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COVID-19 shutdown forces cultural entities to improvise

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FARMINGTON — When Randy West was hired as the new supervisor of the Farmington Civic Center in the spring of 2019, he quickly set about devising a plan to bring a wide range of live entertainment offerings to an area that had been underserved for years.

Within a few months, West clearly had taken that challenge to heart, unveiling a schedule that included nearly 30 shows over the coming year. The lineup included not just touring theatrical productions featuring Broadway veterans, but comedy acts, a family series and nationally touring live music groups in genres ranging from country and rock to blues and jazz. The centerpiece of West's plan was the formation of a new professional musical theater troupe called the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company that would perform several shows throughout the year at the Civic Center at Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater.

That inaugural season planned by West reached its two-thirds point by the middle of March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, resulting in a shutdown that brought the remainder of those plans to a screeching halt. Now, the impresario finds himself in the same position as various other folks who are engaged in the task of offering live entertainment for people in San Juan County — waiting out the virus, the shutdown and the social distancing restrictions that limit or prohibit public gatherings.

"Everybody was really encouraged at how far we got," West said, referring to his efforts to establish Farmington as a regional entertainment hub, much as it already serves that role for retail shopping.

But with many of his shows having been canceled over the last two months and the prospects for the remainder of the schedule this summer looking increasingly doubtful, West is being forced to take a long view of the future of his work — and wondering what the environment for live entertainment will be like when the pandemic ends.

"We had the foundations of a very positive year," he said. "My hope is we could pick those pieces up again and keep going down the road to build things in Farmington."

The impact of the shutdown has been felt across the local arts and entertainment scene. Joey Herring, the president of the board of directors for Theater Ensemble Arts, Farmington's nonprofit community theater organization, said her company canceled its performance of "Sherlock Holmes" that was scheduled to open in April, and she believes its planned production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the amphitheater this summer is unlikely to take place. She fears it could be a long time before another TEA production is seen by an audience.

"I think it's probably more likely that it would be next year," she said. "I'm not sure if that means spring, summer or fall. That's a very difficult thing to be able to plan when there are so many unknowns."

That sentiment was echoed by Linann Easley, the director of the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College. She said she remains in contact with many of the agents for nationally touring acts with whom she has built a relationship over the years, but no one has a firm idea of when normal touring activity will resume.

"As far as booking national acts goes, it's all real speculative," she said.

Virginia Nickels-Hircock, the director of Caliente Community Chorus and a member of the music faculty at San Juan College, said the shutdown certainly has thrown a kink into the business operations of organizations like hers. But, more important, it has kept her performers from fulfilling their role of lifting the spirits of community members who desperately need something to take their minds off their troubles right now — if only for an hour or two.

"This is affecting everyone and every occupation," she said. "There are people hurting everywhere. But artists are usually the ones who bring people up and bring people together — and we're not allowed to do that right now."

Energy, emotion and danger

While every entity involved in live entertainment faces its own set of challenges in regard to maintaining proper social distancing, few are as hamstrung by the requirements as are people in the live music/nightclub business. The very thing that can make it so enjoyable to see a band perform live — the exchange of energy and emotion between performers and audience members, often in tight, crowded quarters — is what makes it so potentially dangerous in the pandemic era.

Delbert Anderson, the leader of the nationally touring jazz group DDAT and president of the San Juan Jazz Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the growth of the area's live music scene, believes the large-scale resumption of touring for national acts is unlikely to occur before June 2021. And he senses a dry summer ahead for fans of local live music, even with some shutdown restrictions being eased by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

"Personally, I don't see it going anywhere for the next several months," he said. "Some of the restrictions might be lifted, but even if that's the case, it's still going to be difficult to have live music with social distancing."

More: Shutdown of performance venues impacts Farmington-area musicians

Anderson said he takes it as a given that social distancing requirements will remain in effect for the foreseeable future, and that means a club that used to hold 100 patrons likely would be allowed to welcome inside no more than 50 people who are required to stay 6 feet from each other. That drastically alters the economics for musicians and club owners alike, in addition to perhaps spoiling much of the atmosphere that makes the experience worthwhile.

"The way the restrictions are going, I don't see them allowing concerts, period, or live music, period, for a long time," said Brandon Beard, owner of the Lauter Haus Brewing Co., which presents occasional shows by nationally touring acts and local bands.

Beard said even when his brewery is allowed to reopen, it likely would be restricted to 80 patrons in order to maintain social distancing, and that takes his club out of the market for bands that need to make a four-figure payday.

"It's not worth (it) to them," he said. "For the guys on national tours, they have to be able to make a certain amount of money to make it to the next town."

Beard is more hopeful when it comes to a resurrection of the local live music scene, and he said the current conditions make it more likely that he will book local acts instead of national ones.

"I will probably do it more so now than I was doing before," he said. "We've been investing in sound equipment and lights and a stage, and we now have all that in place. Are we going to be able to pay the amounts we were before? Probably not, because our capacity has been cut in half, and there is a trickle-down effect."

But Beard said he is counting on being able to use live music as an enticement to lure patrons back to his brewery when it reopens.

"I'm hoping that as long as we stay under 50% capacity, you can do what you want in your building," he said.

Finding other ways to keep people entertained

Even during the shutdown, Lauter Haus has been presenting live music, albeit without an audience. Its COVID Couch Tour concert series has featured local bands performing shows that are streamed live on Facebook every Friday night, with the bands setting up virtual tip jars so fans can show their appreciation.

More: No audience? No problem — Lauter Haus owner says the show must go on

Another local club has found an even more direct way to give music fans what they want. Clancy's Irish Cantina in Farmington started its Sunset Curbside Concert Series May 13 with local bands performing in the parking lot to patrons who remain inside their vehicles. Bands are featured each Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and the series appeared to have become an instant hit, attracting sizable crowds during its first week.

Other local acts are staying busy, as well. The acoustic duo of Cecilia Taulbee-Leaming and Monica Leaming, better known as the Zia Chicks, have been streaming daily live concerts on their Facebook page. They said they have enjoyed the experience, but performing without a live audience has been an adjustment. There is no applause, but there is a different kind of feedback.

"That's strange," Monica Leaming said, referring to the silence. "When we finish a song, we have to wait a moment to see the emojis."

Cecilia Taulbee-Leaming is looking forward to being able to resume shows for a live audience, but she declined to make a guess about when that might be.

"No clue," she said. "I don't have any idea yet."

Chuck Haven, the lead singer for the Farmington metal band Signal 99, said he doesn't expect his group to perform live for a minimum of three to four months and perhaps much longer. His band, which performs regularly at large music festivals in California and Mexico, as well as some of the more well-known clubs in Hollywood, already had recorded several songs for its new album on the independent Dead Sea Records label when the shutdown occurred.

Now, Haven is left wondering whether his group would be better served by releasing those songs individually or waiting until it can finish the entire album. Without the ability to promote a new album through touring, he said, sales and downloads are likely to suffer.

"You can release music through the Internet and do promotion," he said. "But when it comes down to it, it's about going out and playing shows."

Haven said he believes bands like his will be forced to confront a new music business reality when the shutdown ends.

"You really have to rethink everything now," he said, explaining the music business is being reshaped by trial and error these days. He fears the industry model that existed just a couple of months ago is no longer valid.

Related: Farmington band Signal 99 questions removal of its video from YouTube

"Everyone wants it to go back to how it used to be, but we know it's going to be different," he said.

That doesn't necessarily mean things will be worse, he said, adding that he is an optimist by nature. He senses a great hunger for new music, both recorded and live, and said it's up to the artists to figure out how to meet that demand safely and efficiently.

"People get antsy for entertainment," he said. "I think people are going to realize how much they rely on (music) to entertain themselves."

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Reason to believe

Anderson applauds his fellow musicians who are taking innovative approaches to working around the shutdown, and he said they give him hope for the future of live music here. While his own band is unlikely to be able to resume performing in many of the nation's largest cities until the summer of 2021, Anderson and other jazz society board members have crafted a plan to promote the local live music scene even as the shutdown continues.

The organization will be launching a new music series in June that features concerts by local bands at the newly renovated HeArt Space behind the Studio 116 gallery in downtown Farmington. The shows will not feature a live audience, but they will be videotaped and edited by a professional crew, then packaged for streaming on the jazz society's website, sanjuanjazzsociety.com.

Anderson said the productions will feature a host and interviews with band members for a short biographical section that will precede the videotaped performance. Business sponsorships will be sought to help underwrite the cost of the project, which Anderson said will be called the "HeArt Space Live" series.

"We want to do this not only for local bands, but for local businesses that are really struggling," he said.

The series will feature nine episodes beginning in June and continuing every other week before concluding in September.

While he knows the shows won't fill the same role as live concerts, Anderson is hopeful their high production values and professional packaging will be a step up from the webcam streaming shows that so many other musical groups are experimenting with these days. He expects the "HeArt Space Live" series to be well received and serve as another example of what his organization, only in its second year, has to offer, in addition to its weekly jazz jams, monthly concert series, music education classes and online live music listings.

"I wanted to keep something going," he said, describing his reluctance to let the momentum the jazz society generated over its first year simply fade away during the pandemic. "If you lose it, it's really hard to start something back up. The ball was rolling, and it was looking to be a great year. … Improvisation is a big part of music, and we can all think of ways to keep it going."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com.

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