Anne Hamburger, the founder and artistic director of NYC-based theater company En Garde Arts, began envisioning the return of live performances one month into the pandemic. Over a year later, Downtown Live, the product of that planning, will take place over the course of two weekends this May. The free performing arts festival is sponsored by the Downtown Alliance for New York, and produced in collaboration with another nonprofit arts organization, The Tank.
“We envisioned it as a love letter to the New York that we were all longing for and missing in the past year,” said Meghan Finn, The Tank’s artistic director, over the phone.
The festival will feature almost 30 in-person shows at unusual outdoor locations: a covered loading dock (4 New York Plaza), a plaza near The Battery (1 Battery Park Plaza) and an arcade in the Stone Street Historic District (85 Broad Street). The roster was co-curated by Finn and Hamburger, and will include Obie and Pulitzer Prize winners alongside emerging artists.
After an unimaginable year, the artists James Harrison Monaco and Jerome Ellis, who produce a literary, improvisational show called Piano Tales as the duo James & Jerome, expressed mutual excitement about the return of live performances. Like many of the artists performing at Downtown Live, their output during the pandemic was limited to virtual shows. The unique structure of Piano Tales — audience members are asked to choose three stories, from a selection of around 12, that they want to hear — represents the kind of engaging performance that Hamburger, Finn, and the artists believe audiences are craving.
“I suspect that people are going to be so hungry for that kind of communal reflective mode after spending so much time sitting still or alone,” said Monaco.
Despite shared artistic values and mutual respect, a collaboration between En Garde Arts and The Tank would have been unlikely before the pandemic, Hamburger said. Their union reflects a larger trend in the arts community: the formation of deep partnerships, which might have otherwise taken years to cultivate or would have never happened at all. Organizations shared everything from streaming tips — The Tank launched CyberTank during the pandemic, a “virtual gathering space” that has presented the work of over 2,555 artists — to financial advice.
“We’re very much the little guy in the ecosystem, but we’ve been able to have a seat at the table in a different way because we’re all in the same boat,” said Finn. “We’ve had conversations with institutions much larger than ours, like, What are you doing? How are you streaming? What have you figured out? Because we’ve all sort of had to hack it through this.”
Now that Mayor Bill de Blasio has set July 1 as the target date for the city to fully reopen, it seems theoretically possible that the arts are on the brink of a strong comeback. But the shape of that rebound is still mysterious, and a source of legitimate concern for arts presenters and festival organizers who rely on predictable audience behavior to plan shows and events. It’s possible that audiences will not feel comfortable sitting in packed theaters, even with the green light from the mayor’s office. Working from home has also been embraced by many businesses as a permanent policy, after realizing the financial benefits of shedding real estate — but this could mean that downtown areas, home to arts venues, will miss relied-upon foot traffic.
“I don’t think there is a normal that’s going to bring us back to the way things were,” said Hamburger, musing on the long-term impacts of the pandemic. “A lot of local businesses that have struggled, I think, will continue to struggle.”
But she also believes that events like Downtown Live, which use the city as a setting, will have special import going forward. Audiences who journey into neighborhoods will end up shopping at local business, and dining at restaurants before and after the show. This could deepen the symbiotic relationship between the arts and business communities, just as the pandemic-forged bonds between arts organizations grew stronger over the past year.
“Culture is what makes it worthwhile to struggle through this city,” said Finn. “Culture is the why for so many people that chose to be here.”