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Arts groups rally to rebuild creative oasis in Wichita, Kansas


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: 'Tis the season for holiday performances. And it's always a key time for arts groups relying on holiday fare to bring in crowds.

But this holiday season comes as arts organizations, especially in smaller and midsize cities, continue to wrestle with the pandemic and its impact.

Jeffrey Brown traveled to Wichita, Kansas, to see how some are adapting and applying lessons learned during the shutdown.

It's for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The cast of Music Theatre Wichita's holiday show rehearsing for the big event. The 51-year-old company, one of this city's leading arts groups, is known for its extensive summer season.

Brian J. Marcum, Artistic Director, Music Theatre Wichita: Can we have our arms here, as opposed to that?

Jeffrey Brown: Two years ago, it was scheduled to hold its first winter holiday show. Then came the pandemic.

Brian J. Marcum: Twice, and you put it down. Awesome.

Jeffrey Brown: And now what was once a dream to artistic director Brian Marcum is finally ready for its debut.

Brian J. Marcum: It's a huge show with over 100 people in it and a great orchestra on stage. And We're hoping that it will draw the people in.

Jeffrey Brown: Wichita, in the heart of the Great Plains and with a population near 400,000, the largest city in Kansas, is known for it's agriculture, aircraft manufacturing companies, universities and more. It's also home to a long-thriving arts community.

Music Theatre Wichita attracts actors from far and wide. It's a place many come through and often return to, even if they build careers in New York and other large cities. The pandemic became a struggle to survive and raised fundamental questions about the future viability of theater, audiences and performers.

Brian J. Marcum: People weren't buying tickets to come to see the shows. There were moments where we had to look and go like, we have been doing this, this way for 50 years, and the show has to go on.

But is there a way where we can do it where people feel more supported and its more equitable for people? There was a time in the theatrical community where we all stopped and looked and thought, is this is this good for everyone's mental health? Like, do we need to reevaluate how we do things?

Jeffrey Brown: Changes were made, spacing out productions and lengthening the season, putting on shorter shows with smaller casts, an outdoor performance at a nearby amphitheater.

After a complete shutdown in 2020, Music Theatre Wichita is back, but attendance is down nearly a third since 2019. Marcum, who joined the organization just months before it closed its doors, wants to build excitement with new productions.

Brian J. Marcum: We are really known for doing the Rodgers and Hammersteins and all the classics.

One of our most popular shows this summer was "Kinky Boots," and everyone left the theater on a high. And they were all so excited about the new shows. And so we're very excited about that. And that creates new audiences and brings in people who maybe they're not so into the classics. They want to see the new, more contemporary shows.

Jeffrey Brown: Harvester Arts presents a different kind of Wichita arts vibe, a small organization focused on bringing individual artists together. It offers studio spaces and exhibitions in its gallery, and host events like Puppet Karaoke and Hungry? Have a Snack!, where artists can try out works with one another and get feedback.

Kristin Beal, Co-Founder, Harvester Arts: From the kind of 100,000-foot view, that's really what we have been trying to establish, is this sort of community structure where we can create programs and opportunities for artists to have those sorts of collisions with other creatives.

Jeffrey Brown: Kristin Beal co-founded the organization in 2014. Despite being shut down during the pandemic, she found a new way to bring artists together while also impacting other residents, reclaiming an empty downtown lot as a community arts space.

Kristin Beal: It's become a sort of outdoor downtown studio for local artists. It's been really incredible to watch. It's definitely changed our mission and vision. It was just a real blessing for that to come to us in a time where there were so many unknowns.

Jeffrey Brown: Dancer Mina Estrada says she was first drawn to Harvester Arts because of its focus on community and collaboration.

Now she works there as managing director.

Mina Estrada, Managing Director, Harvester Arts: A part of my job was meeting with artists and getting feedback from them about, what do you want now?

And, time and time again, they wanted just more programming back. I immediately started engaging with artists in the community and just rallying our community to get back at it, like, get back at making art, whatever that's going to be now.

Jeffrey Brown: A long-established staple of the local arts scene, the Wichita Symphony Orchestra has been at it for 78 years, but it too has to find a new way forward.

Don Reinhold, CEO, Wichita Symphony Orchestra: There was nothing we had studied or learned about previously that would prepare us for something like this. It was both a crisis, but it was also an opportunity.

Jeffrey Brown: Symphony CEO Don Reinhold faced a changed business atmosphere, while musicians, who were paid per performance, faced uncertain times.

One answer, new collaborations with organizations like Botanica, The Wichita Gardens, and Wichita Parks and Recreation to host outdoor concerts. Those are continuing.

Like groups around the country, the symphony here filmed performances to make available online, in its case using a locally iconic spot, the Old Cowtown Museum. They also engaged directly with audience members through weekly Zoom wellness Wednesday meetings to support mental health through music therapy and offered opportunities to hear new music and speak with musicians and consumers.

Holly Mulcahy, Wichita Symphony Orchestra: I started a weekly Zoom recital thinking, we will get 18 people. We were reaching people around the world and making friends around the country.

Jeffrey Brown: The idea started with concertmaster and violinist Holly Mulcahy, who says reaching the audience so personally has changed her view from the stage.

Holly Mulcahy: It makes us extremely aware that people are part of our experience.

I think the pandemic did this to just about everybody in this country, realizing how desperately we need the audiences and how playing for an empty hall is difficult, and what an absolute partner the audience is. And so that to understand that their opinions and their friendship can be amplified by introducing composers who are still with us, it really accentuates the experience.

Jeffrey Brown: The pandemic, says Don Reinhold, exacerbated trends that had been under way for years, adding an extra dose of urgency.

Don Reinhold: The world has changed on us in so many ways. There's more competition here for entertainment. So we have to sometimes tweak the product, think about what's going to attract them, always conscious of the need to create diversity in our audience and diversity in our programing.

Live music will find a way to survive, because there is nothing quite like hearing a live symphony.

Jeffrey Brown: Back at Music Theatre Wichita, the energy was high and, Brian Marcum too was cautiously optimistic.

Brian J. Marcum: We have such great arts organizations here. I'm very hopeful that we will get back to those 2019 numbers. I think it's going to take a while. It's going to be lots of hard work for us to do that and to reach out to those people, but I do think well get there.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Wichita, Kansas.

Judy Woodruff: Good to see.

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