Artown, Reno’s summer arts festival, isn’t canceled. It’s just shapeshifting. The pandemic “was a body blow for every organization,” said Artown Marketing Director Oliver X in a May phone interview. As it became clear that large gatherings couldn’t be reconciled with public safety, organizers scrambled to shift gears, looking for ways to bring national and local music, art, and theater to Reno audiences by July.
Signature events at major venues such as Wingfield Park and Hawkins Amphitheater have been canceled. Some smaller local events will take place in person. The opening night concert, usually held in Wingfield, will be broadcast instead.
Meanwhile, hundreds of presenters have been working around venue closures and social isolation, adapting their output to a new reality. I checked in with a musician, a mural tour leader, and an actor about the hurdles they’ve met and the adjustments they’ve made.
Recording in quarantine: “Totally weird”
David Harrington started Kronos Quartet—a Bay Area group that mixes classical music with genres like jazz, rock, and spoken word—in 1973. Since then, the quartet has released more that 50 albums and performed just about everywhere from Carnegie Hall to Sesame Street. Before the pandemic hit, 2020 was shaping up to be a typically busy year of recording, touring, collaborations, and concerts—including Artown’s open-air, opening night show.
Shutdown orders changed all that on a dime. The group has been rehearsing daily via Zoom since mid-March, but Harrington said that recording sessions have lacked their usual spark, and Zoom “rehearsals” have felt more like meetings.
“Making a recording is always a tough thing to do,” he said. “It requires all of your concentration and ability. Making the recording when you’re not getting the feedback in real time from your partners is totally weird.”
“One thing that a lot of music lovers don’t know is that the action, what makes a performance possible, are the moments of rehearsal—those hours or rehearsal, those conversations about how we’re shaping our phrases,” he said.
Working in quarantine presented some other challenges, too. “I’ve had to become my own recording engineer, which is something I’ve never done in my life before, and my own videographer,” Harrington said. And, as many have noticed this season, working from home can be surprisingly loud. “We have a young dog, two cats, and a crazy neighbor who thinks he’s Jesus, and he’s yelling all night,” Harrington said. Add in a few interruptions from the UPS guy and, well, one recent 2.5-minute recording took five sessions to complete.
Despite the Zoom lags, the UPS guy, and a dose of soul-wearying isolation, Kronos Quartet has produced some timely, powerful new work. On June 4, the group released a piece called “Peace Be Till,” on YouTube. A somber soundtrack that the group first performed in 2018 is layered over footage of the 1965 march from Selma to Birmingham, with a powerful narration by Dr. Clarence Jones, who was Martin Luther King’s lawyer and speechwriter. In this six-minute video, Jones reads from King’s 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail, a seminal document in civil rights history.
“This is the quickest thing we’ve ever accomplished, in two days,” Harrington said. He added that he felt inspired and energized that day, and that he’s really looking forward to getting back in the studio—whenever that might be.
Kronos Quartet will play a short piece, written during quarantine and recorded on iPhones, during Artown’s Opening Night Virtual Extravaganza. The event streams from 7:30-9:30 p.m. July 1 on Nevada Sports Net. Also on the bill: Keb’ Mo’, March Fourth Marching Band, Sheléa, Tim Snider, Vertigo Dance Company, Playing For Change, Jake Shimabakuro, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Hot Sardines, Charlie Musselwhite, AJ Croce, Landau Eugene Murphy Jr., Time for Three, Cool Nasty, Pamyua, Na Lei Hulu Wekiu, Ensemble Mik Nawooj, Davina and the Vagabonds, LADAMA, Mariachi Acero de Las Vegas, Paa Kow and Resistance Revival Chorus.
Reno’s mural maven: “I miss the streets.”
Geralda Miller is the director of ArtSpot Reno, the local nonprofit that leads spring, summer, and fall walking tours of downtown and midtown street art. (The group also put on the Elko Mural Expo, in September. We found it positively triumphant. More here.)
During the quarantine, ArtSpot’s tours have been on hold, and the outgoing Miller has kept her chin up through the isolation by watching Tik Toks. But, inspiring as it’s been to watch young people across the globe invent and perform new dance moves, she’s eager to get back outside.
“I miss the streets. I miss downtown. I miss midtown,” she said.
Tours will resume this weekend, and ArtSpot has four July events on the Artown calendar—including a new route showcasing downtown public art and Burning Man sculptures. But the tours aren’t returning all the way to business-as-usual. There are a few new rules. “Everybody’s got to wear a mask,” Miller said. “They’ll need to social distance.” She’s buying megaphones for docents, so they can speak clearly to people spaced six feet apart.
During the quarantine, downtown Reno’s demolition and development streak continued full bore. Three downtown murals and the Playa Art Park were lost to bulldozers and property sales.
Another big change will be a lack of tourists. Miller estimates that, in a normal season, about half of her tour customers are out-of-towners. But this spring, tourism came to a screeching halt. “We’ll see what happens,” she said. I’m hoping the local community will come out, just celebrate and engage with us.”
To Miller, the tours mean more than just an eyeful of colorful exteriors. “Going and looking at something visual, in addition to taking a nice walk and just talking about these murals and enjoying this art, I think, is healing,” she said. “I think it is a way for those who come out to kind of relax a little bit, and maybe not be as anxious. I think we need art. In times like this, I think that art is crucial.”
An actor without an audience
Doug Mishler has quite a resume. He’s been a circus performer in Florida. He’s now a professor of history and humanities at the University of Nevada, Reno. He founded Restless Artists’ Theatre, an intimate venue in a Sparks strip mall known for edgy, modern dramas. And, as a Chautauqua performer since the ’90s, he’s played characters with a “big, manic energy” that takes up the whole stage—P.T. Barnum, Theodore Roosevelt, and Nikita Khrushchev.
But there’s one thing he’s never done—performed without an audience.
“Half of my shtick is shtick,” Mishler said. He’s used to playing off his audience’s reactions. And when his UNR classes started meeting online in March, he noticed some important parts of his delivery did not translate to virtual instruction.
“With my students, some of the things I would normally say would get reactions, but they didn’t [over Zoom],” he said.“I’m concerned about the misunderstanding of nuance. That close contact—you can see it and go, ‘Oh they’re being sarcastic or ironic there.’ I wonder how much of that you lose on Zoom.’”
For his Artown Chautauqua, he’ll play Pablo Picasso. It’ll be live streamed, so Mishler’s in the process of working out new details like videography, staging, and making a set that makes visual sense on a laptop or mobile screen.
The thing that’s making him sweat the most, though, is the idea of playing to an empty theater. “A big part of my characters is interacting directly with people,” he said. “I’ll ask people questions. … I love that stuff. It’s playing off their personalities and what they say. … I don’t know how we’ll have that dynamic, especially with the delays in Zoom in responding.”
But Mishler’s giving this problem everything he’s got. He said that’s because he’s dedicated to his audience and supporters, and he’s not one to turn down a challenge.
While Artown’s event description promises an exploration of “Pablo Picasso’s artistic genius and larger than life existence,” Mishler said he’s not shying away from addressing the misogyny that his subject has been called out on in recent years. (Here’s a primer.)
Pablo Picasso A Chautauqua takes place online July 8, 3-4:30 p.m.
Artown takes place July 1-31. For detailed event information, visit Artown’s website.
Cover photo: Kronos Quartet collaborates with Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov during quarantine. Image courtesy of Kronos Quartet.