Industry’s resilience ensures its comeback

On stage at The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center, Luke Bezio sands a piece of plywood that will be part of a large turntable for the presentation of “Ada & The Engine.”

The pandemic has darkened theaters, paused projects and spun the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry into an unforeseen intermission, but the show is not over. Labor Day recognizes the achievements of American workers, and behind the scenes, the entertainment industry’s employees are finding ways to keep the show going and reshape offerings with virtual events, individualized content and other new outlets. “What I’d like to believe is that when COVID is over, we didn’t just survive a pandemic, but we learned something from the process,” said Bill O’Dowd, chairman and CEO of the production company Dolphin Entertainment and a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Communications. As of 2019, more than 5 million employees made up the arts and culture industry in the United States, according to a statistical report released by the National Endowment for the Arts. Different sectors of the industry have had to adapt in different ways, such as moving events outdoors. The past few months have brought about a resurgence of drive-in movie theaters and outdoor concerts.

In The Villages, entertainment is offered for limited-capacity crowds at restaurants and venues such as Ednas’ on the Green, Fenney Grill, Havana Country Club and more.

Driveway concerts also have become a popular way for friends and neighbors to safely socialize and enjoy live music.

Mark Steven Schmidt is one local entertainer who has worked to reshape his business around what is safe.

Schmidt has worked with his manager, Linda Succi, to create themed driveway concerts, personal serenades for special occasions, private concerts in the home and more.

“This has changed our lives,” Schmidt said. “We’re waiting on a vaccine and consumer confidence to return.”

Live entertainment such as theater and concerts have been the most impacted, O’Dowd said. Film also has slowed down, but he hopes that it will soon make a comeback.

“Studios and networks have gone back into production this month, and we hope movie theaters will be open by the end of the year,” O’Dowd said. “Obviously the one area that benefited the most from COVID are the stay-at-home companies. In the entertainment space, that would be streaming services.”

As a result, other areas of the industry have moved online as well, with content being more individualized.

“Companies are getting better at delivering direct experiences to the fan,” O’Dowd said.

The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center and The Studio Theatre Tierra del Sol have been doing just that by producing virtual plays.

“We have been focusing on bringing theater to people’s homes for now,” said Whitney Morse, artistic director of The Sharon and The Studio. “We have free virtual play readings that you can tune into on Facebook, as well as our staged play readings that you can watch for just $10.”

In addition, The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Academy has offered virtual monologue coaching sessions and a virtual Shakespeare workshop for patrons.

“That’s the innovation of The Studio team to continue to produce artwork digitally,” said Elizabeth Constant, booking coordinator at The Sharon. “It’s a new medium for all of us, and I think we’ve grown and adapted so much as a team these past six months.”

Schmidt also has started teaching voice lessons on the side and believes virtual learning will be a part of what he does for a long time.

“I also think driveway parties will remain, even after things get back to normal,” Schmidt said.

Succi added that the effects carry over to more than meets the eye. Behind the scenes, there are contracts to cancel, events to reschedule and re-advertise.

“It’s even different for people who do this as a hobby, like singing karaoke or in a chorus,” said Succi, of the Village of Calumet Grove. “The trickle-down effect goes deep.”

The fact that it hasn’t been possible to hold large-scale live events for months with no end in sight has been hard on most in the industry.

“Our business not only affects entertainers, but venues, hotels, caterers and even the airline industry,” said Gerry “Rocky” Seader, leader of Rocky and the Rollers and a promoter and producer.

While Seader has been offering virtual content, it’s not the same as performing for big crowds on the squares, at Savannah Center and on cruises.

“We love playing for our fans and our friends, and we have to keep figuring this out,” Seader said. “One way is to try to get awareness to our legislatures to pass something to help us a little bit. I don’t want to see live venues become a thing of the past.”

Seader has voiced support for #SaveOurStages, a mission by the national independent venue association to push Congress to pass an act to help independent venues nationwide and keep them from closing permanently.

Morse and Constant mentioned other movements to look into, and funds to support, such as #WeMakeEvents, Broadway Cares, The Actors Fund and the Greater Orlando Performing Artist Relief.

O’Dowd recommends that patrons reach out to their local venues and see how they can support them.

“Those small businesses make up the heart of the entertainment business,” he said. “The six studios dominate the headlines, but the heart of the industry is thousands of small businesses that support the industry. We need to do what we can to support them.”

Associate Managing Editor Kristen Fiore can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5270, or kristen.fiore@thevillagesmedia.com.