Ballet Arkansas's Amanda Sewell and Zeek Wright Melissa Dooley, courtesy of Ballet Arkansas

Canceled performances and lost revenue mean big pivots for arts organizations in Little Rock, several of which are scrambling more furiously than ever to be sure their performers get paid and that their organizations stay afloat.  

The pandemic reared its head in Arkansas in March, at the beginning of spring —  prime real estate on the arts calendar. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, for one, had to cancel not only its March 14-15 pops concert (a tribute to Aretha Franklin, since rescheduled for Oct. 24-25, 2020), but the remainder of its season: a mainstage performance of Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique”; two “River Rhapsodies” chamber concerts at the Clinton Presidential Center; a performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto from acclaimed cellist Zuill Bailey with the ASO alongside; a pops accompaniment to a live screening of “Jurassic Park,” and two season capstone events scheduled for the ASO’s Youth Orchestra. On top of that, the ASO books its roster of musicians for corporate celebrations, spring weddings, and for church gigs, many of which evaporated as a result of the pandemic. “We pay them a salary, and then we can use their services in different spaces,” ASO CEO Christina Littlejohn told us, “and there are all sorts of outreach gigs across the state that they’re not able to do now. And that’s an impact.”

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Nevertheless, on April 15, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra made payroll for its full-time musicians for canceled concerts. “We still need to pay them,” Littlejohn said. “They still need health insurance.” On Friday, April 24, the ASO received word that they’d qualified for a federal loan through the Payroll Protection Program, allowing the ASO musicians to be paid for the remainder of the season. “Because of our community’s support, commitment and generosity, and the PPP,” Littlejohn said, “ASO anticipates being able to pay all ASO musicians for concerts ASO would have performed this spring. One of our goals is to make sure we can hang on and take care of the people who take care of us — our musicians and our staff.” 

Like a lot of arts organizations around the country, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra “lives or dies” by support from its donor base, Littlejohn said. “Two-thirds of our budget are from annual-fund givers.” Still, ticket revenue is a substantial part of ASO’s financial health. “The budgeted single ticket sales revenue that we were not able to achieve for the canceled concerts is $70,127,” Littlejohn said. “Sixty percent of our ticket buyers have donated their tickets back,” Littlejohn said, “and 40 percent have exchanged for vouchers good for a future concert. Only a handful of people have requested a refund.”

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courtesy Katherine Williamson
Fenix Zheng, student of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s Sturgis Academy, with instructor Katherine Williamson

Meanwhile, ASO’s education programs continue through Zoom, where musicians are teaching hundreds of students every week. ASO concertmaster Drew Irvin launched a cozy “Bedtime with Bach” livestream series that goes up online nightly, and the ASO’s string ensembles are performing the likes oWilliam Grant Still’s “Danzas de Panama”, the “Looney Tunes” fugue and Bonnie Montgomery’s lush ballad “Comets” for the noon hour . “How we can serve the community, and how we can connect to the community? That’s a key question we’re thinking about right now,” Littlejohn said.  

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Making a gap in the budgets of the ASO was the cancelation of Opera in the Rock’s production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which was scheduled to be performed May 28-31 at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, featuring the ASO and rising soprano and Dover, Ark., native Keely Futterer singing the role of Violetta.

Wendy Kelley/Virginia Kumpuris
Keely Futterer in Opera in the Rock’s promotional poster for “La Traviata”

“That, for us, was a huge deal,” OITR Executive Director and Artistic Director Kate Sain said. “Opera in the Rock is a company that builds up every year to one large opera. That particular show is half of our yearly budget.” The company, Sain said, was in “active fundraising mode” for the production, which she says came with a price tag of around $80,000. OITR also applied for a PPP loan, and received those funds April 30.

Still, Opera in the Rock is “honoring 50 percent of the fees for singers and any crew who were contracted” for “Traviata,” Sain said, something that landed them on The Middleclass Artist blog’s list of 179 “new heroes of COVID-19.”  

“So, director, tech people, stage manager, all of those people are going to get paid. We told everybody that we were going to guarantee them a 25 percent payment, and then we started an Artist and Crew Relief Fund to raise the difference.” 

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Opera in the Rock’s 2020-21 season, announced March 10, is perhaps its edgiest yet. A production of Derrick Wang’s opera “Scalia/Ginsburg” is in the works for August, for example, and Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” with soprano Francesca Mondanaro in the title role, will be performed in spring. It will be the first season to be produced by Sain.  

In the interim, watch for a live-streamed airing of OITR’s 2019 production of “Madame Butterfly,” tentatively scheduled for mid-May. “Our big struggle the last few weeks has just been trying to stay relevant when nothing’s happening,” Sain said. And, she’s dedicated to making good on the lost “Traviata” by giving preferential casting consideration in the 2020-21 season to anyone who was slated to work on the opera. 

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Ballet Arkansas, too, is navigating unforeseen territory. The 41-year-old company’s been thriving under the leadership of Michael and Catherine Fothergill:  The company increased subscriptions 47 percent from 2018, a January 2020 news release from the company said. Its 2019 performances were seen by 20,000 Arkansans (including matinee performances for over 40 schools), there were around 400 applicants for its 15 full-time dancer positions, and its  organization budget had nearly doubled. 

The weekend of April 24-26, Ballet Arkansas would have opened two productions. One, an interactive production of “Snow White,” involved an auditioned community cast of 40 in addition to Ballet Arkansas’s dancers. It was canceled March 12. The concurrent Master/Works program would have featured decorated pianist Fei-Fei Dong, as well as George Balanchine’s challenging signature work “Allegro Brillante,” Gerald Arpino’s “Confetti,” plus world premieres by acclaimed contemporary choreographers Yoshito Sakuraba, Alice Klock and Florian Lochner. Ballet Arkansas’s Master/Works was postponed March 20, news that dancer Megan Hustel Tillman said was devastating. “Everything we had worked for was just over, put on hold for a later date. Of course I knew it was the right decision. … Personally, I felt I had made some big strides in my dancing and artistry this season, and it’s been hard to maintain that since we are no longer in the studio.” 

Much of the Master/Works repertoire, though, will spring up this time next year, in the season finale for Ballet Arkansas’s ambitious 2020-21 season. “After being off like this,” Tillman said, “our next season is bound to be full of energy and excitement. All of us are going to come back so ready to get back to work.”

Melissa Dooley, courtesy of Ballet Arkansas
Ballet Arkansas’s Amanda Sewell and Zeek Wright

“This is usually my favorite time of year,” dancer Toby Lewellen said. “The weather is beautiful and we are in the theater putting all of our hard work on the stage. This spring the stage will remain dark.” Lewellen’s spent “his whole professional career” at Ballet Arkansas, he said, and felt reflective about the experience. “I went from being a kid right out of college to being the oldest in the company. It makes me smile to look back and see how BA has grown. At first we were three professional dancers, and now we are 15.”

Despite the canceled Master/Works and “Snow White” performances, which would have ended the company’s season, Lewellen, Tillman and the rest of the company will be paid for those performances as part of their contract. “They work on a 30-week season,” Catherine Fothergill said, “from late August to the end of April. So we had about three pay periods that we have paid them to honor that contract, and of course that puts us in a financial position where there is no income coming in, and there are large expenses going out. But we feel strongly that they’re the heart of the organization. We want to keep them in a place where they’re able to come back, where they’re supported.” The Fothergills, in the interim, are pursuing grants to sustain the company — “some related to what’s going on now, others that are programming-related or operations-related,” Fothergill said. Ballet Arkansas will also launch a $5,000 capital campaign for Giving Tuesday on May 5, part of a larger campaign goal of $50,000. This year, that boost may be devoted to helping bridge a shortfall in ticket revenue; Fothergill estimated a spring and summer shortfall of around $90,000, but conceded that the number could be significantly higher for the year, should fall and winter staples — “The Nutcracker,” importantly — be impacted. 

Meanwhile, Ballet Arkansas’s online activity is bustling; a series of encore performances goes up every weekend on Ballet Arkansas’s website, dancers lead a series of “Learn at Home” dance classes and challenges and a series called Story Time with Sugar Plum features the famed “Nutcracker” fairy reading stories from the classical ballet canon aloud each Thursday evening. The company’s summer programs typically take place in June and July, and those programs are pending. “As a small arts nonprofit, we are used to being nimble,” Catherine Fothergill said, “and we are used to having barriers and obstacles, and we’re used to taking one dollar and spreading it really far. I feel that, as part of our core values — to be accessible, to be innovative — that’s what we’re trying to do in building online programming for a wide variety of people, and to bring the beauty that is so important right now.”

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