still, Bass said he’s excited about the virtual content GPAC is releasing and is already discussing the incorporation of more virtual content even when theaters can reopen to the public.
“In some ways, the pandemic was the shift that innovation needed to come off the sidelines,” Bass said. “We’ve had the technology and now we’re using it. But I think we’re going to connect with a wider audience, make new relationships and come out of this wiser.”
Tomeka Sinclair can be reached at [email protected] or 910-416-5865.