Is The Quad-Cities In For A New Renaissance Of Entertainment?
Saturday In The Arts is a comprehensive weekly feature looking at a trend, personality, or major subject involving the Quad-Cities arts and entertainment scene.
No doubt, the last year was a crushing one for the arts and entertainment scene — both locally and nationally.
But while it’s been an excruciating time in the short term, it could end up being a good thing, in the long run.
Entertainment needed to die a little so it could be reinvented, and in forcing it to adapt, it’s creating something new and exciting.
I’m not saying I’m thankful for this horrific pandemic but I am thankful for the shift it’s about to bring. It’s a shift that is absolutely been necessary for the survival of the art form for a number of years and it’s upon us.
Now, I am talking about this on a regional and community level. Broadway is its own thing and has its own challenges that I’m not about to dive into here. Let’s specifically talk about our own community, the Quad Cities.
We have a rich cultural landscape but it hasn’t seen a renaissance for quite some time and while you could feel winds of change on the periphery, that change was being ignored.
Let’s look back so we can look forward.
A similar feeling could be felt in the early 2000’s. You had your staples on the area theater scene, and they were all heritage theaters which had been around for decades and were still producing a lot of the same shows they’d been doing for decades. Circa ‘21, Countryside, Music Guild, Genesius Guild, Playcrafters and more were producing their usual fare and doing so successfully, but nothing felt vibrant, new or borderline edgy. There was a sense that something needed to break in to shake up the cultural balance.
Artists started to break from the major players and do their own thing.
New Ground Theatre began offering newer works; Prenzie Players began offering new ways of presenting Shakespeare; the return of Ghostlight/FONZ offered artist driven experiences.
My very own venture with Sean Leary — My Verona Productions — broke new ground on many fronts with its inception in 2003, striking up a partnership with Circa ‘21 and utilizing the former Comedy Sportz space (now the The Speakeasy), breaking the norms and producing multimedia pieces like the half live/half filmed show complete with a local music soundtrack, “Your Favorite Band” (nothing like it has been seen since), the “Dingo Boogaloo” sketch comedies (which ushered in live sketch comedy on the local stage, as well as more R-rated humor) and brand new edgy works like “The Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris (making its local debut) and the Midwest debut of “The Pillowman.” My Verona proved that the frills of a larger venue weren’t necessary to thrill local audiences, and that the raw energy of innovation and a shoestring budgeted rebellion would draw crowds and interest, and inspire others to follow in its Do It Yourself footsteps. When people would say to us, “Who are you guys, an actor and a journalist, to think that you can be theater producers?” we would reply that THAT was exactly the point — to prove that ANYONE could be a theater producer, ANYONE could do shows themselves, and you didn’t need to be a huge, heritage theater with decades of experience or thousands of dollars in grant money to do it.
The Green Room Theatre — Derek Bertelsen and Tyson Danner’s spot in downtown Rock Island — picked up on that vibe and wowed audiences with their model as they presented large plays and musicals in a small space with a focus on the performers and storytelling. With sterling productions of “Assassins,” “Angels in America” and “Carousel,” Bertelsen and Danner made audiences crave something other than expensive trappings on the stage.
Both My Verona and The Green Room paved the way for the likes of the now defunct Harrison Hilltop/District Theatre and Riverbend
Theatre Collective, as well as the QC Theatre Workshop, The Black Box Theatre, The Spotlight and others. And they also showed how the big players in the area could reimagine the kind of things they can do.
You saw a small renaissance around 2015 before the death rattle grew stronger and everything reached a fine plateau and everything just… was. There were some small successes during that time, but the arts scene never reached the powerful turning point it needed to.
So. In March of 2020 after nearly 5 years of status quo, the arts were hit with a devastating shut down that was supposed to be maybe a few weeks, then a few months, and then almost an entire year. Within a few months, you started to see pivots and small steps towards the inevitable renaissance. You saw Circa start presenting virtual cabarets, the Spotlight offering various online events, the QC Workshop doing readings online. As we moved further into summer we saw more outdoor events (like Circa’s successful Music on the Marquee, the Spotlight’s traveling children’s show Alice in Wonderland) and few more virtual events but they were all baby steps towards what was about to be the “new normal.”
It was Anthony Natarelli, Mike Turczynski and Khalil Hacker’s “Lonely Planet” (presented by Natarelli’s $1 Producer Project) that embraced and acknowledged the future of entertainment. When we look back on this in 6 years, it will be Natarelli and his team that will be responsible for this turning point in the cultural landscape.
Helping lead the charge on this important shift was Bobby and Ashley Becher wisely having their cabaret — “Broadway Backwards” presented in the Speakeasy alongside Circa ‘21 — filmed and streamed for audiences beyond the Quad-Cities.
Audiences beyond our area were able to enjoy the work that was presented by local performers. THAT is important.
Let’s be honest. At some point, someone else will do these same things, and that someone else will take credit for these important “beginnings,” but some will remember the actual start of this new renaissance.
The fall and winter brought more advances in online offerings with all of the above regularly pumping various types of content. We saw even more leaps with the Becher’s and Circa ‘21 presenting a virtual holiday cabaret; Hacker releasing a whacky Covid Christmas Special; Natarelli bringing an equally strange New Year’s Eve virtual show; and Circa ‘21 presenting a lovely New Year’s Eve virtual show in place of their annual event.
As we head into 2021, plans are already in place to make advancements in virtual offerings and we’re on the brink of real cultural change. The slow, creeping, “rule breaking” movement we saw in 2020 will be a thing of the past as we are about to see the virtual pioneers kick this into high gear and usher in a true renaissance.
Back to the reinvention.
It’s adapt or die time.
Producers and creators alike need to say this with me: You must adapt to having audiences in person AND online. Make tickets available to stream. It’s not a “maybe we will do that “ thing; it’s now “we WILL do that” thing.
Let’s talk about it.
How we consume entertainment has been teetering on the cliff of change for a few years now but the pandemic pushed it violently off that cliff. We are now in the midst of an era where ALL types of entertainment can and will be consumed on televisions, smart phones, and tablets. And it doesn’t end with television and film offerings; “live” theatre will now be consumed this way as well.
It already is.
On a broader scale, look at Disney +, Look at Broadway HD.
Both have experienced upticks in subscriptions since the pandemic began. “Hamilton” boosted Disney while several past Broadway offerings boosted the existing Broadway HD numbers. That should send a message to Broadway producers that people will pay to see large budget Broadway offerings from the comfort of their own home as an affordable price.
On a more local scale, all the aforementioned streaming offerings have seen incredible successes. These projects have had low budgets, had minimal, free social media marketing strategies and haven’t reached their full potential. They are, however, already reaching audiences beyond the Quad-Cities, highlighting the talent we are lucky to have in our area. Imagine what could happen when it’s embraced by more than just the younger, adventurous artists in town?
The limits are endless and enthralling.
The days of catering to local audiences and local audiences only are long gone. There’s an entire nation, an entire world that can now be marketed to (if you’re willing to put in the work to do it). We no longer have to cater only to our neighbors; we can cater to the entire world,
really. It’s just a matter of reaching them, through marketing to them, and by utilizing the existing technology.
Look, live audiences are important and I hope they can come back sooner than later but let’s embrace the moment and lean into it. Theater needs a space, some rock star people and an audience to occur. But there are no rules as to where that audience needs to be. If they are in the room with us, HELL YES. But if they’re online, let’s still shout HELL YES! How we bring them joy, sadness, inspiration, excitement.. whatever it is… doesn’t matter as long as we can bring it to them.
My wish for producers, artistic directors, creators at all levels is to embrace this.
Let the camera capture it.
Reach out to audiences beyond your email list and your local community.
Bring art to as many as you can.
It’s lifesaving for everyone.
People crave hearing and experiencing stories.
Storytellers crave telling them.
That will never change.
What’s changing is how it happens.
Remember this: It’s not wrong.
The rules are still being written.
That’s the beauty of what happened in 2020.
It made us realize what’s possible: Anything.
The industry needed to die like this so we could all rise up and reinvent it.
We have arrived.
Welcome to the Renaissance.