By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
It is no secret that COVID-19 has left a massive imprint on the world of art. The arenas of live music, theaters, art museums, all lay empty into the summer, as the future of the pandemic remained unclear. Major events were either canceled or moved to the virtual sphere, like the Three Rivers Arts Festival. Even now, museums are at significantly reduced capacity, and live performances are still canceled indefinitely.
In response to these unprecedented circumstances, artists and organizations in Pittsburgh have had to take new and different approaches to keep doing the crafts they love.
Drive-In Arts Fest
While almost every art form has been restricted in some way due to COVID-19, none has been dealt with more harshly than live theaters and venues. They were among the first institutions shut down when the pandemic hit, and are cursed to be the last to reopen.
“Our bread and butter, which is to get together in a shared space, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, breathing the same air for two hours, is about the worst thing you can prescribe in the era of COVID,” said James McNeel, managing director for City Theatre.
When the pandemic hit, uncertainty about the future forced organizations like City Theatre to plan for multiple potential futures, from best-case scenario to worst.
“There was still optimism that we would be able to return to indoor performances in the fall, but when there was the spike in the summer around July 4, and the county put in stricter guidelines, it was obvious that wouldn’t be a possibility,” said McNeel.
It became clear that a new approach would be the only way to salvage the season. Inspired by the renaissance of drive-in movie theaters since the pandemic began, City Theatre began looking for places to stage drive-in performances. They found a willing partner in the Hazelwood Green, the site of a former steel mill along the Monongahela River, currently being redeveloped. Since the drive-in format is not necessarily conducive to City Theatre’s usual domain of plays and musicals, they also had to pivot in terms of content.
“We thought that we should celebrate what’s lost right now in Pittsburgh, and that’s art across all disciplines. That’s where the Drive-In Arts Festival idea came in,” said McNeel.
Drive-In Arts Festival consists of twelve nights of programming that began September 10 and ends Sunday, Sept. 27. The lineup includes a diverse array of Pittsburgh talent, including singer-songwriter INEZ, The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, magician Lee Terbosic, and the Drinking Partners podcast for a night of comedy.
Kicking off the festival’s first night was a performance by local folk duo The Living Street. Their first public performance since rising cases of COVID-19 cut their last tour short in March, band members Nick Guckert and Edward Angelo were thrilled to be in front of a live crowd again, despite the unorthodox arrangement.
“It was the coolest show ever,” said Angelo. “Instead of clapping, you just heard horns beeping and saw lights flashing.”
“After every song, we just felt this roar of horns. Sounded like we were in traffic, but it was a super unique and new experience,” said Guckert.
City Theatre has also reconfigured the show they were originally planning to open the season with for the drive-in format. Chicago-based multi-media company Manuel Cinema is presenting their rendition of the classic tale, Frankenstein. The performance will feature a live orchestra and unexpected film techniques to bring Mary Shelley’s story to the drive-in screen. The show will run September 30 through October 18.
After Frankenstein concludes, City Theatre hopes to take to the virtual world for winter content, but acknowledges that beyond this winter, the only attitude one can have is “wait and see.”
“What we’ve learned from the pandemic is that the virus is in control, and we have to be willing to adapt and be flexible to move forward,” said McNeel.
Despite the uncertainty, McNeel feels fulfilled and happy that he is able to help provide an escape for audiences and artists alike, even temporarily.
“Nationally, there are maybe five theaters in the entire country that are producing or presenting anything before a live audience, and City Theatre is one of them,” said McNeel. “To be able to find another way to do our work and do it safely, just in terms of our morale and sense of focus, has been transformative.”
Pittsburgh Drag Artists
Drag performances, like the rest of the performing arts, have been almost entirely put on hold since the pandemic began, and with good reason. Drag shows often feature large, rowdy crowds, tiny stages, and lots of one-dollar bills, none of which are conducive to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Drag performer Alora Chateaux felt this impact first hand. Chateaux hosted a
“Once we went into quarantine, I was supposed to have a drag bingo at Element that Tuesday, and it wasn’t going to happen, obviously,” said Chateaux. “I thought, ‘I was scheduled to get into drag anyway, so why not try a virtual bingo.’”
Part of Chateaux’s motivation to move online was the fact that pandemic restrictions had cut drag fans off from their community.
“My mind just went to people who weren’t used to living by themselves, weren’t used to being secluded, especially in the LGBTQ community,” said Chateaux. “I really thought a lot about that, because one of the nicest parts about live performance and drag is creating a community.”
Starting in mid-March, Chateaux hosted 13 weeks of Tuesday night drag bingo via Facebook Live. For this first round of shows, she decided to raise money for charity, collecting over $7,500 to donate to Feeding America and Black Lives Matter.
Chateaux took a month and a half break before returning to regular virtual bingo, this time to support herself. Her decision to return online coincided with the loss of her day job in late July.
“I had already planned to start [drag bingo] again at the end of July, and right at the end of July, I lost my job,” said Chateaux.
Chateaux was one of the first Pittsburgh queens to take her show digital, and many others have since followed suit. Scarlet Fairweather, “the soccer mom of Pittsburgh drag,” in her words, has been organizing a monthly virtual drag show since May. Fairweather encourages performers of all stripes, from Pittsburgh and elsewhere, to send in video performances that she broadcasts during the show. She also provides a way for viewers to virtually tip the performers.
“It’s no holds barred, everyone gets to do what they want to do, and we’ve been able to bring in people from outside of Pittsburgh that really fit in with what the city stands for in drag,” said Fairweather.
For Fairweather, like Chateaux, the shift online has helped her stay in touch with the drag family she used to see in person.
“While it’s not as lucrative, it’s still a way to get in touch with our art form, in touch with our friends, our fans, our drag family, and it gets people being creative on the fly,” said Fairweather. “That’s what a lot of us miss, is being able to make and create and deliver it to people.”
Mia Moore is another Pittsburgh queen making the leap to digital content. Moore is currently working to organize a competition for performers of color, hosted via Zoom.
“Myself, Morrigana Regina, and True T Studios are putting together a five-week PoC competition that is inclusive of the drag, burlesque, and ballroom scenes here in Pittsburgh,” said Moore.
The competition will include challenges that test skills used by drag performers, burlesque artists, and ball queens. The goal of the competition is to find the performer who is the most well-rounded, the best overall entertainer.
“The competition is to bring the communities together,” said Moore. “The PoC performers, especially in the queer community, don’t get highlighted. We don’t get the accolades or the recognition that a lot of other performers get.”
In addition to bringing performers and artists together, these digital shows bring together communities of drag fans who would not be able to attend an in-person event.
“I’ve found doing the online shows get you connected to people that maybe don’t like going to bars, or don’t go to bars because they can’t be around alcohol,” said Fairweather.
“Being from out of state, I can now sell tickets to my fans from North Carolina. They can still attend and comment and see me perform, which is something I’ve been missing being up here,” said Moore.
All this considered, for many Pittsburgh queens, digital drag is here to stay, even once it becomes safe enough for live drag shows to resume. And as long as the pandemic continues, online will be the only safe place for queens to prance.
Visual art, like the performing arts, has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. Galleries and arts festivals, where painters and sculptors would make the majority of their sales, have moved online, restricted audience size, or closed. BOOM Concepts, a creative hub that provides workspace and resources to artists from marginalized communities, has had to find ways to continue supporting artists of color while maintaining a safe environment.
“One of the things BOOM Concepts has had to do is identify what part of our services and programs have been essential, and how to drill into that as the way toward success and survival,” said D.S. Kinsel, co-founder of BOOM Concepts. “We want to continue to be artist-centered, see what folks are needing, and how folks are responding.”
One key move BOOM has made is to invest significantly in public art. Being outside means viewers can social distance, allowing people to enjoy art safely.
“We are continuing to expand our portfolio specifically around public art projects,” said Kinsel.
To this end, BOOM has extended a pre-existing curatorship with mural space Sidewall, lengthening it another year to the end of 2021.
“It’s been a really great partnership,” said Kinsel. “We appreciate folks…supporting it, and giving us positive feedback about how it’s been a nice piece of the pandemic.”
Currently on display at Sidewall’s Bloomfield space is the work of Miles Saal, a hip-hop and visual artist who died in November 2017 at the age of 21. BOOM and Sidewall worked with Saal’s parents to curate his work for this project.
BOOM also recently partnered with Rivers of Steel, a nonprofit that showcases Western Pennsylvanian artistry through the region’s industrial heritage.
“We recently finished a project at the Carrie Furnace with Rivers of Steel.” said Kinsel. “We have twelve all-black artists working on a 100-foot wall with the theme of ‘Black on Black Love.’”
The multi-generational, interdisciplinary group of artists used a variety of artistic techniques, including graffiti and wheatpasting, to transform the 100-foot long wall, as well as a building interior.
In addition to creating work to enjoy in the present, Kinsel is looking to the future. In the next couple months, BOOM hopes to be able to snapshot this incredibly unique moment in Pittsburgh’s history through the lens of a small group of artists.
“We’re doing a small collection with three or four artists at BOOM Concepts that will specifically be documenting this moment in time, the uniqueness of being an artist, being a community member, and experiencing the pandemic, responses to being introduced to a new virus, and how the shutdown has affected people,” said Kinsel.
While BOOM Concepts has invested in physical works of public art, 1Hood Media has moved its programming largely online, and created several new programs to address the issues facing the Black community.
“The first thing we started was Town Hall Tuesdays,” said Treble NLS, an artist with 1Hood. “We realized that black people were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, so what we tried to do was get them the information that they need to properly take care of themselves, keep them up to date with everything that’s going on.”
In addition to keeping the community informed about the pandemic, 1Hood has also worked to keep the community informed on the state of the political system, and what they need to know going into this year’s presidential election.
“Then, we started doing One Hour Power,” said Treble. “We’ve been trying to get people involved and informed about the election, and making sure people know what they can do.”
Another new program is “This Week in White Supremacy,” a weekly podcast about the state of white supremacy in America.
“It’s a podcast that was supposed to be started years ago, but we felt like now was the perfect time to do it,” said Treble.
Treble has also been hosting a virtual event called Next Level Slam, a virtual jam poetry session on the last Sunday of every month.
1Hood’s artists have also collaborated with other arts organizations in the city to create virtual content centered on the Black experience. In August, members Jasmine Green, Jacquea Mae, and Naomi Allen organized a Zoom webinar titled “Flowers While We’re Still Living,” hosted through the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s Women in the Arts Network.
“We delved into a bunch of different topics, like racism, mental health, grief, and loss, and how all of these things connect to the Black identity,” said Green. “It felt like I could be in that space, and I felt safer in that space than I have had it taken place more publicly. Going off the response we got during the event and afterward, a lot of other people felt the same way.”
For Green, knowing that organizations like 1Hood are continuing to work to benefit their communities gives her hope that, even as the nightmare of COVID-19 drags on, artists will continue to find new and creative ways to speak truth to power.
“It’s helped me stay hopeful…just knowing they’re still fighting as strong as they’ve ever been, and that gives me the strength to keep going,” said Green.