Kids at Whole World Theatre summer camp, which is celebrating its 18th year — albeit with some new safety precautions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made life uncertain for everyone, from individuals confined to their homes to businesses and non-profit organizations forced to reimagine operations if they want to remain viable in the future.
As Georgia was among the first states to begin reopening, more businesses are starting to reopen. But Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has yet to name a reopening date for theaters and other event venues that host groups of more than 10, and it’s likely that some will not be comfortable in large crowds for months to come.
In Midtown, Center for Puppetry Arts and Whole World Improv Theatre are making the most of their time offstage to expand their virtual offerings — and finding a wider audience than ever online.
A puppeteer at the Center for Puppetry Arts performs an online show.
A New Platform With Endless Possibilities
Center for Puppetry Arts started rolling out on Zoom archival performances and short new material within 48 hours of its closure, but it quickly reached its Zoom Room limit of 100. Now it has daily at-home programming through Facebook and its website, including craft workshops, “puppet affirmations,” conversations with industry leaders, and shows.
“We were able to do this so quickly because for years, we’ve had a fully interactive digital learning program that is just for schools,” said Beth Schiavo, managing director at the Center for Puppetry Arts. “It’s very popular, but we had never offered it individually. It was just such a natural transition for us, and it really came out of the passion for people to continue to engage with the audience, to continue to want to do their art.”
Since it began offering programming online, the center has had over 200,000 views from 85 different countries.
“The reach we’ve had has blown us away,” Schiavo said.
Whole World introduced digital programming within a week and a half on YouTube, and it’s currently celebrating its 25th anniversary virtually.
“Our issue is we have always catered to a live audience, so even our recorded content was for people that were viewing the show from their seats,” said Emily Russell, Whole World managing director. “It was never filmed from the perspective of a television viewer, so that was something we learned through all of this.”
Whole World is offering Zoom classes to current students, and it also developed a short form improv show that originated on Zoom and moved to Twitch TV, a platform popularized by gamers.
“It’s been a whole evolution of launching our business model,” Russell said. “It’s daunting, but exhilarating because we didn’t even consider this. But now we can see the possibilities are endless.”
Watch Whole World’s videos on YouTube here, and consider making a contribution through their “High Five” campaign.
Rooting for Each Other: Collaboration Across Departments and Cultural Institutions
Through these difficult times, metro Atlanta’s arts organizations have been leaning on each other and sharing ideas via a regular video conference call. It includes smaller organizations like Dad’s Garage, who organized the effort, up to larger organizations like Alliance Theatre.
“We’re all in the same boat,” Russell said. “Everyone in town is working their butts off to develop this engaging, quality virtual experience. We’ve all been very isolated, putting on shows the same days -- there’s little worlds happening all over the city and you don’t often get a chance to look up and see what someone else is doing. It’s given us a chance to connect and root for each other.”
Schiavo said working from home has also encouraged new teamwork within individual organizations.
“We’ve always had very specific offerings — our museum, digital learning events and performances,” she said. “What this has put into place is a more cross-departmental view.”
See virtual performances from arts and cultural venues across the city on Art Beats ATL, a new website launched last month.
A Whole World camper takes a mask break outside while wearing a social distancing t-shirt.
Vision for the Future: Creating True Destination Spots
Because of the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, large gatherings and live events are likely to be the last to receivebe given the go-ahead to reopen by state leadership. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ five-phase reopening guidelines also list them as part of the fifth and final phase.
Regardless of government mandates, Schiavo does not foresee opening the Center for Puppetry Arts to the general public for performances for the foreseeable future. She is hoping to reopen the center’s puppet museum within the next couple of months with protections in place like safety and crowd control, timed ticketing and social distancing.
But when the time comes to reopen, she hopes the theater’s newfound international fanbase will help attract more visitors than ever before.
“As a business person, we hope this becomes even more of a place you have to see now,” Schiavo said. “That’s the goal, for it to be a true destination place.”
After restrictions on summer camps were lifted, Whole World was able to open its improv camps for kids and teens for its 18th year. Groups are small and are practicing social distancing and wearing masks.
“It’s a different year, because the parents kids can’t come in to view the graduation show, but we’re going to stream it live so they can view it from home before they pick up their babies,” Russell said. “Wearing masks is not going to ruin our summer.”
Both organizations are based on Spring Street, a busy Midtown corridor currently undergoing a transformation to add a protected bike lane as part of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ Action Plan for Safer Streets. By the time they are ready to reopen, the project is likely to be finished, making the Center for Puppetry Arts and Whole World more accessible for everyone. Read more about that project here.