Save the Stage: With live performances on pause, communities hold on to hope

For places like The Rev Room and The Studio Theater in downtown Little Rock, day-to-day operations haven’t been the same since COVID restrictions started.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Many of us remember the moment we realized the pandemic was taking over and changing things forever. For the live music and theater communities, it seems that moment has been frozen in time for nearly a year.

“It was strange for us to leave the theater and just not return,” Justin A. Pike, Artistic Director for The Studio Theater, said.

The community theater was in the middle of a run of Junie B. Jones the Musical back in March of 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions started taking effect across the country, and here in Arkansas.

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“It was literally like the kids just vanished,” he said. “Everything was where they left it.”

After making the decision to close the show, Pike said the next steps weren’t exactly clear since, in the early stages of the pandemic, no one really knew the safest way to proceed.

“There was honestly a lot of insecurity because we didn’t know what was happening,” Pike said.

A similar scene was unfolding a few blocks away at The Rev Room. Owner and Operator Chris King decided to pull the plug on a Keller Williams show that was scheduled for March 13, 2020. He admits, the venue didn’t expect to be shut down for very long.

“We thought, ‘it’ll be 30 days at most that this is going to be an inconvenience,'” King said. 

But as days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, the reality started setting in that the venue would remain quiet and empty for the foreseeable future.

“It’s really weird to go from trying to book shows, promote events, fill a calendar — that’s what I’ve done every working day of my adult life,” King said. “To not do that at all anymore, I’ve got a lot of free time on my hands.”

Idle time was the reality over at The Studio Theater, too. Pike said once they realized the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon, the theater tried to find ways to pivot.

They streamed recorded performances and viewers bought tickets online. They also experimented with outdoor theater to give ample space for social distancing.

“Finding those things gives us hope,” Pike said.

But the question remains, will live performances as we once knew them ever come back? It may depend on the audiences themselves.

“There’s nothing we miss more than standing in the pit, feeling the kick drum in the middle of our chest, and singing our favorite songs back to the people that wrote the song,” King said.

“Everyone’s going to have to do their part,” Pike said. “Everyone’s going to have to take a little bit of the responsibility to follow those guidelines. Wear a mask if that’s what our protocol is.”

“And if that means that going to the theater now means we have to wear a mask, I’m all for it,” Pike added.

As more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, King and Pike both say they’re watching for restrictions to loosen and for this cultural shift to settle into a new normal. But until that happens, they hope the arts stay alive in our communities.

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“We’ve got an entire creative community that spans generations that aren’t working. All we can hope is that they’re creating the most beautiful masterpiece that we’re going to be lucky enough to see in our lifetime,” King said.

“I’m hoping that when this is all over, we experience this incredible Renaissance of art and music and theater and all these amazing things that have come out of this really sad tragedy,” Pike said.