Quad-Cities Performers Reflect on What Missing Audiences Means
What a difference a year makes…
On June 11, 2019, I was lucky enough to be among the 11,000 or so packed into Moline’s TaxSlayer Center (11th row center on the floor) to witness the first (and possibly last) performance of Sir Paul McCartney and his band in the Quad-Cities.
It was an electrifying, unforgettable night – not least of which was due to the jaw-dropping lighting and multimedia displays, including a breathtaking pyrotechnic extravaganza during “Live and Let Die.”
Part of what made it so thrilling was simply being in “the room where it happened,” celebrating a musical legend I’ve loved nearly all my life, and seeing the boundless joy and amazement reflected in the sights and sounds of so many strangers. There is just no substitute for the collective experience of live performance – it’s unique to that day and moment in time.
That applies equally to the deafening roars, applause and sing-alongs of a rock show, as much as to the mesmerizing, stark silence of an audience absorbed by ethereal classical music, blistering theater or an intense, dramatic film.
In April 2018, I also had the pleasure of being in the sold-out Davenport theater where Bettendorf natives Scott Beck and Bryan Woods debuted their huge horror hit, “A Quiet Place.” For most of the suspenseful run time of the mostly dialogue-free flick, you could hear a pin drop. I’ve never heard a movie theater so quiet (we’re all collectively holding our breath) and the experience just wouldn’t be the same watching it alone at home.
The sequel – “A Quiet Place Part II” — was written and directed by John Krasinski, and while it premiered in New York this past March 8, its national release was pushed from late March to Sept. 4, 2020, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Will theaters be back open by then?
Broadway is not planning to open for live theater until Sept. 6 at the earliest, and many think it won’t be until the start of 2021.
New York theaters have been closed since March 12, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo barred gatherings of more than 500 people. According to a piece last month in The New York Times, the closing disappointed legions of fans, cost thousands of people their jobs and prompted the jettisoning of two productions that were in previews but had not yet opened: the new Martin McDonagh play “Hangmen,” and a revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Broadway is expected to be among the last sectors of the economy to reopen because its finances depend on assembling large crowds in confined spaces and its workplaces, onstage and backstage, place cast and crew in proximity to one another, the story said.
Among so many cancellations this year, major outdoor music festivals had to go, too. Lollapalooza officially postponed this year’s event in Chicago’s Grant Park to 2021. The festival, originally slated for July 30—Aug. 2, was one of the last remaining holdouts of the summer festivals. The large scale gathering also marks the final mega-festival of the summer to be rescheduled to next year, following others such as Coachella, Bonnaroo, Ravinia, Tanglewood and Milwaukee’s Summerfest.
In the Quad-Cities, music and theater fans are not the only ones deprived of live shows. The performers – who’ve made it their life’s work and passion – have seen livelihoods and incomes vanish. Like most arts organizations, many have turned to Facebook, YouTube and other online channels to still showcase their craft and raise money. But it’s not the same.
I reached out recently to four (two musicians and two actors) to ask how they’ve reacted to the black hole caused by Covid, the connection they feel with audiences, and what it’s meant to not be able to perform in front of crowds. Here are their thoughts:
Brent Tubbs, co-owner of Moline’s Spotlight Theatre and occasional actor and improv performer —
“I feel like personally, Covid-19 has forced us all to slow down. Which, in a way, has been really nice. We spent SO much time at the theatre, constantly getting ready for ‘the next,’ or current show that a lot of just simple things were getting lost. So on that level, this time has been great.
“That being said, I come at this with a few different perspectives: producer, business owner, and performer. From all three of those perspectives, this has been extremely difficult. The hardest part is the unknown.
“Trying to prepare for something not knowing if and when things will be open again. It’s hard to plan for a performance when you don’t have a date when it will happen. As a producer all we can do is plan to be ready to open, when we can, and be ready in the best possible way, not only for our audiences, but for our performers as well. Everyone’s safety is of the utmost importance, and until we can sing, and perform together safely, we are just in this unknown stand still. And that is a very hard place to be in.
“As a performer, this whole situation has taken away ‘live performance’ at its core. There is such a thing as performing for the Internet, or the screen…that’s called film. What we do thrives on that live interaction with an audience. There was a study that was done, I love this study, that measured everyone’s heartbeat during a live performance. What they found was that throughout the performance everyone’s hearts in the audience started to beat in sync.
“At the same rate, together. I mean how crazy is that? And that is the shared experience that theatre provides that no other medium does, I believe.
“We have tried recording a few improv shows via Zoom, and honestly we haven’t released them because that connectedness is really lacking when you watch it. Obviously, the few things we have released online does not substitute for anything that we would have been doing had we been able to be open. Monetarily or creatively.
“Arts organizations and venues have been hit extremely hard during these times. With theatres already working on a shoestring budget, to have to unexpectedly go dark for 4-6 months, possibly longer, it’s just devastating.
“Still unsure of how soon we’ll be back at it. But I have a strong feeling when we are, the people will be ready.”
Tristan Tapscott, frequent actor at Circa ’21, Rock Island, and former artistic director of The District Theatre —
“When I played that final performance of ‘Kinky Boots’ on March 14, I had no idea that I would never set foot on a stage for over two months (and counting). At that time we knew we would be shut down for a brief time but back then — or as friend puts it – in the ‘before times,’ we thought that shutdown would be maybe 2 weeks? But then it got longer and longer and here we are.
“ ‘Saturday Night Fever’ was supposed to close on May 16 and it hasn’t even opened yet. And as of today, we still don’t know what the future holds. It’s been an interesting few months… the first few weeks were filled with a lot of anxiety, dread and the not knowing was lethal. But a few months in, like most artists, I am finding ways to feed the show-business tiger if you will.
“I am working for QuadCities.com (full disclosure) doing a variety of things, still rehearsing ‘Saturday Night Fever’ at least once a week (from afar), I awkwardly found an audience on TikTok and I am finding other outlets like a web cooking show, I am taking up photography… but no matter what I do, nothing can match the lift you get when you step out on stage in front a few hundred people.
“I have been so lucky over the last few years that I never knew how much I had taken it for granted until it wasn’t there. Going from performing for hundreds and hundreds of people each week to performing for no one is quite the shock to your system.
“And no amount of views on any social media platform or YouTube can really come close to that feeling. It’s not the same. There’s no real risk involved, it’s not a high-wire act. Live entertainment thrives on that risk… everyone in a room together witnessing something for the first and only time.
“There’s something about it that awakens all of our sense and no virtual performance can match that. There’s an old quote from Michael Eisner, referring to what it’s like to see ‘Lion King’ on Broadway, that goes like this: ‘You can read that a million people tuned in this or a million people saw this, but to feel 1,500 people in this theatre cheering and reacting to something live on stage, you can’t touch that.’ And he’s right: you can’t touch that.”
On June 21, Tapscott will help to coordinate a first-time ever performance (in Circa’s 43-year history) on top of the marquee at 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
“Nothing crazy… just a rock star cabaret for those seats on the street below featuring some of the cast of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and the Bootleggers,” he said, noting he plays Monty the DJ in the stage show based on the smash 1977 disco film. He may sing that night as well. “Luckily, I’ve been able to act in a few short films and small viral projects since the shutdown but yes, this will be the first time performing live for humans since closing night of ‘Kinky Boots’ March 14. I’m eager to get back to ‘Saturday Night Fever’ when we can finally open the doors!”
Alexandra Axup, bassist for the band Fair Warning –
After nearly three months off, she returned to play with the band May 31 at Poopy’s in Savanna, outdoors. Axup posted that day on Facebook: “It felt surreal to perform on stage again with my band today, words can’t express that happiness & I’m looking forward to the rest of the gigs I have coming up this summer.”
“Getting to rehearse again was already a big break for us to make music together again, then to play on that big stage at Poopy’s for a full crowd, it was a great feeling and we really felt supported by everyone there” she said later. “We rehearsed because we wanted to come out of quarantine still sounding our best. It was a lot of fun to have the opportunity to play again and have that support from fans coming out, and venues still making the gigs happen.”
“What I missed most about playing in front of people was just not getting to share our music with people and just the band family bond we share when we perform. There’s nothing quite like performing live with your band and with the audience.
“In the moment, there is just a wave of happiness I feel when I play. Most of the time, I can’t help but smile — whether it’s playing my favorite bass line, jamming with one of my guitarists during a solo, head banging with the drummer or getting chills when my singer hits some high notes.
“There is always that immediate satisfaction when you start a song and the crowd immediately lights up and gets hyped. You feel good because you are making people happy as well as making yourself feel good too, that’s what music does to us.”
During the shutdown, Axup made daily videos singing with her ukulele, bass, guitar or piano, “just to share some positive and uplifting songs with my Facebook friends. It was fun for me just to keep practicing and still share music with people.
“It kept me playing so that I didn’t let my instruments collect dust during quarantine.”
At Poopy’s in Savanna, Fair Warning played for a Jeep jamboree, where 200+ Jeeps arrived as well as a packed parking lot of bikers. They’re playing a street fest on June 13 in Long Grove as well for their annual festival, and June 20 inside at Davenport’s Gypsy Highway.
“We honestly have a full summer of shows booked, which is nice” Axup said. “We missed a lot of gigs in May, but a lot of those venues have reached out to find a new day in order to try to reschedule. Some bands also have to cancel due to the current conditions, so we have been able to fill those holes for some venues as well.”
She is also doing two curbside concerts coming up this month, one on June 12, coordinated by Davenport’s River Music Experience. People can request to have artists play outside their home for a donation. Axup will be playing 30-minute sets on her ukulele.
“The RME has been very supportive of musicians during this time, they have been awesome,” she said.
Jenny Lynn Stacy, who heads her own band, The Dirty Roosters –
“What I miss most about performing live is the connection and togetherness within the room. Dropping the daily bullshit at the door, and entering a space that is supportive and uplifting … you can’t replace that.
“In the moment, I’d say the two biggest things I get fulfillment from are creating music with the band on stage, and seeing the crowd smile/dance. Knowing I might’ve cheered someone up, or put a tap in their toe means more to me than I can say. It tells me I’m doing something right.
“After the show, there’s definitely an afterglow, but I struggle with sensory overload and often need respite … but that isn’t part of the job. The quiet drive home reflecting on the whole gig is a cozy feeling to sit in.
“I’ve done quite a bit live stream shows online. Sometimes I’ll pop into Socially Distant Fest and drop a few songs, sometimes I’ll get asked to play a two hour set in another group like Honest Trav’s Dive Bar, or I’ll hop onto the Facebook band page itself.
“It’s definitely different, but I do enjoy working from home, as it were. I have all kinds of access to lighting, props, costumes, whatever I want to do really. It’s ultimate creative freedom, and it opens me up to putting on a fun show.”
On May 31, Stacy performed for the Heartland Connections’ “Play It Forward” online campaign, to raise money for musicians impacted by Covid-19.
She’s also done some curbside concerts through RME.
“That was truly a delightful time, and folks were very respectful and kept a safe distance” Stacy said. “I’m playing a private house show for 10 folks next Friday. Similar situation. I’m looking forward to that. July 5th at Vintage Torque Fest in Dubuque will be the band’s first live show since March 7th. We started socially distant practicing last week. It went well, and it was nice to see everyone again.”