Quad-Cities Entertainment Scene Keeps Faith Through Tough Times
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
His voice, usually brash and loud, is quiet and cracked.
“I mean, I’m depressed. Obviously, it sucks, because the money is a big thing. It’s not just me playing out. My wife is a waitress and bartender, and I’m a bartender a couple nights a week. That’s just extra. But we need it.”
They have a couple of kids. They have five jobs between them. Or, well, they used to. Now they have one. His. His “day job,” he used to call it. Now it’s their only lifeline to an income that was way too small for them all to live on, but which now has to be large enough for all of them to live on.
And then there’s the stage. The place that used to be his second home. A refuge. A place to pick up some extra money, along with that creative outlet.
He could do a livestream online. He could put up a patreon or a venmo, like an online tip jar. But he hasn’t. In part because, he says, “he doesn’t want to come off asking for money from people, because let’s face it, a lot of people don’t have any money right now.”
And, he says, he hasn’t picked up his guitar in over a week. It’s depressing, he says. It’s a reminder that he can’t play, and doesn’t know when he’ll be able to.
He doesn’t want to be named. Doesn’t want to seem “like a whiner.” And in some ways, that’s best that for the purposes of this article he doesn’t have a name, because he’s not alone. He could be anyone, in the area, or around the world, whose life has been completely shut down and upended by the coronavirus.
I told him I completely understand how he feels, because, I do. For a variety of reasons. All of my income and every aspect of my life revolves around public interaction with others and the creative arts.
As a commercial writer, I make the majority of my money writing for this website and advertising agencies. This website was almost completely dependent on local events for its subject matter, and it required quick thinking to completely change its paradigm and realign it to find new and interesting content without those events we typically cover. My advertising and public relations work is tied up in public events for clients, and without those, I don’t have work.
As a creative writer, I make most of my money through book signings, which I cannot do under the current social distancing norms.
And as for my work as a coach and substitute teacher, with Illinois Youth Soccer Association cancelling all practices and games through mid-April at least, and all schools closed through the same timeline, that income is gone for me as well.
Not to mention that as someone who was in the midst of writing a movie and was looking into producing and directing some new theater shows, the closures have shut those doors.
And I, and my friend to whom I spoke about his forced sabbatical, are hardly alone. There are hundreds, thousands, of us in the Quad-Cities, who aren’t just missing the income of our professions, but are mourning the loss of the connection that the arts, particularly in live performance, provides. We join thousands of others, whether on the stage or in the audience, who feel that loss due to the new phenomenon of “social distancing.”
A strange and ironically paradoxical term.
Social distancing is completely antithetical to the performing arts. The thrill of a live performance is in the room, in the energy and the interplay between the performers and the crowd.
Even the dim hum of conversation, the intermittent clinking of glasses, the distant garbling white noise of the servers and bartenders.
All of it serves as a token, a souvenir, from that one moment in time when those people are in that room, together, experiencing that moment. A moment that will never be captured again in that particular style, in that distinct way. Each live performance is its own work of art, completely unique and yet also subject to the whims of each person’s memory of it, their own contribution to its social canvas, that they take with them and help create through their retelling.
These moments are gone now.
The venues are dark.
And nobody knows when they’ll be open.
“I think that’s the worst part of it, is that none of us has any idea how long this is going to last,” said Brett Hitchcock, director of audience development for Circa ’21 and the Speakeasy in Rock Island. “It could be in a week or two, it could be months. We don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s the right thing to do. I think (Illinois governor JB) Pritzker did the right thing in shutting things down, because it’s always better to be proactive, that’s why we took that action before he even announced it. You don’t want to mess around with this, you want to make sure your staff and your patrons are safe. So I get it, I totally understand it. But there’s no doubt about it, this is tough, not just on us, but on all the performing spots and restaurants and bars and everything around the Quad-Cities.”
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had conversations with over two dozen creative people in a variety of fields from around the Quad-Cities. Some wanted to be on the record, others didn’t, they just wanted to vent. All are frustrated. All feel helpless. And all of them are gripped by an uncertainty of what the future holds, even as some bravely cling to the optimism of knowing that at some point, this will all end, and things will go back to a relative normal.
Doors will open. The shows will go on.
But in the gap between now and then, there is a cavern – financial, emotional, physical – and each came forward with a longing to express it, even if sometimes they weren’t sure how.
Joedy Cook, Ballet Quad Cities
“It’s just a shame, it’s terrible,” said Joedy Cook, CEO of Ballet Quad Cities. “The dancers have worked so hard, they’ve put in so many hours, and to have to cancel performances, it’s just heartbreaking.”
The ballet had to postpone their original April 18 performances of “Sleeping Beauty,” pushing them off to June 18.
“We thank everyone for your continued support, and look forward to taking the stage once again,” Cook said in making the announcement. “Arts are the essence of life.”
The two-month gap hit the long-standing area arts organization hard. They had to lay off their dancers last week, unable to afford to keep them on payroll, but the ballet artists dedication has kept them regular visitors to the Rock Island dance studio.
“The dancers keep coming in on an individual basis to stay in shape, without pay, they’re just doing it out of their passion for their art,” Cook said.
“So many companies are shutting down, there are so many dancers across the country that don’t have a job,” Cook said. “Because we’re a smaller company and because of the way we work, they’ve been able to come in. But it’s still really difficult. You work so hard for something, you put so much work and effort into it, it’s disappointing when you have to shut it down.”
As the only professional dance company in the Quad-Cities, Ballet Quad Cities has the advantage of having a monopoly over fans of the art form, who will likely return to watch their performances. But that doesn’t help in the interim, when they still have overhead and bills to pay.
“We’re just trying to keep our heads above water,” Cook said. “We’re doing the best we can, trying to do really cool things with the school to stay in touch with our audience.”
To that end, Ballet Quad Cities has been offering online classes. For more information on how to register please call (309) 786-2677.
“We’re looking forward to when all of this is over and done, and I’m hoping we see a huge, beautiful crowd at that June performance, of people who have been looking forward to seeing a wonderful show,” Cook said. “I know the dancers will be absolutely thrilled to finally be able to get out there and perform.”
Brett Hitchcock, Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse and the Speakeasy
Brett Hitchcock was in a literal quarantine when he found out that the theaters he runs with his father, Denny, Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse and the Speakeasy in Rock Island, were shutting their doors.
“I had been on a Carnival cruise ship, on vacation, when this all happened, so we were stranded on the ship waiting to get back to port,” he said. “Then we had to go into quarantine for two weeks. It was really surreal.”
Circa was just about to open “Saturday Night Fever,” and had just shuttered “Kinky Boots,” when they decided to go on hiatus, just as Illinois Governor JB Pritzker was asking gathering places of over 50 people to temporarily shut down.
“It’s just really, really disappointing, there’s no other way to put it,” Hitchcock said. “It’s the fear of the unknown now that’s really the worst, because we keep hearing different answers as to when we might open up again. But the fact of the matter is, nobody knows. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We could be shut down two weeks, we could be shut down two months, we could be shut down until the mid-summer, nobody knows at this point.”
Circa cancelled their kids show, “Grace For President,” and keeps pushing back “Fever,” with no start date set.
The theater has also had to lay off their employees, with hope of hiring them back when they eventually open back up again, whenever that is.
In the meantime, they’ve done their best to take care of them. Their business manager has opened up a private Facebook page where she’s been helping people with filing for unemployment and other benefits and answering questions. They’ve also kept people in town in their actors’ houses. And, in some small consolation, all of the leftover food the theater had purchased for “Saturday Night” went to those actors.
“That was one small consolation, is that we were just ending one show and going into another, so we hadn’t stocked up too much food for that coming show, and we were able to work out a deal with the company on royalties,” Hitchcock said. “But it’s been hard on us, I’m not gonna lie. Any time you need to shut down, it’s not good. We’ve still got bills to pay.”
To that end, Hitchcock commends Rock Island mayor Mike Thoms and DARI, the downtown business development association, for reaching out to downtown businesses and offering help in the form of loans, financial aid and other programs.
“It’s awful across the country,” Hitchcock said. “We’re on conference calls every week with dinner theaters across the nation and all of them are being hit hard by this, regardless of the state they’re in.”
Hitchcock was one of the most optimistic people I talked to among those interviewed, however.
“I do think that once we get the ok to open up again, people are going to come out in droves,” he said. “Not just Circa or the Speakeasy, but I think all across the performing arts, and restaurants and bars, all public places.
“I think people are really missing it, and they’re really going to want to be entertained and just get out of the house,” he said. “So I think eventually, once we can get through this, things are going to be fine.
“But, like I said, nobody knows when that’s going to be. It’ all uncertain. And that’s what’s killing everyone right now.”
Chuck Murphy, local musician
Chuck Murphy is a familiar face around area clubs, and has played as a solo act and with a variety of bands. He was one of the quickest local musicians to adapt to the digital landscape, one of the first to jump on to Facebook live and do online concerts. But it’s hardly been a bonanza for him, it’s mostly just been him trying to do the best he can under some very difficult circumstances.
“I have a family of eight, and my fiancee was in the job hunt process as an optician after her practice she worked at downsized, so I was the only income,” he said. “We were not doing perfect by any means but were not scared either. Then all this hit and overnight it seemed we went from ok to scared financially.”
Murphy also brought up various other additional expenses that many others with children mentioned.
“All six kids are home 24/7 now so the food cost has went up unplanned in our budget,” he said. “Mentally, I am a father first and entertainer second. I guess the proper way to put it is making others smile and the human interaction is my lifeline and part of what makes me tick. I’m not used to sitting around or not meeting new people or interacting with `the regulars.’ It’s a huge disruption in the mental life cycle. Change. Not always a good thing.
“To be honest, I feel lost,” he said. “Part of me feels like a failure as a father and partner because I took things for granted and didn’t plan for something like this. I just skated along into the unknown blindly and naive. I love the time with my family, but I am ready to be me again.
“How am I getting through it? I am just using the time to breathe and rethink business strategies and keep my mind moving in preparation for when life does return to normal. For short term goals I am trying my best to find ways to support the industries that have supported me for so long. I truly do believe if we as musicians want to survive even without a crisis such as this that we and the bar owners/venues/restaurants should work together to get through. It’s in our best interests to work together. Especially right now. Together is the only way through this.”
Andrew King, local comedian
Andrew King has been one of the most imaginative and inventive minds on the local comedy scene over the last decade. Aside from his unique, quirky, Woody Allen-esque voice as a stand-up, King was the host of Rozz Talk and the After Hour, two “Larry Sanders”-like talk shows featuring Quad-Cities creatives speaking with King in front of a live audience. King was also the creator and emcee of the Bix Beiderbomb open mic and comedic collective.
Seeking a wider audience in a larger urban area, King had been planning on moving to the Boston environs this spring. However, with the coronavirus lockdown, that’s been put on hold, along with his usual live performance slate.
King, like Murphy, has been one of the quickest adaptors to the digital world, coming up with a slate of hilarious videos, some of which you can see here on QuadCities.com. However, unlike Murphy, he’s single, doesn’t have kids, and made the majority of his money from his jobs outside the entertainment arena. The down time hasn’t impacted him financially as much as some others, but it’s cut his performance outlets and put his life and comedy career on hold.
“It’s delayed my move east. Cancelled my going away shindig. Shamed me for building forts out of toilet paper. Cut down on my hug intake. It’s terrible,” King said. “I’m just biding my time trying to be as productive as possible, but that hasn’t panned out yet. I’m very fortunate in that I get to feel irritated as opposed to terrified or worried. This thing hit during a transitional period for me so I’m in complete limbo.”
Tony Seabolt, longtime area artist, formerly of Bucktown, currently with Quad City Arts
Tony Seabolt has undergone a whirlwind of change in his life over the past few months.
As one of the creative and administrative forces behind Midcoast Fine Arts, Bucktown and the ARTery, Seabolt had to say farewell to those long-time gigs due to Midcoast folding up its tent in March. However, the amiable artist, known for his striking, colorful abstract paintings, found work behind-the-scenes at Quad City Arts and has continued to pursue his muse.
Still, it’s been a strange trip for him in 2020.
“Ok, so first off it is weird working from home at a job I just started a month ago,” Seabolt said. “That being said, we are really coming together as a team and making each other laugh! On the home side of things it has been good spending time with family and working on art and hobbies.”
Most of the negative impact of the coronavirus on Seabolt’s life has been on the personal side, he said.
“I’m afraid for my mother who has a compromised immune system and doing everything to keep her home and safe,” he said. “I worry for the people that don’t take this seriously because it will hind the efforts of those doing the right thing staying home!”
That said, Seabolt is generally an upbeat, optimistic type, so it’s no surprise his outlook on the current stress is on the positive side.
“I think everything is going to work out in the end,´ Seabolt said. “It’s just uncertain when this will end and things can go back to some kind of normalcy.”
A Return To Normal
And that’s a common refrain among all the business owners, artists and creative types I talked to for this story. All of them long for a return to a normal which seemed so mundane and banal, and perhaps taken for granted, not that long ago.
Now it’s that even keel, that taken-for-granted freedom and ability to experience life, that’s perhaps missed the most – although perhaps, it will also be most appreciated when it returns.
“It’s been pretty rough for us, having to end the season with just six games to go in the middle of a playoff run,” said Brian Rothenberger, director of communications for the Quad City Storm hockey team. “It’s strange seeing the TaxSlayer Center closed, having all those concerts and games cancelled. But we’re all getting through it. We’re all fortunate we’re starting our third year, and we’re looking forward to that. That gives us something to look forward to, just that return to normal.”