Several University of Kentucky dance students run through movement phrases. Their sneakers scuff against the pavement of a parking lot, audibly marking each step.
They’re preparing for their dance concert this weekend called “Once Vacant: Bodies in motion…still,” a drive-in at the Kroger Field Parking Lot in Lexington where they’ll perform, in person, for an audience in parked vehicles.
“At first, I was like, ‘What the heck is this gonna be like, I was kind of nervous,” Genesis Lorjuste, a senior double majoring in integrated strategic communication and dance, said. “But it’s my senior year, and I wanted to perform. So I just was like, let’s just see how it goes.”
She was nervous about how it would be to dance on a hard, uneven surface and about maintaining enough distance from other dancers. But it’s nice to dance for an in-person audience again, she said. Watching dance on a computer screen just isn’t the same.
“Because when you’re in person, you can be totally engulfed in that performance,” Lorjuste said. “When you’re at home, you’re distracted by your dog or your phone. So it’s really important that we have this performance so that people are able to escape from what’s going on right now.”
The concept of a drive-in is getting a fresh take in the age of COVID. Theater and dance artists are turning to parking lots as a safer option for live performances, where audiences literally drive in to see the shows. From a circus arts drive-in show in Sarasota to a horror-comedy drive-in experience in the Denver area, it’s becoming an increasingly popular way to experience live art while it’s still unsafe to gather in large groups.
‘A lot to be discovered’ when adapting to pandemic-era venues
Susie Thiel, an associate professor of dance and UK’s director of dance, said the biggest challenge in mounting this kind of production is, “I’ve never done it before.”
“Little things are arising… the weather changes, or there’s a football game, or now COVID-19, a dancer is quarantined, that changes the entire rehearsal process, because it’s not just one day now, 14 days are gone,” Thiel said, confirming that they have had to work around dancers having to quarantine.
Performing outdoors isn’t a new concept, but presenting a show in a parking lot for an audience in parked vehicles did create some additional hurdles, including how to light the concert. Car headlights, after some thought, didn’t seem like a good idea, choreographer and UK faculty member Theresa Bautista said.
“We’ve heard from other people who have tried this experience that sometimes the headlights can be blinding for the car across from them,” she said. “We do think that the light pole that’s in the middle of our circle is going to provide a lot of light… there’s a lot to be discovered in our dress rehearsal.”
Plus she had to choreograph for a performance in the round, where the parked audience will completely surround the dancers, a “reorientation” of thinking about how the work would be interesting from all sorts of angles and on the same level as the observers.
Bautista read in Dance Magazine about Los Angeles-based, Jacob Jonas The Company putting on a drive-in at a Santa Monica Airport parking lot. She shared the story with Thiel following a conversation they had about how much they missed preparing for live shows. Bautista said she’s seen so many creative virtual dance shows, but she couldn’t wrap her brain around creating something for online right now.
“I think it would just emphasize the separation we’ve been having, whereas this is a gathering.”
‘Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’
In Louisville, Kentucky Shakespeare is several shows into its run of “Macbeth,” an abridged 65-minute version staged in a parking lot across from the zoo through Oct. 31.
Producing artistic director Matt Wallace had to call off the 2020 summer season due to the pandemic. Then he read about drive-in style rock and country music concerts, and thought, why not drive-in Shakespeare in a parking lot?
“It was this need to preserve and find some hope in the future of live theater,” Wallace said. “After having to adapt everything digitally and postpone, I knew if we could find a way that we could do it safely, we were going to do it.”
To “curate this artistic experience inside your car,” sound is pumped in through a radio broadcast using a short-range FM transmitter. The stage is elevated for better sightlines for the rows of parked vehicles. And the Kentucky Shakespeare team leaned into current events, “exploring the darkness” of a future post-apocalyptic, pandemic world.
“And instead of fighting against distancing, and things like that, building it into the production,” Wallace said — some of those built-in, pandemic-esque elements include gas masks for the “double, double, toil and trouble” three witches of “Macbeth.”
But there are barriers to these drive-in styles shows, such as red tape.
Wallace said it took months to go through the bureaucratic process to secure the Metro-owned parking lot across from the Louisville Zoo.
“We were really biting our nails up until the end of September, whether or not we could do this,” he said. “You’ll notice that we didn’t announce it until a week before we opened.”
Then there’s the cost.
Charging per car brings in a lot less revenue than charging per person.
Wallace said their “hope is to break even or not lose too much money.”
Michael Seman is an assistant professor of arts management at Colorado State University, who has recently been studying the pandemic’s impact on the arts, including co-authoring a Brookings study earlier this summer on the topic.
He said drive-ins aren’t a “sustainable situation” from an economic standpoint, and, for some arts and cultural organizations, the numbers won’t make sense. But, for those who can find the means to build and present drive-ins, they are “a great exercise” for keeping audiences and attracting new ones during these unprecedented times.
“In like the grocery business, you would say it’s a loss leader, you’re selling your milk or your bread for less than, in some cases, what it should cost, but it’s attracting people into your store,” he said. “I see these events the same way.”
He thinks this kind of cultural experience will stick around, even when it’s safe to gather again, especially since there could be some trepidation on the audience side to return to venues.
“It will not supplant how culture is generally consumed within the country,” Seman said. “However, I do think you’ll see this as options that will remain on the platter of options that arts groups have in a way to get their message and their works to the people, which is good.”
For University of Kentucky senior Caroline Gerwig, finding any kind of safer way to perform right now sends an important message: that “art still exists.”
“And artists are still creating, no matter what the circumstances are,” Gerwig said. “I just think there’s something really beautiful about that. And we really need to be sharing what we have with the world, even if it’s six feet apart.”
Her classmate, senior Emma Lucas, agrees, and said these kinds of pandemic workarounds showcase the “resiliency of artists.”
“I think that the importance of this performance is giving us a space to kind of share that resiliency and power and strength with the audience and remind everybody like, yeah, we’re in a pandemic, but we’re still able to make this work,” she said.