When the Music Stopped, They Played On

How does an arts and performance center stay connected to its community when its doors are closed, ticket and rental revenues are wiped out, and many of its staff are laid off?

That question faced the storied Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton when COVID-19 brought its films, music, dance and theatre performances, and arts education to a halt in March 2020.

The Academy’s shutdown echoed across the entire region (it draws almost one quarter of its audience from out-of-state). For many years, the Academy has been a hub of entertainment, connection, and education for patrons of all ages. Built in 1891, it was a gift to Northampton residents from former owner and businessman Edward H. R. Lyman, who grew up in the area. Countless stars, including Ethel Barrymore, Harry Houdini, and Sarah Bernhardt, have since performed on the stage of the 1,000-seat theatre.

Executive Director Debra J’Anthony credits a stabilization grant from the Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund with helping the Academy to reach socially distanced people—many starving for fun and connection during the pandemic. The unrestricted funding gave the organization flexibility to meet some of its operating costs, too, since its revenue had dwindled to 22% of pre-pandemic levels. The Massachusetts Cultural Council also offered significant support.

The Academy’s COVID programming took some creative new twists:

Via Zoom, the Academy hosted musical theatre workshops and free online dance parties for children and youth.

“A lot of these kids do stage work together. To keep their connection to each other and the theatre, our education director had dance parties with choreography and singing,” J’Anthony said.

Touring artists streamed their performances from the Academy’s stage in front of two large TV monitors so performers could see the audience.

Live on the Academy of Music Theatre stage, Deidre Cuffee-Gray shared a story on the theme, Around the Block, during Valley Voices in March 2021. Photo courtesy of the Academy of Music Theatre

The Academy also streamed three Valley Voices Story Slams. When these popular events started six years ago, 140 people auditioned for twelve spots. The format goes like this: the Academy announces a story theme and invites the public to tell their stories. It provides a workshop on shaping their stories and they present them on stage. Most storytellers have never been on stage before. The audience chooses the best three, who go on to compete in the Best of Valley Voices Story Slam.

“Story Slams provide us a way to deeply connect with our community members and for them to engage in the arts in a profound way…Eight hundred seats sell out each year! I’m surprised how hungry people are for story,” said J’Anthony.

Mindful that the region’s Latino residents were not often engaged in its programs, the Academy also hosted spoken word (Latinx poetry) online events during the pandemic. A story slam with Nueva Esperanza, a Holyoke community group that celebrates and highlights Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean cultures, is planned for the fall.

The Academy is forging ahead with a capital campaign for renovations to its outdated bathrooms and is beginning to rebook performers who were cancelled in 2020.

“We look forward to bringing people together to enjoy each other and the shared expression of art, whether it’s community members on stage or a touring artist. I think the challenge is going to be feeling comfortable around other people because we’ve all been separated…but that day will come.”

Photos: Pre-pandemic performances at the Academy of Music Theatre included Beauty and the Beast, performed by the Pioneer Valley Ballet (photo by Beth Reynolds) and The Music Man, an Academy youth production. [Photos courtesy of the Academy of Music Theatre]

Pioneer Valley Ballet
The Music Man