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Keeping the arts alive during a pandemic

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Last week, one of my favorite writers, Jia Tolentino, tweeted something that made me cry.

“Just imagine ... you’re standing in a big warm crowd, two songs into hearing this Waxahatchee album live, your friend wiggles back through next to you and hands you a beer, you say ‘thanks dog I got the next one,’ you take simultaneous sips and go on vibing.”

Lord, wouldn’t that be nice? Even the wiggling back through the crowd part, which is usually such a spilled-beer-and-stepped-on-foot hassle, sounds pretty good right now. It reminds me of that Hold Steady lyric: “I like the crowds at the really big shows. People touching people that they don’t even know, yo.” There’s something about that live-performance ambience, the temporary esprit de corps of the shoulder-to-shoulder space right by the stage, that feeling that you’re all sharing something.

It’s not just music, either. The details are different, but theatrical productions have that same shared-art-experience energy. So do gallery openings. It’s the feeling of being there with others, of being part of something you can only be part of right in that moment, right in that place, of being an audience for someone’s artistic expression. That feeling has been an essential part of being human from the time art was invented until about six weeks ago.

Now we’re starved for it. That’s why that very lovely (but hypothetical) scene Tolentino described made me cry. It’s also why I’ve so enjoyed things like the Warehouse Theatre Company’s social-media productions over the past few weeks. The group posts a new “Living Room Concerts” video every day at 10 a.m. and a new “Story Time” video every evening at 7. They aren’t the same as going to see a fully produced Warehouse show, obviously, but they’re enough for right now because they have to be. They’re getting us through this.

Same thing with the new songs posted by Isaac Gambito (from local band Jayleigh Ann & The Lost Boys), the “River Songs” series posted by musician Mark Pickerel, the cowboy-song tutorials posted by musician and teacher Bart Roderick, the visual arts demonstrations posted by Ellensburg’s Gallery One, and a whole slew of other virtual art experiences shared by a whole slew of local artists and arts organizations.

These are lifelines. They’re channels by which artists can maintain connections with their audience. And they’re reminders of the world outside our walls and the beauty that’s possible in that world — channels by which artist and audience can maintain connections to our shared humanity.

These are not literally life-or-death things. I don’t mean to overstate their importance, especially at a time when so many things literally are life-or-death. But watching Bart Roderick do one of his cowboy songs or watching Megan Antles-Faulk from the Warehouse Theatre read a story or live-streaming a Gallery One opening sure can make you feel better.

It makes them feel better, too. That’s something Warehouse Theatre Company board President Stephen Clark discovered early on in this process. The response from viewers of the videos, including longtime company supporters, has been entirely positive, he said. And so has the response from company members, some of whom have suddenly found themselves without their normal creative outlet.

“When I’ve contacted people to do the ‘Living Room Concerts,’ it’s been like, ‘Yes. Please. I can’t NOT perform, so thank you for giving me a way to perform,’” he said. “It’s important for these performers, sharing something with an audience.”

Antles-Faulk, who took over “Story Time” readings this week after fellow Warehouse vet Grace Schefter’s initial run, was among those looking for a way to scratch that performance itch.

“You take a bunch of theater people who are all extroverts, and you tell them there’s a pandemic and they can’t go out, that’s lots of people champing at the bit,” she said.

Gambito, a 16-year-old West Valley High School sophomore whose band has been one of the Yakima Valley’s most frequently booked acts the past couple of years, knows the feeling. Jayleigh Ann & The Lost Boys have had to cancel gigs in North Bend and Leavenworth as well as in the Valley. This stretch might be the longest he’s gone in years without being on stage in front of an audience, and the cancellations included a scheduled April 11 show with Indigo Kidd, the Yakima band that moved to Las Vegas a few years ago and has been gaining popularity there.

“I was so upset,” Gambito said. “I miss those guys. They’ve inspired me to write the songs I write today.”

But the ability to post new music online and connect with his audience virtually has helped ease that pain. He’s been writing more than ever, sharing some songs and saving others for a planned July date as part of Yakima’s Downtown Summer Nights concert series.

“I’m really excited to play a majority-original set because right now I’m just writing like crazy,” Gambito said.

Artists, it turns out, will continue to make art. It’s a compulsion. And they’ll find ways to share it. Helping to create those avenues has been the challenge of the moment for people like Gallery One Executive Director Monica Miller. If it were just a matter of posting photos of art online, that would be simple, she said. Maintaining the sense of artist-to-audience connection you get from a gallery has been trickier. It has meant broadcasting free art classes for kids and paid art classes for adults, creating hundreds of art-to-go kits for at-home “after-school” programs, hosting virtual art openings and facilitating weekly Artists’ Night In video conferences during which local artists work “together.”

“I used to feel like the main purpose of the gallery was to show art and show a range of voices and skill-levels,” she said. “But over time, what I’ve learned is that the purpose of the space is the connections it creates. And we’re seeing that online. People are translating their work into the virtual world, so we can maintain that connection.”

Here are some links to keep you going:

Warehouse Theatre Company,

Bart Roderick,

Mark Pickerel,

Reach Pat Muir at

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