When COVID-19 precautions came into effect this spring banning large gatherings and shutting down venues, it didn’t take long for Nanaimo artists to come up with new ways to showcase their work.
Among the first local musicians to start performing live-streamed concerts was bluesman David Gogo, who performed a show live from the Duncan Showroom a week into the pandemic. He said it was depressing seeing his concert dates being pulled and he was concerned for his financial stability.
“It’s an opportunity, hopefully, fingers crossed, for me to make a couple bucks just to have some walking-around money,” Gogo said at the time. “Plus … for people that are self-quarantined, it’s entertainment for them and it’s just a chance for people that follow me that maybe live in the States or somewhere that I don’t play a lot, they get to see the show.”
When venues closed down, Nanaimo’s White Room continued showcasing local talent through its Quarantiny Desk Concerts series, before it ultimately became a casualty of COVID-19.
“Since we can’t do any live shows to audiences, what’s stopping us from just filming performances so people can still get a taste of what’s going on at the White Room?” asked co-manager Dave Read.
Other performing artists moved their performances to the internet as well. Wordstorm Society of the Arts started holding virtual poetry open mic nights, Western Edge Theatre began staging productions using the videoconferencing platform Zoom, the Nanaimo Fringe Festival took to the web and Nanaimo drag queen Gabriel Villasmil, who goes by Divine Intervention, organized an online drag fundraiser show.
Musicians started taking to performing outdoor in large spaces with small, spaced-apart audiences. Jazz singer Narissa Young started playing cul-de-sacs, first in her neighbourhood and then across the Island. She said it was a success right from the beginning.
“We had a dozen or so neighbours trickle down and big smiles on their faces and, man, the gratitude from that first one was just overwhelming,” Young said. “I had cards left on my front step and a gift of a bottle of wine.”
The Vancouver Island Symphony similarly presented a series of small outdoor concerts from Saltair to the Comox Valley and the City of Nanaimo turned its Summer Concerts in the Parks into a series of invitation-only shows in the parking lots of five local seniors’ residences. On a smaller scale, Nanaimo Chamber Orchestra director Karl Rainer and his sons performed as a string quartet from their back porch.
“When we heard our neighbours … were self-isolating, we thought, ‘Hey, why not do a concert on the porch for them just across porches?’ And then it turned into all immediate neighbours came and watched,” Rainer’s son Benjamin said.
On Gabriola Island, artists formed groups online to keep in touch while staying apart, and in May the Gabriola Island Chamber of Commerce organized Couch Fest, a three-day live-streamed performing arts festival to help support island artists financially impacted by COVID-19.
“We’ve all really looked towards the arts in this coronavirus pandemic for joy and lightness and some escapism from our mundane world of being on lockdown all around the world,” Gabriola chamber president Julie Sperber said.
Long-running Gabriola arts events found ways of overcoming COVID-19. The Gabriola Lions Club’s Concert on the Green fundraiser moved online and became the Concert on the Screen, while the Isle of the Arts festival was downsized in order to allow for socially distanced in-person workshops.
Visual artists took different approaches to sharing their work. Vancouver Island University’s visual arts and graphic design graduates both held their end-of-year exhibitions online, while Gallery Merrick proprietor Joe Bembridge live-streamed his exhibition openings on social media while allowing minimal attendance. Local artist and curator Christine Battye organized an art show in the front window of Arbutus Books.
“Our idea is to empty the window and place the art in there so the window becomes part of the exhibit and then you respect the social distancing and it also allows for a stream of audiences,” Battye said.
In some cases a combination of in-person and virtual approaches were employed. The Gabriola Arts Council held an art show at the Gabriola Arts and Heritage Centre that could be viewed online and Crimson Coast Dance Society’s Infringing Dance Festival featured performances before small audiences as well as online interactions.
“Artists are starving to perform and that’s literally and figuratively,” Crimson Coast executive director Holly Bright said. “They’re really struggling right now and we have a role to play to restart the sector and support that.”
Aside from the general public, government funding has also helped artists impacted financially by COVID-19. CineCentral Filmmakers Society, formerly the Hub City Cinema Society, is able to proceed with its Cinefest film festival thanks to a grant from the B.C. Arts Council and local singer-songwriter Laura Kelsey was able to record a new EP thanks to a Creative B.C. grant.
“Getting the funding from Creative B.C. has not only helped with bills, but it gave me a little bit of space in my mind to create inside the turmoil of everything that’s going on,” she said. “So it’s like, ‘OK, there’s some money in the bank, it’s OK to let yourself work on some music, even though there’s a pandemic going on.’ And it always feels good to focus on something creative and productive during this time, too.”