CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — Many performing arts centers in Iowa have been temporarily shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic, including Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa. Officials at Iowa State University in Ames recently announced it was closing C.Y. Stephens Auditorium indefinitely as it determines the center’s future viability.
Live concerts, Broadway shows and other performances in the Great Hall at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center are in limbo for the interim. That doesn’t mean the center has been sitting idle or shut its doors.
“Pivot — that’s what we’ve done since COVID-19 hit,” said Steve Carignan, GBPAC executive director and associate dean of outreach and special programs at the University of Northern Iowa. “Most art centers and schools of music threw up their hands, but we realized early on that we needed to pivot to stay engaged with the community. That meant being creative in coming up with ways to connect. We’ve done some stuff we’ve never done before.
“We don’t want people to get used to not having opportunities for live music, live theater and live performances,” he told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. The center also is home to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra and a resource for UNI School of Music students.
Recently, the center launched a “Local Legends” concert series from the Great Hall stage, featuring live-streamed, professionally produced shows by area bands and performers. This summer, the center’s staff collaborated with Cedar Falls Community Main Street, Hearst Center for the Arts and others to present “Movies Under the Moon” series as a drive-in at a campus parking lot.
That proved so popular that GBPAC offered ticketed date-night movies and an outdoor drive-in rock concert. “We bought a portable stage from 1959 — no kidding – and because we have the people to do it, worked on it so now it’s like new. I’m seeing us using that in the future for street and block parties — that could be a blast,” Carignan said.
At 4 p.m. Sept. 26, “Yesterday and Today,” a interactive concert featuring the music of the Beatles, will be the second drive-in concert.
Now with students back on campus, the center has found ways to allow student ensembles and choruses to rehearse together in safe environments while taking COVID-19 risk mitigation steps.
“It’s really cool to see students rehearsing in the Great Hall and lobby. It’s neat to see the spaces being used so effectively. It achieves some level of normalcy for students whose studies require performance, whether it’s an instrument or voice,” Carignan explained.
The center and UNI School of Music have been on the leading edge, he said, in taking appropriate and thoughtful steps to allow students to practice, borrowing from West Point Military Academy’s guidebook for large ensembles. The academy’s approach was developed and tested during the school’s summer band session “to reduce the risk of viral spread while maintaining practical needs of ensemble performance,” according to the guide. That includes providing a large space for rehearsals to allow for maximum air dispersion, expanding distance between musicians and using Plexiglas shielding between players.
At UNI, the Great Hall’s sizeable stage has become the setting for large ensemble rehearsals. In addition to appropriate distancing, players sit inside shields or “boxes” made from plastic vinyl that can easily be sanitized. “String players and percussionists perform masked, and some of the woodwind and brass players have masks with special holes cut in them just big enough for their instrument’s mouthpieces,” Carignan explained.
In pre-COVID days, large ensembles had two rehearsals in the Great Hall in preparation for one or two performances per semester, while wind and orchestra met two to three times weekly in the center’s 300-seat Davis Hall and choral gathered in 125-seat Jebe Hall.
“Now all of their two- to three-per-week rehearsals for each wind/orchestra ensemble are in the Great Hall, and all choral rehearsals are in the McElroy Lobby. The Great Hall also has become the rehearsal space of Jazz Band I, which normally rehearses and performs in Russell Hall,” said Blake Argotsinger, GBPAC marketing manager.
“Jazz Bands II and III have also moved over to the GBPAC and are rehearsing in Davis Hall. We haven’t had any of the jazz ensembles in our building since the Russell renovation was completed in 2008,” Argotsinger pointed out.
The hall is sanitized between ensembles and the air handler unit that scrubs the air is tested frequently for quality assurance.
In addition, the Waterloo Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra will open its season at 7 p.m. Oct. 3 with a live-streamed concert from the Great Hall stage. Movements of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Septet for Winds and Strings, op 20” will be performed in celebration of the composer’s 250th birthday.
“We’ve pivoted pretty hard, and it’s turned out to be a good answer for us. We’ve done some things we always talked about doing but couldn’t find the time. I can see a festival in the future, coming out of the ‘Local Legends’ series, and continuing to build relationships in the community. We’ve found the value in this whole experience,” Carignan added.