Despite a dark stage and drawn curtains, city workers and performing artists at the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center reinvent themselves within their new roles as disaster service workers and volunteers.
Friday, March 5, was the opening night of San Francisco Ballet’s whimsical, long-rehearsed interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was 4:30 p.m., just hours before the curtain was scheduled to go up, when John Caldon, managing director of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, got the life-changing call. The show would go on, at least that night. But the Saturday matinee would be canceled. Eventually, so would the rest of the season.
The Shakespearean classic was the first public performance in the United States canceled due to COVID-19. That’s because the War Memorial, a complex of three city blocks that includes the Herbst Theatre and Davies Symphony Hall, is owned and operated by the city and county of San Francisco. Initially, Caldon says he assumed the shutdown “would last a few weeks — maybe a month.”
He wasn’t alone in this initial optimism, noting that the general assumption among his colleagues was that New York City would shutter before San Francisco. But San Francisco Mayor London Breed ended up leading the way, announcing shelter-in-place early on, arguably saving lives due to her decisive actions early in the pandemic. In the week and a half following the War Memorial’s closure, the city’s rhythms began to slow. Major technology companies with offices in SoMa started shifting employees to remote work. Management teams at private performance venues struggled to make sense of conflicting public health guidelines. Waiting for the rest of the city to close down, Caldon says, “was the longest nine days of my life.”
Since then, major San Francisco agencies have been transformed as response centers aiding pandemic relief. City workers, all doubling as disaster service workers (DSWs), have been called upon to serve in a variety of capacities. The last time city employees were deployed at such a rate was after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. “But that was for a finite amount of time,” notes Caldon, who had never been deployed as a DSW in his 11 years working for the city.
Across the War Memorial facilities, including the opera house and Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, event managers have been busy organizing and overseeing twice-monthly blood drives in partnership with the American Red Cross. “These drives are not only providing this essential medical need but are giving members of our community — including me — a way to do something really needed, during a time when feeling helpless is challenging all of our mental health,” says Rob Levin, the War Memorial’s booking manager.
In the same way that statistics about suffering during the pandemic are often overwhelming, so too is the outpouring of aid from locals able and willing to pitch in. All told, in the past six months, 24 War Memorial employees were deployed to contribute nearly 6,000 hours of assistance to the city’s COVID-19 response, providing logistical support in venues as varied as hotels and hospitals. Some deployments require an unusual learning curve — prop designers were suddenly tasked with setting up food banks — but Caldon notes that many of the War Memorial’s custodians and engineers are doing strikingly similar jobs as before — only now, they perform maintenance for a health care system, as well as tackle long overdue theater renovations.
Setting up COVID test site tents was just one of the duties Davies’ senior stationary engineer Richard Rodgers performed as a DSW. When he’s not deployed for pandemic assistance, he and his colleagues are back at the symphony hall “making big messes we don’t have to clean up right away.” He explains, “It’s an optimal time for capital projects because we won’t have an audience until we don’t know when.”
While city employees have been deployed to new roles, the jobs of many performers and arts workers are on hold. For Max Cauthorn, a dancer with San Francisco Ballet whose run on A Midsummer Night’s Dream was cut short, the past few months have been about finding new ways to share relief with others. Days after the mayor’s shelter-in-place order was issued, he asked the ballet’s executive director, Kelly Tweeddale, how he and his colleagues could help.
A partnership with the SF-Marin Food Bank soon took shape, with a weekly pop-up pantry serving many hundreds of San Franciscans. Cauthorn was there every week, packing bags in concert with colleagues otherwise dispersed by work-from-home orders. “I think because we’re used to giving back in our art form, I’m often wanting ways to give back that are more quantifiable,” he says.“A lot of dancers are.”
Costume designers shifted their skills to making masks, which have since been delivered to the Department of Health, to Zuckerberg San Francisco General and UCSF hospitals, and to fire stations and senior facilities in the Bay Area. Because so many of the opera’s craftspeople and crew members use personal protective equipment when painting, woodworking and dyeing in the costume and scene shop, the company also made a PPE donation to UCSF Mount Zion, drawing on existing reserves.
As we’ve all learned more about the novel coronavirus, the public has also mourned the temporary loss of opportunities to gather. More than a million individuals attend performances at the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center every year. Across those venues alone, at least 600 people are temporarily out of work: performers, backstage crew, hair and makeup artists, and administrative and front-of-house teams.
The restaurants and shops reliant on foot traffic to the area are also suffering. All told, Caldon says the arts drive $77 million in economic activity to the area and create about 560 full-time-equivalent jobs. “To see the tectonic shift in employment due to closing down arts and culture venues has been shocking, to say the least,” he says. “We’re trying to take care of people who work in the industry.”
The care San Franciscans are demonstrating is evident in the balance between staying well and reinvesting in the city’s vital arts and culture communities. Slowly and cautiously, museums have started allowing a limited number of visitors again. Venues are exploring how to reopen with health protocols in place for performers and guests alike. If 2020 had been a different year, performers would be in final rehearsals, and tickets for the 76th annual performance of The Nutcracker would be going fast. For now, there’s at least one encore of sorts for ballet patrons to begin anticipating. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is slated to return for San Francisco Ballet’s next season, tentatively commencing in March 2021.