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Biancolli: The pandemic that changed us will change art, too

Powerhouse finish to Contemporary Festival at TanglewoodPowerhouse finish to Contemporary Festival at TanglewoodProvided

As we wake from our COVID-19 slumber, all of us who love the arts are craving to get back and feel the zing of a live performance shared with a group of simpatico strangers.

But if we're being honest, we're all a little nervous about it. We're wondering about the crowds, the weirdness of getting back to events in three dimensions, the safety of doing so after months spent sheltering from invisible contagion.

I know I am. I also know that live performances will be unforeseeably, inevitably different from pre-pandemic days, altered in scale and filled with safety protocols that venues are now sorting out. And I know that the art being made in this moment will be inevitably different, too.

Because the artists making it are different. Because we're different. Because all of us have been changed by two and a half months of caution and strictures, of shutdowns and stories of loss. Because the plays being written and music being composed will speak to those fears that hang like a haze over us all.

Just how remains to be seen. If this were a post-COVID-movie we'd be in the opening scenes of a four-act story arc, and there are too many characters burdened with too many complex neuroses to predict how we as a group will behave.

But this much, I'll predict: Art will evolve. It always does in times of crisis and shutdown. Jazz grew and thrived in the fertile underground that emerged during Prohibition and, before that, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Secular songwriting and polyphony blossomed amid the Black Death of the mid-14th century, when folks got together for we're-dying-anyway music parties and drinking songs became a thing.

The bubonic plague gave us Boccaccio's "Decameron," stories rife with sauciness and eros told by 10 people doing their best to stay sane and alive. It gave us artwork filled with dancing skeletons and damnation, paving the way, a century later, for Hieronymous Bosch.

I am not saying the same will happen now. Most of us are already too irreverent and secular, and too Zoomily upbeat in our daily routines, to embrace the dark side. But who knows. The plague of 2020 will affect the music we listen to, the paintings and sculpture we ponder, the theater and film and dance pieces we watch, the stories we read and tell.

It already has: If you doubt this, see the innovative, spirited work that's streamed across virtual platforms since March, both reflecting our gloomy state and lifting us from it. How that innovative spirit translates in the months and years ahead as we gradually, hesitantly, take our seats in public is yet another unknown.

Perhaps we'll see more one- and two-person plays. Perhaps more works created for wide-open spaces. Perhaps more music written for solo, for duos, for chamber groups or other tiny ensembles. Albany Pro Musica, wrestling with grim health warnings on public singing, is planning a virtual season performed, quite possibly, by groups reduced in size. Choirs around the world are facing the same challenge, which means that composers around the world are facing the same challenge, which means that whatever contemporary vocal music comes of this strange age may well scale back from the monumental and express its beauty in smaller ways.

But again, who knows? And who's to say that smaller art is less monumental, if it speaks to our hearts and walks us through a crisis?

"Having a thousand kids take their sidewalk chalk out and make rainbows on their driveways and then all go out and see them, you know — that's grand scale," said Capital Repertory Theatre's producing artistic director, Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, in a recent interview regarding the arts rebound. "But when you're thinking about having a cluster of 180 musicians come in and do Beethoven's Ninth -- that's a different kind of grand scale, you know?"

We're facing a summer at least of more modestly sized art experiences, with none of our usual festivals and cultural destinations to occupy us. No Tanglewood, no Williamstown Theatre Festival, no Philadelphia Orchestra or New York City Ballet up at SPAC.

Eventually venues will reopen. Art will hit the stage, in one form or another. Audiences will return, although it's hard to picture the crowds of the Old Normal reasserting themselves in the New. How long will it be before we squeeze inside a building or squish up against a throng as we edge our way to the front of the stage, beer in hand, to hear our favorite band? How long before we feel okay in a public bathroom? Sidle up to a concessions counter? Flop into a seat beside a stranger for a new play, then leap to our feet at its close?

When will that happen? And another question: What will the play be like? Which thickly layered emotions, what types of post-COVID dread and hope and grief, will it evoke?

One of these days, it'll happen. And when it does, the play will feel transformative. Because the emotion will be ours.


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