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Keeping SWLA Arts Alive in A Covid-19 World
9/1/2020 1:00:00 PM

Keeping SWLA Arts Alive in A Covid-19 World


The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we do many things that, prior to this past March, we basically took for granted; activities like attending live concerts and shows, enjoying theatre and dance productions, visiting museums and art galleries. But just because cultural events as we once knew them have taken a back seat while we mitigate this coronavirus doesn’t mean the arts have ceased to exist. On the contrary, arts organizations across Southwest Louisiana – known for its vibrant arts scene – have creatively devised new, safe approaches to bring art, in all its many forms, to the community.


Banners at McNeese


Brook Hanemann, director of Banners at McNeese, says that early in this pandemic, people relied on the arts in one form or another to help them through the isolation. "Folks flooded the internet with expressions of thought, catharsis, and solidarity in the form of multi-media art, music, poetry, verse and visual art. Citizens of virus-ravaged cities stood on their balconies and sang to each other, played music to each other, and in doing so they defied sickness, death, and plague and showed the world they could still touch each other through art. In the face of communal struggle, art has proved to be the universal language.”


Hanemann encourages us to nourish our arts community mindfully by keeping safety and responsible health measures first and foremost. Banners’ annual fundraiser, Rouge et Blanc, has been indefinitely postponed to ensure public safety; but other events have been planned. They have designed virtual programming such as Masterclasses. Banners has also partnered with KBYS and the Lake Charles Little Theatre to produce a radio broadcast with live film elements of the Orson Welles classic, The War of the Worlds to be broadcast live on KBYS on October 30 and 31.


Historic City Hall and the City of Lake Charles


Matt Young, director of cultural affairs for the City of Lake Charles, says the pandemic has changed the cultural scene in every city and town on the face of the globe. "It caused a mass of museum closures and event cancellations here locally, but it’s beginning to feel like we’re turning the corner, beginning the path to recovery.”


This past spring and summer, events like Downtown at Sundown and Red White Blue and You July 4th celebration nearly didn’t happen. But the City opted for a virtual format, streaming both events on Facebook and KPLC’s website. "While it was difficult decision, we felt it was the safest thing to do. At that time, our community needed some encouragement. There’s nothing more soothing for the Cajun soul than listening to a local band make music together. So the show had to go on. It’s not only entertaining, but connecting with the arts can help reduce depression, anxiety, and boost your overall well-being. If there’s ever been a time when our society needed that, it’s now.”


Young says having multiple galleries under one roof in downtown Lake Charles has been helpful since they reopened in late May. "Community partnerships such as Black Heritage Gallery and Gallery by the Lake have brought in new visitors and added programming like gallery talks, music demonstrations and poetry readings to our event lineups.” At the time of this writing, in compliance with Phase 2, Historic City Hall limits occupancy to 50%, requires masks, and sets up the rooms with social distancing in mind so visitors know they’re safe.


Looking forward, the organization plans more outdoor events geared to smaller audiences for fall. "We’ll be using the front plazas at Historic City Hall and Central School, as well as the Transit Center pavilion and other outdoor venues to stage mini art walks, short theater demonstrations, and music events like outdoor brass ensembles,” says Young. "There are multiple benefits to planning these smaller-scale events. It’ll be much easier to adhere to social distancing, and you’ll benefit from a more intimate setting with the musicians and artists, where interaction can occur between the audience and the performers.” 


Gallery by the Lake moved to its new locations (studio is at Central School Arts and Humanities Center and exhibits are featured at Historic City Hall) in January, only to be restricted in its activities beginning in March. "There’s no doubt the last five months have been a challenge for our members and artists in general”, says Lois Derise, president of Gallery by the Lake. From March through June, their monthly public art classes were suspended, but currently they offer two Saturday classes a month, plus a series of monthly children’s classes. "It’s our hope that these classes will provide some much-needed ‘get out of the house’ time for those interested in art, both adults and children, and also help us make up for lost time,” says  board member Amy DeLand. As per pandemic guidelines, classes are limited to 15 people with all safety measures employed. During the pandemic when so many are feeling more stress and strife, Gallery by the Lake is excited to offer creative outlets for Lake Area residents.


Black Heritage Gallery has been part of Southwest Louisiana’s art scene since 2001. Curator Stella Miller says it is important to keep the community and artists engaged through the COVID-19 pandemic. "In lieu of the traditional opening receptions that bring in over 150 art enthusiasts per opening, the gallery now hosts ‘Artist Talks’ to small groups of 15 on select Saturday afternoons. These provide artists an opportunity to discuss their work and gives the public an opportunity to connect with the artists. The programs are filmed and photos are put on social media. Increased use of social media keeps the artists before the public and increases sales.”  


Dance Companies


Because the art of dance is generally done in groups and in person before a live audience, local dance organizations have been particularly challenged through the pandemic. But that has not stopped them from finding ways to keep moving! While their spring performances were postponed until spring 2021 and winter performances have been cancelled, dancers are still dancing at local studios. 


A highlight for any ballerina is the annual Summer Intensive Program. Colleen Benoit, Artistic Director of Lake Area Ballet Theatre and director of Lake Charles Dance Academy, was able to make this happen using both in person (with masks and social distancing) and virtual platforms. "The students gained so much from the experience! We also held our annual "Ballerina Camp" for our tiny dancers with great success.”


When Phase 1 began, Benoit contacted her friend and associate Cathy Kurth. In an effort to join forces with other local dance studios and share what everyone was doing during the pandemic, the pair organized a Zoom meeting with several local studio directors. "We all shared our plans moving forward and offered support to one another. We also set up a private Facebook page so we can remain in contact with one another through the pandemic. This "grouping together" was a FIRST!” Benoit also attends a weekly Zoom meeting with over 150 dance studio owners from across the country. "There is an agenda of topics to help us move forward as studio owners, and guest speakers who speak on a variety of topics. Attendees can also ask questions.”


When Lake Charles Dance Academy opens later this month, Benoit says they will teach face-to-face following the guidelines, virtually, or a combination of both. "We’ve purchased additional computers, cameras and speakers to aid in our virtual instruction along with sanitizing products to prepare the studio for the dancers' return on September 8. We're prepared to begin our year but know that changes will more than likely be made as we move forward to keep everyone safe. No matter what - our dancers need and want to dance and we will make sure that happens safely!”


Lake Charles Civic Ballet held their Summer Intensive, as well, but with massive changes to comply with the governor’s mandates. "The board of directors and a group of parent volunteers just swooped in and made it possible for these kids to continue to train,” says Lady Holly Hathaway Kaough, Artistic Director. "The minute we went on lockdown, we switched to virtual Zoom classes. As imperfect as that is for movement, it was a way to keep our dancers dancing.”


In phase 2, LCCB performing company members and instructors were back in the studio, but they stayed six feet apart and wore face coverings. They did daily temperature screenings and symptom checks. "We did everything we could possibly do. I personally cleaned the studio every day – every barre, every handle, door, and facet in the bathroom – to give us the best chance to keep dancing for as long as possible. And it worked! It was therapeutic for me to be back in my ‘natural habitat’ and I could see that on the dancers faces, as well. Those first few days were rough because so many things were different. The students immediately wanted to run in and bear hug all their friends, but they knew they couldn’t. But despite those changes, they got back into their routine, and felt the joy of at least being in the same room together. While we haven’t had a way to perform for the community, the dancers are getting lots of training for our next performance, because inevitably, we will find a way to get back in front of an audience. I know the arts community as a whole in Southwest Louisiana is resilient and we’re going to get beyond this. And what a celebration that will be!”


Lake Charles Symphony


Michelle Miller, Lake Charles Symphony Director, says their 2020 Summer Pops had to be postponed, but they hope to present it later in this year. "We feel the concert will be a vital part to bringing the community back together to enjoy local talent. As an arts community, we’re all in this boat together, struggling to make things happen.” Meanwhile, the Symphony is working to create some smaller, more intimate concerts so they can continue to provide cultural opportunities to the community while maintaining social distancing mandates.


McNeese Band Program


McNeese State University Bands has provided a new resource for high school band students to develop their skills through a series of virtual guides to marching band fundamentals. The 11-video series, available at mcneesebands.com/visual, is intended as an instructional supplement for high school teachers, as well as a method of asynchronous learning for students who may not be able to attend traditional marching band practice due to COVID-19, according to Dr. Jay Sconyers, director of bands at McNeese. The videos walk viewers through several essential skills, such as timing to step, posture, and breathing methods. Music majors Tommy Holland and Audie Mae Owens are on hand to demonstrate. 

"I hope that these videos can be useful for high school students and directors,” says Sconyers. "For high school students, whether they get on the field and perform or not this year, they can watch and continue to develop their skills and feel like they’re moving forward. For high school directors, it puts a few more tricks in their bag. There are 10 million ways to teach these skills and I’m always picking up tricks from others, so hopefully sharing some of my tricks will help them, too.” 

Hanemann says COVID-19 taught us that art is the universal language. "Let’s get fluent, y’all.”



Community Involvement in the Arts


Brook Hanemann says there are many ways for the community to support and experience the arts, even during a pandemic.

Purchase a membership to an arts organization.

Encourage your company or employer to become sponsors.

Support local companies that sponsor arts in your community by giving them your business.

Volunteer and see shows as compensation once your local arts organizations are operating with responsible safety measures in place.

Enjoy free concerts, gallery showings, lectures, and arts programming available to your community. 

Explore the arts as a creator. "Pour your life story into poetry, song lyrics, a play script, or verse. Learn to play a musical instrument at any age. Consider enrolling in visual and performing arts courses at McNeese State University. You can teach your children to express their biggest emotions through painting or writing or music. Get your hands wet with clay, create a photo spread for your elder relatives in isolation, or create some sidewalk chalk art with your kids.

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