116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The morning of March 16, 2020, the production teams at Theatre Cedar Rapids sent out daily rehearsal calls for our three then-upcoming, concurrent shows. We had a classic play rehearsing in our downstairs studio theater, a contemporary play four days from opening in our auditorium and a 28-member musical cast in rehearsals upstairs. I was the director of the musical.
That afternoon, TCR’s leadership made the call. All rehearsals were placed on pause for what we believed would be a two-week hiatus. Two weeks extended to a few months, and then became indefinite.
For an art form with the tagline “the show must go on,” this was jarring and unnatural.
Connection with audiences is the essence of what we do, so we pivoted. Over a period of nine months, we offered online concerts with local celebrities, an original piece about the pandemic itself, a play about cyberbullying and more.
Though these online events never replicated an experience with a live audience, our actors and designers expressed gratitude to be able to share their craft. Audiences also were eager to tune in to see familiar community faces.
We even adopted the temporary campaign, “Roar On,” with a majestic lion as its symbol. It was as much a courage-building mantra for the TCR team itself as it was a public declaration.
For cultural organizations in Eastern Iowa, the pandemic and the 2020 derecho reaffirmed the essential nature of the arts to heal and transform.
During the past year, our entire world turned to the arts to ease our collective pain, to distract us from our fear of the unknown, to educate ourselves about social issues as well as local, national and global concerns.
The social unrest last summer and the events around the 2020 presidential election compelled us to look inward. Many of us have uncovered a greater responsibility and capacity to make real change in our world.
We were given an opportunity to thoughtfully reconsider our programming, audience and volunteer base. It became clear we must provide even more events that encourage critical thinking about complex issues, at the same time that they create joy. We already had been on a trajectory of greater engagement with our entire community, but 2020 drove us to accelerate strategic initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion.
We are on the precipice of a newly imagined existence with one another. Our world is a different place now than it was in March 2020. We have fought, suffered and grieved, but also have found beauty in solitude and “pause.”
Months into the pandemic, I returned to the rehearsal hall we'd left in March 2020. The chairs and music stands were set up exactly as we’d left them. A moment frozen in time. I felt acutely the sense I’d taken for granted people gathering daily to sing, dance and tell illuminating stories with fellow community members.
As we step back into live programming through outdoor events with Brucemore on the estate’s grounds, it’s been heartening to witness the collective tears, laughter and enjoyment among audience members. Were there always this many smiles and hugs at our events, or is it all just held in sharper relief following a drought of human contact?
Arts and cultural organizations hold a unique power and responsibility to bring people together. We soon will welcome audiences back into our historic theater, and I suspect it will feel like oxygen rushing back into the room. I know we will greet this re-engagement with greater intentionality, bringing the lessons of the past year, good and bad, into our collaborations and offerings for years to come.
Lisa Kelly is associate artistic director at Theatre Cedar Rapids.