From left: Danielle Ross; Tuli Bera and Kinnari Vora with Ishti Collective; Nefertiti Abdulmalik
From left: Danielle Ross; Tuli Bera and Kinnari Vora with Ishti Collective; Nefertiti Abdulmalik Credit: Theo Goodell/Michelle Reid/Nefertiti Abdulmalik

Recently, several articles appeared about the phenomenon of “Hygiene Theater”—the focus on largely ineffective COVID-19 safety measures like Clorox wipes and plexiglass dividers designed to give people a false sense of security indoors. Some in the theater industry are rapidly signing up for this new brand of drama, such as Broadway announcing that it will reopen at 100 percent capacity in September, eager to trade profits for the safety of its patrons and casts. 

So when a press release arrived boldly stating “2021 Pivot Arts Festival Safely Returns to Live Events,” a skeptical eyebrow was arched. Running from May 21 to June 6, this year’s festival is titled “Reimagining Utopia,” and in order to live up to the bold claim, the artists—presenting works in genres including theater, dance, video, music, and puppetry—have had to completely reconceptualize what a “festival” could be.

Pivot Arts founder, director, and festival cocurator Julieanne Ehre sheds light on this year’s festival planning. “We have a very strict COVID policy that we wrote in consultation with a physician, and everyone who is involved in the festival does have to get tested.” She adds, “Our audiences are going to be very small and we are not going to have indoor events with more than 15 people at a time.”

Like many other arts organizations, tackling COVID has been difficult for Pivot. However, their long history working with site-specific art lends them an extra level of flexibility. Says Ehre, “We are not tied to doing, for example, plays that have multiple actors in them in a space where lots of people have to sit together for a couple of hours. We’re an inventive arts organization so we can invent the model of the festival in order to make it possible this year.” To that point, some festival events will be held in a “walking gallery tour” style at the Edge Theater called the Utopian Performance Tour.

Ehre paints a picture: “We’ve reimagined the space so that it’s like a gallery installation in various rooms, and that audiences of 15 people at a time are going to be led through. Like in the first room there’s a ten-minute video installation, then they are going to be led outdoors into the loading dock area where there will be a garage door open with lots of ventilation, and there’ll be another art installation happening that’s not live, and they’re going to move into another space where there’s one indoor three-person performance that’s happening . . . and then there’s a solo dance piece, and a solo theater piece . . . None of them are longer than 15 minutes, and the audience moves through almost like they are walking through a museum.”

Ehre quips, “Frankly you know, I think it’s safer than going to the grocery store.”

In addition to changing safety guidelines, the festival has also changed its curatorial model. Historically, Ehre has been the sole curator; however, this year, Ehre shares, “We had a group of four curators including myself, and our artists applied under the umbrella theme for the festival which is ‘reimagining utopia,’ so artists had to respond to what their vision of utopia is after the themes of 2020, including both the BLM movement and of course the pandemic . . . We have some really interesting artists involved with that, including Propelled Animals doing a video art installation [state(d)]. They are a group that really looks to bring people of different races together in conversation with each other.”

The gallery tour is centered on themes of repair and self-care, a thoughtful artistic reflection of the current state of our broken world. A sample of other works include the Ishti Collective’s work Prana, “an invitation to rest and recuperate,” while SolAR* presents Portal to New Earth by Nefertiti Abdulmalik, which is a video installation that “combines animation, story and sound to illustrate a reality in unity with nature”; a live dance performance called Granular Peripheries by Danielle Ross with Mike Treffehn, which, according to the website description, quite poignantly “invites audiences to consider who has passed and continues to pass through the spaces we inhabit”; and Come Over, a multimedia experience by Maggie Kubley and Minnie Productions, which explores “one woman’s attempt to still satisfy her sexual urges in spite of the fact that she’s currently living alone through a global pandemic.”

Younger audiences and those seeking outdoor performances can experience The Puppet Wonder Wagon (cocreated and cocurated by Will Bishop, Samuel J. Lewis II, and Grace Needlman), featuring live large-scale puppets and outdoor puppet-building workshops. Live music fans will enjoy KAIA’s live string quartet performance. Ehre says, “Their focus is on the rich tradition of music from Latin America, which is really exciting.”

COVID has delivered some unexpectedly positive changes. Ehre excitedly shares, “We have something we call a Live Talk Show which has—pun unintended or intended—pivoted into a podcast.” The podcast has helped drive an unprecedented amount of traffic to their website—some of it from international locales. “Last year we had 3,000 people visit our website during the festival month,” Ehre notes. “We don’t even have space for 3,000 people normally during the ten-day festival.” COVID has also spurred Pivot to offer original video programs online this year. “It’s really pushed performing arts organizations to have digital work online, so we do want to continue that because we feel that increases access to people who physically can’t get to our events for disability or geographic reasons.”

Despite these successes, Ehre, like many theatermakers, seems to hold the digital frontier as a less desirable corner of their artistic utopia. Says Ehre, “As much as everyone has relied on streaming from various platforms this past year, it is so important that we gather with strangers and have experiences in live spaces. That’s how we come to know people that are different from ourselves; that’s how we create community with each other, and that just can’t happen if you’re sitting alone in front of a screen.”  v