Conductor Rei Hotoda leads the Fresno Philharmonic. Contributed
Written by Donald A. Promnitz
In a deserted dining room, Good Company Players’ Dan Pessano shines the lights on an empty stage — all set for a play that may never go on.
The Fresno theatre company had just put a wrap on their production of “Something Rotten!” in mid-March and were in rehearsal for “The King and I” when the announcement was made to shelter in place.
Now the managing director, Pessano’s been with Good Company Players from the beginning, back to their debut on June 26, 1973. The play was Sondheim’s musical comedy: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which they performed downtown at what was then a Hilton. Pessano was teaching at the time, while working on his master’s degree.
In the 47 years since that first play went on, Good Company has become a staple of the theatre arts community in Fresno, providing not only entertainment at its Tower District venues of 2nd Space Theater and Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, but also education in summer classes for the next generation of talent.
In fact, Pessano largely considers it to be more fundamentally a school. The cancellations of their acting classes have been particularly difficult for him — both financially and emotionally.
“I don’t hear their voices around here,” Pessano said. “It’s sucky silent around here.”
Good Company Players is in the same boat as the rest of the performing arts community in Fresno and the greater Central Valley area.
Financial losses and out-of-work artists
Fresno County needs to get to the Yellow Tier on the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” before indoor performances can resume, with the county just entering Red, and still needing to hit Orange next. This makes indoor performance venues among the first to close and the last to reopen.
The wait has also kept the Fresno Philharmonic in limbo. When the order to shelter in place arrived, they wound up cancelling all shows from March to May, effectively ending their 2019-2020 season. Since that time, the orchestra has been unable to do any live performances.
According to Stephen Wilson, president and CEO of the Fresno Philharmonic, they’ve been helped by a generous base of donors and were able to receive an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, as well as Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) and CARES Act funding. But the cancellation of concerts has also meant that their musicians are suffering from a lack of work.
Rei Hotoda, the music director for the Fresno Philharmonic, has seen all of her concerts since March cancel. As a freelance conductor and a pianist, she says the cancellations have taken a huge chunk of her income.
“It’s difficult for all of us,” Hotoda said. “It’s something that’s shocking and extremely depressing for musicians around the globe, not just the states.”
Aerial Arts Fresno was in the middle of a performance when Covid hit. According to director Kelly Replogle, they decided to close shop even before the shutdown was ordered, but that also meant cancelling their last weekend show. The aerial group missed out on $5,000 for one weekend of three shows and with the cost to put the performance on factored in, they barely broke even.
The shutdown has also meant they’ve had to cancel the booking of several parties and classes, which they run out of the California Arts Academy Building.
“Everyone’s been really understanding but it’s just one of those things that nobody really expected,” Replogle said. “And we’re still adjusting.”
For their trouble, Pessano and Good Company received a $10,000 grant from the City of Fresno and qualified for a PPP loan, but it’s not a long term solution to the problem, especially as they’re technically a business and not a nonprofit like so many of their peers. Even so, they’ve received support from alumni and the community, though they remain in danger of closing.
“Yes, it’s a 3 a.m. wakeup — looking at the distance between the little reserves you might have and the support that’s coming in,” Pessano said.
Even after reaching Yellow Tier, adjustments will have to be made. For the Fresno Philharmonic, this means dramatic changes to orchestra size, songs played, and instruments used.
While an orchestra can include more than 100 people on stage, social distancing will have to be considered. Making matters more complicated is the risk of Covid-spreading aerosols coming from wind and brass instruments, doubling the six-foot norm suggested by the guidelines.
“Based on our analysis so far, we think it’s probably in the range of 15 to 25 musicians,” Wilson said. “And actually, fortunately, there’s a wide range of repertoire that we can do with an orchestra that small — sort of a chamber-orchestra-sized group.”
It hasn’t been without challenges. The acoustics, Hotoda explained, are completely altered as a result of socially distanced performances.
“It’s not just that we are sitting together shoulder-to-shoulder, but musically, the content that is required — that constant contact of sound — is completely having to be reinvented,” she said.
As for Replogle, the Covid situation has turned into a furlough. While teaching aerials outdoors is technically possible, she says it’s not financially feasible for them to do so.
“In order for us to do that, we would have to invest several thousands of dollars into equipment, or building up a structure that could hold equipment,” Replogle said. “Which we don’t have now.”
Despite the consequences of Covid-19, some are adjusting quite well and are getting their heads above the water. Heyner Oviedo, owner of the Steinway Piano Gallery of Fresno, says that he’s reconfigured all concerts and classes to a digital format — one that lets the student practice in a private room while their instructor teaches them from home via webcam.
At the same time, concerts with special performers are also being put on Facebook Live, which Oviedo says has served to not only showcase their talents, but also encourage community. This included a spring concert series held every Friday at the height of the pandemic.
“On Good Friday, we also brought a music minister — she performed a lot of Christian faith-based music,” Oviedo said. “That was like the center of the Covid-19 and a lot of people found hope during that time.”
Oviedo says they expect to resume the Facebook Live concerts soon, along with recitals to showcase the progress of some of their students.
A missing piece in the community
As performing arts institutions and companies fight to hold on, their leaders and members are stressing their importance not only as employers, but as part of the Valley’s culture.
For Pessano, theatre has proven to serve as a way to bond. He says that working on a play or musical together has a way of bringing even polar opposites and bitter enemies together and making a surrogate family. Even now, he says his cast and crewmembers remain in close contact.
“When thing are so divided, I am most frustrated by the fact that the people most pissed at each other, if they were in a show together, they’d get over it,” he said.
The Fresno Philharmonic has tried to fill the void through partnerships with Valley Public Radio by playing previously recorded pieces on the airwaves. Meanwhile, their musicians are working to put music up on YouTube and social media. It’s served as a way for these oftentimes out-of-work performers to not only take their minds off of the pandemic and the troubles surrounding the fires, but their audience’s as well.
“We view music as a critical piece of this community and some people have said that artists are the second responders in times of crisis,” Wilson said. “And even though it’s difficult that we can’t all be together in the same physical space, we still think it’s important that we provide the community with what we do, which is great musical performances.”