The 2020 arts and entertainment scene took a turn from live and in-person to the internet and then sort of rebounded for outdoor events in what will be remembered as one of the weirdest years of our lives.
We asked folks who have found a way to create to talk about something they experienced, but were not specifically involved with, that was of note.
Pranks from a prof
The art that stood out to me most this year, written, designed and performed by artist extraordinaire Luke Moravec, is called “Professor Prank.” Brought to life with the awesome folks from Solve Entertainment, Moravec has created a hilarious and collaborative immersive story full of mystery and puzzles that you guide him through from your home computer. In a time where I can’t be a part of a traditional theater experience, “escaping the room” really offered up similar feelings and changed my mood for the better.
KENDRA CARLSON has kept the Virtual Duluth Facebook page active with options for free, online entertainment. “Professor Prank,” by Solve Entertainment, offers users the chance to thwart a fun-sucked doctor in a 60-minute window using Moravec as eyes and hands.
'We Three Kings' premiere
Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial presentation of “ … And They Lynched Him on a Tree” by William Grant Still and the world premiere of Rudy Perrault’s “We Three Kings.” I was unfamiliar with this specific work by Still as it is a choral work, but what I learned about it and how significant a work it is makes me want to hear it again and again! I really wish it were performed more regularly.
On the same program was a work by my UMD colleague Jean Perrault. This work is a premiere for the memorial event, the use of extremes and dissonance really captures for me the pain and discord. Thankful music could connect the past and present.
PAULA GUDMUNDSON spent a day in September playing pop-up flute concerts in outdoor spaces around the city along with other musicians in other cities involved with the Minnesota Bach Society.
At the end of March, Sara Thomsen and Paula Pedersen gave an informal virtual concert from their home studio. The technology may have been less than ideal, but the event itself was not; it was perfect. At that point, we had been in quarantine less than two weeks, and already my wife and I were craving a community experience. We needed an art event, and Sara and Paula provided it. We have gone to many of their concerts over the years — too many to count — and while Facebook Live was a pale substitute for being in person, it was one of the more moving experiences I've had at a concert, in part because of the extreme need I brought to the event, in part because my wife and I felt so connected to the other viewers who were checking in from all over the country, and in largest part because of the calming voices and words of Sara and Paula's music. In those early, scary days of the pandemic, Sara and Paula were soothing, healing, necessary. They found things to sing about, and we were the better for it.
TOM ISBELL, a theater professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, took the department’s fall production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” outside so that audiences could safely see the show. Thomsen and Pedersen are longtime local folk artists.
PREVIOUSLY: UMD theater offers Shakespeare in the courtyard
One of the most interesting things I streamed this year was the local documentary film, “Outsourced: The New Wisconsin Idea,” directed by Megan McGarvey and Katie Lindow. It's about the suspension of programs that happened in 2017 at UW-Superior. It's a really interesting story, and the film gets a lot of input from professors, which I found especially interesting. It's available for streaming on Prime, and anyone interested in local issues, as well as broader issues surrounding higher education, should definitely check it out.
KEITH HOPKINS released “Gravedigger Dave,” his first feature-length film earlier this year. “Outsourced: The New Wisconsin Idea” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
We were about two weeks into lockdown when Charlie Parr played for an audience of almost no one at Duluth Cider, a super casual, super human, gorgeously lit and produced night of fantastic music. I was rapt. We were just pandemic babies back then, when it felt like these were special circumstances rather than Just The Way It Is Now. Charlie's ability to breach the screen and affect just confirmed that Charlie Parr is consistently Charlie Parr, and we are such a lucky audience.
CHRISTA LAWLER is a features reporter for the News Tribune.
If my memory is serving correctly, The Underground's production of “The Arsonists” back in February marked the first time I went to see a play twice in the same run since the late-90s. The show was absurd and smart, dense and brief, tense and comical. On the surface, it's a story of arsonists plaguing some unnamed town — just beneath is a parable about fascism and the slim wedge that evil slips into the lives of everyday folks before driving it further. Remarkably fresh and entirely applicable to the socio-political events of today, I was shocked to find that the original text is some 70 years old. The inside scoop has it that director Mike Pederson leveraged hard to get this in the season — so glad he did. Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the exemplary performance of Robert Lee. His bold physical comedy choices offered a perfect and necessary balance to the heavier tones of the tale.
LUKE MORAVEC is the creator and talent behind the “Professor Prank” virtual escape room created by Solve Entertainment. “The Arsonists” was written in post-war Germany by Max Frisch.
I can’t really remember what happened before the pandemic from January to March, so I hope I’m not leaving anything out from when live music was normal. In the early part of the pandemic there were some memorable online performances like Charlie Parr’s mesmerizing show from Duluth Cider or Trampled by Turtles Brady Bunch-style split-screen live broadcasts. But nothing can replace standing in front of a stage where the music can be felt, seen and heard. The pandemic kept local musicians off the road over the summer, so Earth Rider was able to host outdoor shows with musicians like Charlie Parr, Dead Man Winter, Feeding Leroy, Tried Eyes, Rich Mattson and the Northstars, Mississippi Mike Wolf, Glitteratti, Brothers Burn Mountain, and many other amazing acts. Erik Koskinen’s hard-hitting roots-rock set at Earth Rider Fest stands out as a musical let out. Koskinen’s poetic and dynamic songs performed with the muscle of his outstanding band was a momentary vaccine to the mood of the year and is a favorite music moment of 2020.
BRAD NELSON is part of the Earth Rider crew that kept live music going this past year with a steady stream of outdoor concerts.
Fire bugs, too
I’ve enjoyed the many ways our local arts community has adapted during the pandemic, but I don’t want to forget that brief window at the start of 2020 when things still felt normal. Of all of the shows staged before theaters closed, the one I have thought back on the most is The Underground’s production of The Arsonists. You’d think a gut-punch of a scathing social commentary about the creeping onset of fascism might be a tough sit, but Mike Pederson’s sure-handed direction and stellar performances by Robert Lee and John Pokrzywinski made the show as hilarious and chaotically fun as it was terrifying.
JUSTIN PECK directed the Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Spamalot” at the NorShor and was all set to present it to audiences when theaters closed to stall the spread of COVID-19. He went on to be involved in the theater’s virtual “Tales from the Ghost Light,” which was available for streaming for Halloween. “The Arsonists” was described by a News Tribune reviewer as having “a message … that is still relevant today.”
Art of the essentials
When I look back on this pandemic year, I think it will come to mind in the bold, bright colors of Carolyn Olson’s essential worker portrait series. I hope so, because from grocery cashiers to hospital workers to election judges to mail carriers, these images are filled with hope and bursting with life. The figures are big and bold, and rendered with so much energy that the bicycle delivery guy (for instance) appears to be pedaling out of the frame before your very eyes. From fruit pickers to band teachers to street utility workers, these portraits remind us of the everyday people who keep our world turning — the heroes of 2020.
MARGI PREUS published “The Village of Scoundrels,” “The Littlest Voyageur” and “The Silver Box” in 2020. She also wrote the libretto for Lyric Opera of the North’s virtual opera “Everything Comes to a Head,” along with other companies tied to the Decameron Opera Coalition. Carolyn Olson’s series is available for viewing at carolynolson.net and 20 percent of all giclée sold through Dec. 31 support the Eastside Freedom Library in St. Paul.
In a year of new words and experiences (pandemic, social distancing, anti-masker), I gravitated to experiences that were familiar and well-worn. While the latter can be used to describe my memorable Duluth arts experience this year, well-worn this group is not. In September, when we believed the restrictions were easing and group gatherings were okay, I enjoyed a performance of Laura Velvet at Wild State Cider. I remember it being a cold night, and I purchased an extra sweater (one cannot have too many!), but the music was hot coming out of those speakers. Laura Velvet expertly performed crowd favorites, and got tables singing and dancing (in separate groups) to the music. Looking around at the crowd, I saw people beginning to feel normal again and using music to ease six months of bottled stress and uncertainty. By the end of the night, my throat was hoarse due singing along behind my mask and my heart was full knowing that we would get through this current crisis. I look forward to the day when we can gather again for live performances as a group.
This year, we also had to change how we supported and consumed the performing arts, with many organizations becoming mini television production companies in the matter of months. Lyric Opera of the North joined forces with seven other opera companies (including one I supported in Houston) to form a coalition to create a new, fully digital opera. These short bursts of art were full of character, humor, and most importantly, heart. There was something for everyone in their four episodes, and who could miss out on a bodiless head singing from a pot of herbs! It was wonderful to see our local company get nationwide attention.
BRANDON VANWAEYENBERGHE is the executive director of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, which adapted to circumstances by hosting a small audience at the DECC and offering streaming options. Wild State Cider was among the venues that took advantage of moderate temps and outdoor spaces to host events.
Visuals and audios
Prior to the pandemic I got to view Kathy McTavish's "count. map. pulse. breathe." exhibit at Joseph Nease Gallery, and that may have been the last local art exhibition I was able to see in person now that I think about it. McTavish is a brilliant person, and her art in this particular exhibition consisted of generative textile drawings and digital work that was presented on various screens throughout the gallery.
I experienced live music only twice this year. The first concert I attended was outside of Duluth Cider in their lovely outdoor dining area. It was probably one of very few times I got to see old friends in person during the pandemic, and the Randy Lee Trio was performing, we had the Strawberry Basil cider and enjoyed, for the hour, sunshine in a socially distanced setting. The other live concert I stumbled upon by accident was by a band called Crescent Moon at the Third Base Bar in Carlton. It was actually really memorable because during their break I'd put on some music by afrobeats artist Burna Boy on the jukebox, and the band actually started playing along to the song, and then followed up by switching their set to a cover of the most obscure hip-hop song that I knew ... something I never expected to hear performed in, of all places, Carlton, Minnesota. There weren't a lot of folks there and I'd just stopped in to see a friend, but it ended up being one of my favorite live music memories of all time living here. In both instances I was introduced to musical groups I hadn't heard before.
As far as online experiences, I spent some time listening to Grand Rapids musician Sam Miletich during his live performances on Facebook, as well as Indigenous musician Annie Humphrey, while working on some of my own paintings. Other than that, I think the highlight of online musical programs was the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial livestream in June, which is available for view on Facebook still! The lineup featured Seyistories, Royalty, C-SILENCE, IsReal, as well as others throughout the month for different livestream events including Juneteenth.
And since I'm no longer an employee of the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO), I'd also just like to commend them (especially Ivy Vainio) on their work to move the art shows for Wendy Savage's curated Manidoominens beadwork group exhibit and Ojibwe Manidoowiwin (paintings by Robert DesJarlait) into the virtual realm online using the 3D ArtSteps program! They also hosted an exhibit for Vern Northrup in March titled Akinomaage, whose stories and photography are always a delight to behold!
MOIRA VILLIARD has become the go-to for so much mural work in Duluth, including portraits created at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial that were after George Floyd’s death.