The ghosts of lost live performances

In Madison, the arts scene endures despite pandemic concerns and social unrest.
the stage at overture with the set of wicked on it
The traveling Broadway show “Wicked" has remained on the Overture Hall stage at the Overture Center for the Arts since performances were canceled in mid-March.
Photo by Patrick Stutz

Anyone involved in the performing arts understands the purpose of a “ghost light.”

Usually comprised of a single, bright bulb captured in a wire cage and mounted on a simple stand, the ghost light sits on an empty stage and is illuminated for safety purposes whenever the theater is dark. It’s also a concession to the old theatrical superstition that every house has its ghosts and the light enables them to perform after the audience has gone home.

Audiences throughout Madison went home for the last time in mid-March when Gov. Tony Evers effectively closed what he described as the state’s nonessential businesses due to the threat of COVID-19. In an ominous coincidence, the closures corresponded with the Ides of March, or March 15, an otherwise innocuous date memorialized as a dire warning in William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” (Who says state officials don’t appreciate dramatic irony?) Most of Madison’s legion of ghost lights still burn on empty stages, serving the lost spirits of canceled spring and summer performances, and perhaps providing a beacon of hope for the 2021 season to come.

Evers’ executive order shook local performance groups to their artistic and economic cores. Entire theatrical and musical seasons were abandoned and large city events — from the Dane County Farmers’ Market and neighborhood festivals like La Fête de Marquette to the Dane County Fair and Taste of Madison — were either canceled, scaled back or conducted online.

the set of wicked on the stage

Ghost light shines at the vacant stage at Overture Center (Photo by Patrick Stutz)

The city’s performing and visual artists did their best to keep themselves in front of their audiences by mining internet opportunities while scrambling to pay the bills. Even traditional drive-ins — showing both movies and recorded concerts — offered previously unimagined opportunities. Most artists remain hopeful about the coming fall season, but all are proceeding cautiously and carrying their new innovative performance approaches forward with them to help dispel the ghosts of further lost enterprise.

“I miss playing in front of live human beings,” says local rocker Sean Michael Dargan, who now performs regularly online and in April released a song called “The Bright Side of the Virus,” which received significant attention through the online music resource Bandcamp. “My Friday night Facebook shows helped me bridge the gap with not playing at all, so it could have been a lot worse.”

Orchestrating Opportunities

Dargan’s current one-man band and home recording studio make it relatively easy for him to share his music with tuned-in audiences. It’s not quite as easy for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Madison Opera, whose size and scope require more significant venues and more bodies both on stage and in the audience. In late June, officials at the Overture Center for the Arts — which hosts performances by resident companies, among them MSO, WCO, Madison Opera, Kanopy Dance Co. and Children’s Theater of Madison — announced the layoff of 60% of its staff and the cancellation of all performances through November.

Based on past yearly earnings, Overture lost an estimated $7 million in potential earned income (primarily ticket sales) between March 13 and June 30, the end of its fiscal year. The arts institution faces the possible loss of an additional $10 million in the latter months of the year.

The feeling of loss among classical musicians is personal.

“The abatement of music making is the worst aspect,” says Richard Mackie, MSO’s executive director. “Everything wonderful about the symphony flows from its product and the resulting social contact. We’re doing all that we can to keep the process alive.”

MSO canceled its April and May weekend concerts and several special events in June because of the shutdown, which cost the orchestra roughly $250,000 in lost revenue, Mackie says. However, MSO paid its musicians and guest artists for all six planned performances as well as staff wages and rent thanks to a $463,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan from the Small Business Administration and the generosity of sponsors and ticketholders.

John Demain sits at his piano

John DeMain, artistic director for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, addresses fans in a video posted to the MSO website.

“About 46% of subscribers donated their ticket purchases rather than ask for refunds,” Mackie says. “They’re a loyal audience and it was very heartening to all of us.”

Individual orchestra musicians have since performed on the internet, and MSO has conducted Zoom events to stay connected with its audience. Those interactions will likely continue even if the orchestra is allowed to return to the stage in a limited fashion, Mackie explains.

“The moose on the table is when will the Overture Center reopen and what social distancing requirements will we be forced to meet?” he asks.

With the extended closure of Overture Center and no events attended by 100 or more people allowed through the first three phases of the Forward Dane reopening plan, MSO has suspended all concerts through January 2021.

Things are similar for WCO, according to Joe Loehnis, the orchestra’s chief executive officer. The orchestra postponed all the concerts in its Masterworks series due to the Overture closure. And after moving its popular Concerts on the Square program from June to late July, it canceled all six performances entirely, replacing them with two “drive-in concerts” at the Madison Mallards’ Duck Pond in Warner Park. The orchestra also hopes to conduct two performances for a limited audience on Breese Stevens Field on Aug. 25 and Sept. 1.

WCO lost five concert sponsors totaling $20,000 in support, but 85% of its sponsors committed their support to the 2020-21 concert season. WCO did not furlough any staff and paid musicians in full for three concerts and 50% of wages for two more, and by mid-June had raised $20,000 for a musicians’ relief fund through additional fundraising events, Loehnis says.

WCO also has done numerous online performances and events, including a broadcast of its December concert filmed at the new Hamel Music Center on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. Lost in the process, however, were the orchestra’s initial attempts to establish a performance presence at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Milwaukee’s Brookfield suburb.

“That stopped us dead in our tracks,” says Andrew Sewell, WCO’s music director. “But the hardest thing for us was not being able to perform on the Capitol Square for the first time in 37 years.”

Under the auspices of a new branding campaign, WCO is prepared and ready to embrace the upcoming fall and winter season, whether that’s online, with live performance or a combination of the two through a business model Loehnis says is set for sustainability.

“The music will still be alive,” Sewell adds.

WCO’s smaller size enables it to respond more quickly to events like the pandemic, officials say. Madison Opera possesses that same facility, according to Kathryn Smith, the opera’s general director.


For the first time since 2002, Madison Opera did not put on its annual Opera in the Park concert at Garner Park on the west side. Physical distancing guidelines prevented the event from taking place. Instead the ensemble broadcast a live show on July 25.

“The arts are very nimble, and in March we pivoted quickly from making and executing plans for our spring opera ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ to canceling shows,” Smith says. “I went into full Opera in the Park mode.”

Smith was referring to the company’s popular annual summer performance, held each July in Garner Park on Madison’s west side, which is occasionally rescheduled due to inclement weather. This year’s online event took place July 25 with seven pianists who recorded their parts with guest vocalists in their respective home cities. The duets, Smith says, were a challenge to coordinate, but they were only some of the new processes the opera embraced under the pandemic’s shadow.

Smith was able to make her staff whole with a $93,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan from the Small Business Administration. “Orpheus in the Underworld” artists and production personnel were paid with donations from patrons. Sixty-two percent of “Orpheus” ticket holders donated what they paid rather than seek refunds. The opera posted other online content and is preparing a digital performance season this fall.

Madison Opera had to cancel its planned production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in November due to the shuttering of Overture Hall until at least the end of that month. The organization still pledged to provide digital content and livestreamed performances in its rehearsal space at the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center.

woman performs as part of the Opera in the Park

Performer during the virtual Opera in the Park

“We’re going ahead with our season. Opera is not something you can wait and see and then later decide to do,” Smith says. “We will do what we are allowed to do and still be safe for the community.”

“And if we need to pivot, we’ll do it,” she adds. “We’re not going to not do stuff.”

The Show Must Go On

Madison’s theater and dance companies also have been hamstrung by pandemic restrictions.

Children’s Theater of Madison was on the verge of opening “Peter Pan,” an ambitious production involving flying actors at Overture Center. Then the March edict came down, sadly limiting the group to just one final dress rehearsal for family and friends. The theater group now intends to stage “Peter Pan” in Overture’s Capitol Theater April 24-May 2, 2021.

The multiple community troupes that call The Bartell Theatre home were forced to postpone or cancel all spring plays without knowing when they might resume their schedules.

Forward Theater Co. was in final rehearsals for “The Amateurs,” a play ironically focused on a group of medieval European actors trying to outrun the Black Death. On March 16 — two days before the troupe was to record a performance to livestream — gatherings of 10 or more people were banned and the production ceased. The set still sits on The Playhouse stage at Overture Center, according to company artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray.

“We’re still grieving the loss of that production,” says Uphoff Gray. “During Forward’s 11-year run, it was among our top three plays in both material and execution, and that’s not even counting the fact that it was about a plague.”

Over 80% of the company’s subscribers donated the price of their tickets back to the company, enabling Uphoff Gray to pay her actors, crew and administrative staff for the entire run.

The balance of summer saw Uphoff Gray working from her dining room table 50 to 60 hours per week helping develop online content to keep Forward alive for its fans. The various exercises, including Wisconsin Wrights, a forum for short plays by state writers, gave Forward an edge for the Sept. 11 season premiere of “The Lifespan of a Fact,” the company’s first online MainStage production.

“None of the actors had to leave their homes to film this, but it will be a production, not a dramatic reading,” says Uphoff Gray about the three-character comedy. “It’s not strictly theater, but it’s also not film nor is it television. It’s a new kind of art form.”

Whether the online format will define all the plays this fall and winter has yet to be determined. But by early June, theatergoers had already subscribed to the 2020-21 season and Uphoff Gray hopes they won’t be disappointed.

“We’ve committed the budget to pay all of the artists to do all of the season’s productions,” she says. “We’ll pull the trigger on each production when and how we can.”

Similar commitment defines the efforts of Li Chiao-Ping, professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Education and head of Li Chiao-Ping Dance, her own company that was looking forward to spring and fall dates at home and afar before the pandemic hobbled her plans.

Chiao-Ping and her students participated in the Faculty Exhibition 2020 at UW–Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 with their 7DaysDancing program, and they were looking ahead to other engagements throughout Wisconsin and in New York City before everything came to a halt. Since then she has been teaching dance online, an approach not many dance instructors have tried.

“It was a steep learning curve,” says Li, who was subject to UW–Madison’s lockdown rules. “I’m proud of my students’ creativity in solving problems after being thrust into this new environment. It’s difficult to be socially distant and still have dance rehearsal.”

The educator’s dance company had charted an aggressive schedule of live performances, with dates at the Madison Masonic Center, Overture Center and UW Memorial Union’s Play Circle, along with participation in a dance festival in New York City. She has contingency plans for at least some of those performances.

“We’re not going to stop,” she says. “We may present our work online or outdoors or find other creative ways on campus to dance. I have seen performances in parking structures during which the audience drives by in their cars, but we may not go to that extreme.”

Chiao-Ping knows what it’s like to adapt to hardship. She was seriously injured in an auto accident in 1999, and her doctors doubted she’d ever walk again, much less dance. With stamina, willpower and creativity she proved the experts wrong and hopes to overcome all obstacles this time, too.

“The accident showed me that nothing is guaranteed, and that you have to stay helpful, do your best, be kind and feel connected to the world,” Chiao-Ping says. “Our actions have repercussions, and we can’t afford to live selfishly and not take care of each other.”

Kanopy Dance Co., another resident company of Overture Center, pulled the plug on “Winter Fantasia,” its holiday show set for early December. Kanopy performances won’t resume until next spring.

Picturing a Brighter Future

person in a mask looking at an art gallery

The Chazen Museum of Art has reopened but is limited to 25 visitors at a time from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays. (Photo by Romulo Ueda)

UW–Madison’s campuswide restrictions, staff furloughs and overall pandemic concerns affected operations at the Chazen Museum of Art, according to director Amy Gilman. But when the museum’s doors closed on March 16, staff members were already using the time to address the future of the institution, now in its 50th year on campus.

“We had been considering reducing hours and had planned to close for a couple of weeks due to the coronavirus. But by Wednesday after the governor’s announcement, the entire staff was working off-site,” Gilman says. “There was a tremendous sense of urgency in what we could do and needed to do from home.”

Several weeks prior to closure, Gilman had instructed staff to consider how to make the best use of their time away from the museum. She was surprised and pleased at the creativity by staff in helping define the museum’s future.

“Basically, we had to ask ourselves what we would do if we had the time,” Gilman explains. “We have an all-staff meeting every Wednesday and employees bring new ideas each week. The group was incredibly productive.”

person in a mask looking at an art gallery

Go to the museum’s website,, to reserve a time to view the exhibits. (Photo by Romulo Ueda)

Although the Chazen did suffer a significant drop in donations, the museum does not charge admission and was not affected by lost visitor revenues, the director says. While the museum has reopened, visitors are limited to 25 at a time.

A further downturn in UW–Madison’s economic picture could result in more financial pain for the museum, Gilman says, but exactly how much is hard to tell.

Several fall exhibits have been pushed back or postponed pending a possible reopening date. Meanwhile online efforts have increased, as has traffic to the museum’s website and specific exhibit sites staff had chosen to highlight.

“This time period has been a gift in a certain way,” Gilman says. “We want to be in the museum to interact with visitors and all these beautiful art objects, but we’ve found time to operate outside of our traditional ruts. On the first day back [when the museum fully reopens], I am going to make it a point to be there to personally greet everyone.”

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art also charges no admission and will suffer no lost visitor revenues from closing. However, cancellation of Art Fair on the Square, MMoCA’s biggest fundraiser, will cost the museum about $350,000 in income this year, according to Sheri Castelnuovo, the museum’s curator of education and interim director since the May 1 retirement of former director Stephen Fleischman.

View of MMoCA from the outside

Local artists painted murals on the boarded up exterior of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. (Photo by Tim Burton)

“But we’re optimistic we can offset those losses of the summer,” Castelnuovo said before a virtual Art Fair on the Square was held July 11-12. “We have a deep set of financial supporters and have been able to maintain our budget.”

MMoCA was on the cusp of launching a major exhibition thanks to an extremely generous donation from some longtime benefactors when it was locked down. “Uncommon Accumulation: The Mark and Judy Bednar Collection of Chicago Imagism” was scheduled to have its opening reception on March 13 attended by Imagist artists Robert Lostutter and Gladys Nilsson. That event was also canceled due to rapidly changing pandemic conditions. The exhibit and others in the MMoCA galleries were viewable on the museum’s website before the museum announced it would reopen on Aug. 6.

“We’ve adjusted our exhibit schedule so the Imagists exhibition will be available until October,” Castelnuovo says. “We’re not a performance space so it’s easier to accommodate social distancing guidelines.”

One major stumbling block MMoCA faced that the Chazen did not was damage sustained during the May and June political demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, the Black man killed by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The plate glass windows of the museum store and State Street Gallery — home to some of the Imagist artworks — were smashed during rioting the night of May 30 and additional damage was done two days later to the gallery window and the museum lobby. Some museum store merchandise was stolen and fixtures were damaged, a spokesperson says.

MMoCA joined a host of other State Street businesses in what at first was a sea of plywood that quickly became canvases for numerous murals painted by street artists. Castelnuovo and other arts educators are encouraged by the artistic response to the social crisis surrounding the pandemic, the protests and the general turmoil that has affected much of the country.

“The murals suggest that people are turning to art to deal with stressful and complicated situations,” Castelnuovo says. “The arts have always been a forum to bring people together to talk about issues and efforts for change. I only see them as enhancing the current experiences.”

a couple murals at MMoCA

Some museum windows were smashed during unrest downtown following incidents of police brutality nationwide. (Photo by Tim Burton)

But according to Madison large-scale painter and arts entrepreneur Jenie Gao, there is another, more pressing social dimension to the murals that should remind society that not all arts — or artists — are created equal.

“I do a lot of arts advocacy and one of my concerns is that a lot of artwork is done as charity,” says Gao, an Asian American muralist whose work has been exhibited worldwide. “I first have to ask why we need art as a salve to cover up what we are uncomfortable seeing and, second, whether we’re putting resources in the hands of artists who need them.”

The city of Madison alone commissioned and paid about 100 artists to paint murals. And while the city did not specifically solicit artists of color — there are anti-discrimination laws prohibiting that — the city did indicate a desire to employ artists whose income was hurt by COVID-19, and a large number of those turned out to be artists of color.

Several store owners made their own arrangements to have murals painted on their boarded storefronts. There were even murals by rogue artists who took the initiative to make their own statements on the blank plywood.

“When the businesses recover, will they continue to work with those artists or did they just want them in a time of charity?” Gao asks, adding, “Wisconsin is currently 50th in the nation in terms of financing the arts. If you can give artists — or anyone — a little bit of funding to get them out of poverty, they usually will stay out of poverty. Right now, there’s rampant inequality, and you’re just going to see more of it if we don’t address the gap.”

There are moves afoot locally to include more artists of color, in both visual displays and the performing arts, to help close the inequity gap. Longtime MSO subscriber Carol Troyer-Shank even wrote a letter to MSO Manager of Individual Giving Jeff Breisach pleading for the inclusion of more Black composers’ works in performance schedules, as well as for “rush” seats offered at lower prices to make the symphony available to a wider variety of listeners. The letter was reprinted on June 9 in the local and well-regarded classical music blog “The Well-Tempered Ear,” edited by former Cap Times arts and culture editor Jacob Stockinger, who also is a classically trained pianist.

“It is time for MSO to acknowledge its history of white privilege and take some steps to more widely acknowledge the richness of a diverse local audience and classical music history,” Troyer-Shank wrote to Breisach.

MSO has since posted a statement on its website vowing to increase the diversity in its ranks and “double the public services provided to schools and underserved communities by its centennial season in 2025.”

Whatever the future holds for Madison’s performing arts community, sweeping reforms will be needed to help move the arts into a rapidly changing 21st century. The best artists and venues, given a ghost of a chance, will survive and thrive if they learn the lessons of recent history.

Michael Muckian is a Madison writer.