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Omicron is wreaking havoc on the arts. Here’s what’s been canceled, postponed or moved online

Louisville Orchestra rehearses at Old Forester's Paristown Hall on Oct. 2, 2020 for a concert that will be live streamed.
Stephanie Wolf
Louisville Orchestra rehearses at Old Forester's Paristown Hall on Oct. 2, 2020 for a concert that will be live streamed.

COVID-19 variants, like delta and now omicron, have derailed the best laid plans of some performing arts groups for getting back into theaters with in-person audiences. 

The flurry of press releases announcing in-person seasons last year had seemed like a triumphant return. But the arts, and the performing arts in particular, are having to cancel, postpone or move productions online due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in their communities.

Even Broadway wasn’t spared from the highly infectious omicron variant.

Productions tried to power through. Understudies and swings have been stepping into the spotlight, and getting their due, to keep shows running.

But in December, about half of all Broadway shows were canceled due to theater workers testing positive, the New York Times reported

“Even those most-resourced shows were facing challenges that were ending up putting shows on hiatus or closing them altogether,” Carson Elrod told members of the U.S. House Small Business Committee Wednesday during a virtual presentation about the nation’s creative economy. Elrod is an actor and co-founder of the national advocacy group Be An Arts Hero.

Here in the Louisville area, there’s been a recent round of pandemic-related programming changes.

Kentucky Shakespeare has postponed its production of “Shakespeare’s R&J” by Joe Calarco. The show, co-presented with Pandora Productions, had been slated for late January at the Henry Clay Theatre in Louisville. 

A Kentucky Shakespeare email that went out Tuesday stated that the run had been postponed until August and will be held at the organization’s headquarters in Old Louisville. 

“Due to the omicron surge, to allow enough time to properly rehearse and prepare the production, we have decided to postpone,” the email said. 

“We’re all about taking Shakespeare off a pedestal and finding relevance today with his work,” producing artistic director Matt Wallacetold WFPL News in November of the play. “And this piece is just a beautiful retelling of ‘Romeo & Juliet.’”

“Shakespeare’s R&J” will run Aug. 17 - 28.

Louisville Orchestra has canceled “Music Without Borders'' concerts on Friday and Saturday. 

“Due to several COVID exposures within the orchestra and the lack of time available to secure substitute players, the Louisville Orchestra is unable to safely perform these concerts,” a news release from the organization said.   

The orchestra will refund all tickets, according to the release. 

Its Sunday concert of “Peter and the Wolf” at the Brown Theatre will go on as planned, though.

KiMani Bridges, a composer and flutist from Louisville, was set to have a world premiere of one of her works during the now-canceled concerts. Bridges’ piece “STATiC” will now debut during Louisville Orchestra concerts in mid-May

The orchestra’s director of marketing, Michelle Winters, said it’s been an ongoing challenge to replace musicians when they test positive or are exposed to the virus. 

"For nearly every concert this season, we have had to engage substitute players when people either get ill or have a significant exposure,” Winters said in an email. “To find skilled professionals has been a challenge at times. This one simply proved too much for our available resources.”

She said that future variants or surges mean they are “potentially facing some additional program changes for the spring concerts."

The Louisville Ballet has also had to rethink January programming thanks to the omicron variant.

Last week, the ballet announced the cancellation of in-person performances of “ChorShow” due to the “alarming rise in COVID-19 infection rates throughout our community,” said an email signed by artistic director Robert Curran.

The run of the ballet’s choreographic showcase had been slated for Jan. 12 -16 at its Main Street studios. 

But this was not a complete cancellation of the run.

“ChorShow” will be presented on “the digital stage,” according to the email, and is expected to be available for streaming in February

The impacts of the omicron surge aren’t limited to the performing arts. Museums and other cultural institutions are also feeling it. The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. temporarily closed and modified schedules of several of its facilities earlier this month due to staffing shortages from COVID-19 infections and exposures. 

Continued uncertainty keeps national and local arts advocacy groups busy

In a virtual conversation with a U.S. House of Representatives committee Wednesday, members from arts labor unions and organizations created in response to the pandemic, like National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), urged lawmakers to support legislation they believe would help the arts recover. Those bills included:

They also advocated for a federal Arts and Culture Cabinet, with its own secretary, something that has also gotten traction from Louisville-area arts leaders and artists

During the virtual meeting, Republican U.S. Rep. Andrew Garbarino of New York asked one of the arts representatives on the line to speak “about what the states have done” for their arts and culture sectors.

“Because we also sent them a lot of money to help with more local issues,” he said.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear earmarked $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for nonprofit arts and culture organizations in his proposed budget.

That $10 million did not make it into the spending bill the state House passed Thursday evening. However, there’s still more of the budget-writing process to go and revisions will likely be made in the coming weeks.