The coronavirus pandemic has touched practically every industry, changing how people work, dine, shop, and travel. The pandemic also changed the entertainment field, bringing a halt to in-person performances from local theaters to Broadway. Aaron Shackelford, director of Georgia Tech Arts, saw the change coming.
“I have colleagues who work in Hong Kong and on the West Coast, so I saw it coming at us as things started to shut down,” Shackelford said, sitting in the Ferst Center for the Arts’ Westbrook Lobby, which now serves as an asymptomatic Covid-19 testing site on Mondays and Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. “In early February my team started creating checklists of procedures in case we had to cancel events — how we were going to update websites, how to contact patrons, and how to handle refunds. We were as prepared as we could be for having these things happen.”
Shackelford recalls being at the annual Clough Student Art Crawl in March talking to students whose work was on display when he received the email from President Cabrera announcing that students, faculty, and staff would not return to campus the following week.
“I remember the very quick walk from Clough back to the office, to execute the plan we had in place,” he said. Georgia Tech Arts canceled its final two performances of the spring season. The Ferst Center remained closed to outside events from March to August, while the Georgia Tech Arts staff worked remotely developing free, virtual content for campus and public audiences.
“We went back to our core values. The reason why there is an arts organization on Georgia Tech’s campus is to foster creativity and innovation, and bring people together to understand the importance of art,” Shackelford said. The staff used their production expertise and tapped into the technological expertise of colleagues across campus to figure out how to create a radically different mode of presentation.
“We’re in the midst of a transition in Georgia Tech Arts of shifting from simply being a place where art happens to being a place that is the hub of the intersections of technology and media. We are still building up the resources and the collaborations needed in order to be on the vanguard, the way in which the strategic plan imagines Georgia Tech in the next 10 years,” Shackelford said. “So, we are really on month six of our 10-year journey. But the pandemic made us do in three months what I originally thought was going to take three years. There is nothing like an emergency to make you get up and get things done. In a strange way it has been beneficial for us as an organization.”
Georgia Tech Arts has been working with the Recovery Task Force developing a plan to safely invite students, artists, and audiences back to campus. This includes turning the theater into an academic space for hybrid lecture classes for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 and serving as an asymptomatic Covid-19 testing site.
“The value of being at a place like Georgia Tech is being able to collaborate with various experts across campus who were all thinking about this problem,” said Shackelford, who was a member of a Recovery Task Force subgroup specifically focused on external and public facing events. “My team has been incredible, spending hours doing research and literally measuring the distance between seats.”
Other steps taken to ensure the health and safety of audiences include moving to a virtual box office format allowing for exclusively contactless payment online or by phone. Seat maps and procedures have been developed in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines limiting the number of people in the Ferst Center and allowing for physical distancing in the lobby, restrooms, backstage, and auditorium.
“We are exceedingly fortunate because of Georgia Tech’s surveillance testing system,” Shackelford said. “It allows us to feel confident that we can bring live experiences to our students more quickly and more confidently than a number of our colleagues around the country.”
In September Georgia Tech Arts presented a hybrid performance by Dad’s Garage and hosted by the Student Center Programs Council, using the Ferst Center stage with an audience spaced according to CDC physical distancing guidelines. Georgia Tech Arts facilitated a livestream of the program for remote viewers.
Last month Georgia Tech Arts hosted its first artist on campus since the spring. Composer and guitarist Kaki King performed the world premiere concert of Modern Yesterdays, her latest album, at the Ferst Center. The live performance was closed to the public, but Georgia Tech Arts recorded the show and then streamed it via Facebook Live and YouTube.
On Saturday, Nov. 7, students can take a study break and enjoy classic Looney Tunes cartoons with Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Tweety, and more at the Ferst Center. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. and cartoons will start at noon. The event is free, but a BuzzCard is required to be admitted.
“We are being very intentional and incremental in our bringing people together,” Shackelford said. “As we go through each milestone we feel more confident that we can do this. The fall has been our experimental learning semester, and we feel that we are going to be very well positioned for next spring to be even more beneficial. We all have a much greater understanding of what needs to be done to support our students.”