Unstoppable Artists

Performing arts alumni find new ways to reach audiences during pandemic shutdowns

It was the perfect Saturday afternoon in September. The sun was shining and the weather was still fine for short sleeves. Violinist and Conservatory alumna Elizabeth Suh Lane (B.M.) and her fellow musicians assembled under the shade of nearby trees to perform a community concert of chamber music ranging from Bach to Piazzolla.

A small but inspired crowd, socially distanced and masked as necessary, spread out to enjoy the free, nearly hour-long performance at Southmoreland Park near Kansas City’s iconic The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

COVID-19 may have changed how things are done in the performing arts world, but Suh Lane is just one of many UMKC alumni finding new ways to bring their artistry to audiences.

“It has not stopped us,” says Suh Lane, founder and artistic director of the Bach Aria Soloists, which is hosting regular performances in a variety of live and online formats. “We are still performing. ... We’ve just pivoted the way we’re doing it.”

“We are seeing a significant increase in performance videos online to keep audiences connected. ... But it doesn’t replace the income needed for organizations to survive. We have to remember to support them through this time.”
– Jane Chu (Honorary Doctorate ’10), advisor on the arts for PBS and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts

Conservatory alumni Winston Dynamite Brown (B.F.A. ’04) and his wife Latra Ann Wilson (B.F.A. ’05) started a dance company in New York City — TheDynamitExperience — in 2018. Like many dance companies, when COVID struck Brown and Wilson had to close the doors. They moved back to Kansas City and spent the summer collaborating with other organizations.

“If there is a silver lining in this remote creativity, it’s that we’re able to branch out and reach a demographic that we wouldn’t have access to before,” Brown says. “We’re taking it outside to continue working and recording it. We’re just trying to survive this the best we can.”

UMKC theatre graduate Miles McMahon (M.F.A. ’96) has also adjusted to continue practicing his craft. The founder and instructor of Kansas City children’s theater company Theatre of the Imagination, McMahon not only took his instruction online, but performed socially distanced drama shows for other camps, many of which included the children of first responders.

“I’m an actor with a job during a pandemic,” McMahon says. “It really is about adaptation and I'm learning every day.”

That’s the key, says Suh Lane, whose ensemble had been invited to perform in Lincoln, Nebraska, in early 2020. When the pandemic hit, concert organizers asked if they would perform a virtual concert. Suh Lane agreed enthusiastically.

“Our musicians feel blessed that we can continue like this and do it safely,” Suh Lane says. “We're still offering live music, and people can be a part of it.”

Brown was recently commissioned to work with Adelphi University in New York on a six to seven-week dance project. Most of the work will take place remotely from Kansas City, but he’ll also be able to have two of his dancers assist him.

“This is a way for me to continue to create and to help them financially. It’s a way to help my creative community,” he says.

McMahon and his students are staying positive as well. Using cell phone cameras, the students created their own silly commercials and short, scripted productions. They’ve become such a hit that Nickelodeon called asking his students for virtual auditions. An internet production company in Australia even purchased one of their scripts.

"We sold it for $25, so every kid in that class got $2.50. They were so excited,” McMahon says. “Often, times of great adversity produce great art. And so here we are, the Kansas City theater community, doing our best to keep the performing arts alive during this challenging time.”

Published: Mar 11, 2021

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