A phone flashlight illuminates the path and bounces around the spacious walls of the Raue Center for the Arts. All of the seats are empty.
The physical theater is dark, with the exception of a few socially distanced performances. But in a new, online space, the mission of the Raue Center — “enriching the lives of all through the arts,” per its website — is thriving.
“We’re trying to stay busy and varied,” explains Richard Kuranda, executive director.
The Crystal Lake arts center is not alone in this. While COVID-19 has restricted space allowances of theaters and arts organizations, they’re persisting through online or socially distanced classes, community outreach, donations and more.
“This is a tough period for any nonprofit organization and arts organizations, particularly ones that have relied on in-person events and classes and performances,” says Doug Grier, director of art education and outreach at Water Street Studios in Batavia.
The Raue Center is averaging four classes per week for kids, Kuranda says. Want to learn how to tap dance or write monologues from the comfort of your own home? The pandemic has made that possible. “They are genuinely engaged,” Kuranda says, noting how much the kids try to help each other in this online format.
In a testimonial provided by the center, Gayle Johnston says the Raue Center’s virtual classes “came to the rescue” for her daughter Alyssa. “When we found out there would be virtual classes from Sage Studio, we found a bit of ‘normalcy’ back in our lives,” she says.
Almost 50 miles south, the Paramount Theatre in Aurora is also relying on online classes through its Paramount School of the Arts, which opened in June 2019. “As much as there are definitely hardships, there are definitely benefits,” notes Shannon Cameron, director of education and community engagement. For example, some teachers who are usually booked are available in an online format, and the theatre has had time to engage themselves and the community in dialogues about race and art, she says. (Kuranda also noted this as a positive of the year for the Raue Center.)
“As much as I miss theater and I miss performance … I’m excited to see how we can make profound change within the industry to make it a more beneficial place for ALL people,” says Cameron.
Grier, at Water Street Studios, notes how challenging it was to retool classes to be online. While the process was time-consuming, the studio now offers virtual educational classes, complete with supply pickup in some cases. The studio also offers in-person workshops with limited and distanced seating.
All three organizations encouraged participation. Anything helps, whether that means telling a friend about the classes, taking a class or signing your kid up for one, or making a donation.
“We’re going to have more adult classes in the spring so it’s not just for kids. There’s no age limit,” Cameron says. “Of course, donations will always be very welcome and very needed … We’re really having to be careful with every penny we spend.” If you prefer your donation to be specific, you can buy a subscription (or give one as a gift), or sponsor a student’s classes with a scholarship.
The Raue Center’s marquee may best show the community aspect of local theaters and arts organizations, which have continued to enrich the lives of the people they serve even during the pandemic.
This year, the marquee — lonely without advertising the center’s 70 shows canceled from March to September — became a bright spot for birthdays… and a new family. When Rich and Deb Naponelli’s granddaughter was born, the Raue Center’s marquee read “A star is born.” The family gathered nearby to celebrate with an outdoor lunch and photos. “It seemed to bring genuine joy,” Kuranda says.
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter issue of Neighborhood Tourist Magazine.