Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series of articles written this fall by seniors in the journalism program at California State University, Sacramento. They are being taught by Phillip Reese, a Sacramento Bee staff reporter and an associate professor at CSUS. This is a renewed collaboration between the journalism program and the Citizen. For more information about the CSUS journalism program, visit facebook.com/sacstatejournalism.
Elk Grove native Anne-Marie Pringle witnessed how arts and theater programs can benefit youth and the local community.
Building on her own performances that started in elementary school, she co-founded Musical Mayhem Productions in 2012 and is offering a chance for anyone between the ages 4-21 to perform on stage.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Musical Mayhem Productions — like many other businesses — had to close. Their staff canceled three sold-out performances of “Willy Wonka Jr.” on opening night and four other plays scheduled for March and April. Among the performances was a staging of “Moana” starring high school seniors, some having been with the program since 2012.
“They’re so excited for their last show because they get that recognition on stage and we say goodbye to them,” Pringle said. “That didn’t get to happen; a lot of them have gone away to college already.”
The pandemic has hit artists and performers like Pringle hard, both in Elk Grove and across the state. As with most non-essential businesses; art galleries, theaters and live entertainment venues were ordered closed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 19.
Under Newsom’s color-coded system introduced in August, the spread of COVID-19 in Sacramento County has been rated red or “substantial” this month, meaning art galleries that fall under retail can open at 50% capacity and museums can open at 25% capacity. Bars that don’t serve food, concert venues, and nightclubs are still closed.
More than 400 kids were enrolled in musical performances, acting workshops and dance classes before Musical Mayhem was forced to close. Pringle said that performing provided a creative outlet for students who don’t do sports and that many spend five days a week with the program.
Some children have begun to return for downsized socially-distanced classes, but that has come with its own challenges. Teachers no longer have to get their kids to stop talking; now their problem is the opposite.
“It’s actually been really weird for us teachers when kids are here and we have our space taped out so that they’re in their own little socially distant boxes and stuff and shields and everything, but they just sit in silence,” Pringle said. “It’s weird, they’ve forgotten how to talk to each other and it’s just bizarre.”
Musical Mayhem Productions’ biggest worry is whether it can stay open, Pringle said.
“We rely heavily on ticket sales and we almost exclusively rent space in theaters from (the Elk Grove Unified School District), which right now is nonexistent,” Pringle said. “So we have nowhere to perform because we don’t have our own space, even if we could.”
Pringle said that attempts to find a venue where they can perform outside have led to few results. While Musical Mayhem Productions has started socially distanced rehearsals, they’ve cut their cast sizes from an average of 100 down to 25 performers, likely leading to a loss of ticket sales to those family members.
Julie Baker, executive director of Californians for the Arts, said art contributes to good mental health, and artists and performers serve as “second responders” helping to rebuild people’s lives following a tragedy. It is for these reasons Baker advocates for the opening of art galleries and museums across the state.
“We need this desperately,” Baker said in late September. “If you’re stuck in your home all day long, and wildfires outside, and everything else, wouldn’t it be wonderful to walk through museums safely with social distancing.”
Even as some venues and galleries have begun to open, the process has been slow and things have yet to return to normal.
Cheryl Griess, an artist and head of publicity and marketing at the Elk Grove Fine Arts Center, said the public has been slow to return to the center and some instructors have been reluctant to teach.
“We came back mid-August and opened the art center with all the COVID requirements, the temperatures, mask, and cleaning everything, and social distancing,” Griess said. “But people have been reluctant to come in; they are scared and our workshops - we’ve had to close down.”
Griess said that Elk Grove Fine Arts Center staff has remained positive, but that they have seen a loss in sales as customers have stopped looking at art pieces in person due to COVID-19.
“Our first thoughts were how long is this going to last because we are a nonprofit,” Griess said. “Our funding comes naturally from the gallery being open, holding art shows and our revenue stream, we’ve been wondering how we are going to be impacted.”
The lack of income and revenue is also a concern for independent artists like Dustin Heer, a singer and guitarist from Oakley who performs in both the Sacramento and Bay areas.
“I’ve been looking into other options and possibly getting a different job,” Heer said. “I am a little worried about not being able to continue this as my livelihood.”
Cyndee Paulson-Heer, Heer’s mother and manager, said that he had been experiencing the best year of his three-year career, etting 10 offers a week, then COVID-19 hit and everything stopped.
“We were hoping that we might have gotten our first six-figure year,” Paulson-Heer said. “Pretty much overnight we went from that to nothing.”
Paulson-Heer said that now they get three or four offers a month — typically at a half or quarter pay — and will only accept offers that are outside and socially distanced. Despite the drop in business, Paulson-Heer said that she agrees with the actions Newsom has taken.
“I think that Newsom is doing what he has to do for the good of all,” Paulson-Heer said. “If that’s our cost right now… humanity is worth it and we’ll pay that price, we have paid that price.”
Baker said that the loss of income was mitigated for some artists working as gig workers thanks to the CARES Act, which allowed gig workers to receive unemployment benefits. But she added that many have still faced issues with benefits due to mixed income and problems at California’s Employment Development Department.
Though the process of returning to normal may be slow, Pringle said she still has hope people will want to come to see art when it’s safe.
“I think that the people will really crave it and really appreciate the art that is on the stage and the amount of work these kids put into it,” Pringle said. “Theater can be absolutely phenomenal and can blow your mind, and we can’t wait to get that out there.”