When the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus steps out onto the field at Huntington Park on October 9 for their “Vox Masked” concert, things will look a bit different than their normal performances. With COVID safety precautions firmly in place, the audience will be socially distanced, the performers won’t be shoulder-to-shoulder, and even hostess Nina West will be wearing a mask.
But none of that will change their core vision of “Voices Raised, Lives Changed”…they just admit it might be a little more difficult to decipher what they’re singing this time around.
We spoke with artistic director Brayton Bollenbacher about what things have looked like since he took on the role in January, how the chorus came to decide perform live-and-in-person, and why the performing arts are so very important right now.
Before we get to what you maybe didn’t expect with this transition to artistic director, what has panned out in the ways you anticipated?
The chorus is just full dedicated and genuinely interested singers and volunteers who want to make the organization continue to grow and continue to flourish. And Columbus is such a cool city, so that’s been great.
And we should highlight that you also discovered TikTok, so that’s great too!
[laughs] That’s true, although TikTok is apparently going away! But TikTok is a great platform.
What have you learned about yourself as a creative during the pandemic?
I’ve had to learn to be more flexible. I always considered myself to be a long-term planner, but then also to be pretty chill, where things come up and I just roll with the punches. But the pandemic has exaggerated that need to be flexible. There are times where I had to question, “Is it too hot to be in a parking garage?” or “Will there be a dump truck outside making noise while we’re rehearsing?”
As the only gay and lesbian chorus rehearsing in-person in the U.S., there are many days when I wake up asking, “Am I doing the right thing. Am I leading people astray? Are we endangering people? Or, are we truly trendsetting and revolutionizing how we are performing?” That was a real debate in my head.
What went into the decision to perform live?
There was a big study that came out at CU Boulder for performers, actors, instrumentalists, and singers. Their findings were in line with other studies — ones out of the UK and Germany — that you need to be at least six feet apart and masked. And the studies were showing that if you wear a mask, the amount of aerosol and droplet production that you had was similar to what you had if you were breathing with no mask.
I then polled the chorus to see who was interested and 60% said they were interested in getting back together, which would either grow or diminish based on how well we did rehearsals. For about a month-and-a-half, we did the summer rehearsals where I taught things we were going to do throughout the year. And then I polled the chorus again to see who was interested in coming back for a holiday show or the Vox concert.
Around 85-90 responded that they were comfortable returning. So we have waivers. We have temperature checks. They have to wear a mask the entire time. If they’re talking, they have to be 8 feet apart. If they’re singing, they have to be 12 feet apart. We’re doing all the recommendations that all the studies are saying. The idea of doing online stuff just was not appealing to any of us.
What can audiences expect from Vox Masked?
It’s a very tongue-in-cheek show. We’re talking about quarantine and distancing and masks. There are lots of really fun titles. It will be at the Clippers home at Huntington Park, which will be a new experience to do an entire concert there. And we will be joined by Nina West, and that’s lovely as well. Hopefully it’s a great experience for people to come, get out of their COVID lives, and join us for a safe, masked, outdoor performance.
We’re hopeful that it leads other choruses to say, “Columbus is doing this safely. Why can’t we?”
Talk to us about the importance of the performing arts during a pandemic.
One of the things I keep saying — that people around me say I shouldn’t — is that when the Black Plague hit Europe, there was so much death and destruction. But then after that came the Renaissance.
We’re going through a very dark time right now: hurricanes and fires burning and pandemics and this very difficult political time. So much shit frankly.
But there is a light that will come and the only way that we will able to find that light is if we continue to stick to our core beliefs and reimagine how we are showcasing them. The performing arts tell our story, They bring light to darkness. They allow us to come together and feel something together in a way that we don’t have a lot of opportunities to do together as a society.
Everybody is so isolated, especially right now with technology. So when you can collectively come together and breathe together, cry together, laugh together, it’s so healing. The performing arts just need to figure out how to continue doing that safely at such a difficult time.
- Order your tickets straightaway for Vox Masked at 7pm on October 9 at Huntington Park (rain date: October 16).
- Wear a mask.
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