“Because of circumstances beyond our control…”
Month after month over the last year dance troupes, theaters, artist collectives, museums, festival organizers and more have found themselves having to open an announcement with those six dreaded words.
But even as live events were canceled en masse, the people behind these organizations persevered. The mantra of the moment fell back on that old theatrical axiom, “the show must go on.”
Arts for All, Lawton’s umbrella organization that supports the city’s arts community, was forced to cancel its annual festival. Which meant not only the loss of funds for the organization, which it uses to support other groups, but a loss of revenue for all of the artists who would have participated.
“That, along with the loss of our traditional Gala in 2020, has been both monetarily shattering and a blow to morale,” Bobbi Matchette, the executive director of Arts for All, said. “Fortunately, though the generosity of KSWO-TV and the McMahon Foundation, we were able to host a first-ever virtual gala in November. While it brought in less than half of what the traditional gala brings, it helped to keep the arts in the public eye.”
The group is now rolling up its sleeves as they try to plan a 2021 recovery. It all begins with a Virtual Fund Drive Kick-Off Luncheon in conjunction with the Lawton-Fort Sill Chamber of Commerce on May 28.
“As with all other organizations, we do not have easy answers, but we have hope, imagination and grit,” Matchette said.
The Lawton Philharmonic Orchestra, one of several organizations under the umbrellas of Arts for All, suffered similar losses during the pandemic. The orchestra was forced to cancel its season finale last April. The 70-plus person group is conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch, who said the last time the orchestra played to a live audience was over a year ago.
“It was absolutely devastating when reality sank in and we knew there was simply no way that (we could play live),” Kalbfleisch said.
But in that dark cloud, a silver lining lingered.
The orchestra needed to find another way to reach out. So, through some media partnerships, they found a way to produce a full season of audience-free concerts broadcast locally on TV and virtually online.
“The result is that we’ve reached more people than ever, and we hope we’ve made some new friends that will join us next season when we’re all back in the hall,” Kalbfleisch said.
With vaccinations rates rising, the orchestra is looking to return to the live concert hall this year. Other arts groups are hoping to follow their lead.
Lawton Pro Musica, a vocal choir that has been entertaining Lawtonians for years, hasn’t sung publicly since February 2020. But the choir’s director, Tom Willoughby, is hopeful the streak will break come summer.
“Thankfully, our singers have stayed connected to the group. Also, our patrons have been very supportive. The challenge has come in missing the joy of making music together and sharing this unifying gift to our community,” Willoughby said.
The choir is looking to June 5 for its first concert since the pandemic began.
Doris Lambert, who leads several community choirs, also saw some glimmers of hope during the darkness.
“Moving forward, the benefit has been the formation of the new men’s ensemble ‘Cantus’. As we look forward to improved COVID-19 numbers and vaccines being given, the shared summer concert for ‘Bella Voce’ Women’s choir and the new ‘Cantus’ Men’s choir looks very promising,” Lambert said.
Still, there have been moments where the curtains felt closed forever. Over at the Lawton Community Theatre, COVID-19 canceled the regular season, and for a time it looked like the stage might go quiet.
“Closing our doors interrupted the magic human interaction that makes theatre so special,” Chance Harmon, the theatre’s executive director, said. “Many people often find family, identity and safety within the theatre and arts community. Not being able to provide those experiences has been emotionally devastating. I always joke that we don’t just sing and dance, we provide a space for the community to express and share their talent.”
Initial closures resulted in a loss of almost $85,000 in expected revenue and sponsorships for the theatre, according to Harmon. Additional losses are still being calculated. But nevertheless, the year wasn’t a total loss.
“Thanks to generous donations, sponsorships, and funding from the CARES Act, LCT has been able to remain operational, keep employees on the payroll and even produce socially distanced projects,” Harmon said. “LCT will persevere. We plan to continue our mission to promote live theatre and enrich the quality of life in Southwest Oklahoma.”
With hope on the horizon, Lawton’s artists look forward to a new dawn, and through it all, the show goes on.