- Little Fang Photography
The challenges facing all arts organizations in 2020 have been monumental, from maintaining financial viability to finding ways they can continue interacting with their audiences. But the issues facing a presenting organization like Utah Presents are different from those facing a producing organization like a local theater or dance company, which are making their own decisions about how to create their work.
According to Utah Presents executive director Brooke Horejsi, the key for a presenting organization is a factor that we're all thinking about during a time of separation: relationships. "Even before the pandemic, relationships were a big part of how we build our programming," Horejsi says. "If you're working on something, as an artist, you think about where you've built relationships across the world, and whether it makes sense to go to them, whether it's a good fit. But it is also about us saying, 'What do our current partners need right now?' and hearing from the patrons, the students and faculty we serve."
For the Christmas season, Utah Presents took advantage of one of those relationships to become one of the nationwide group of local presenters offering Holiday Sauce ... Pandemic!, a multimedia live-streamed production headlined by celebrated drag artist Taylor Mac. While based on a musical variety burlesque show that Mac has been touring since 2017, this incarnation has been specifically re-designed for virtual presentation, incorporating thematic elements about those lost to COVID-19 and the importance of our chosen families.
Earlier this year, the plan was for the live Holiday Sauce to be touring Europe in 2020, with a live visit to Salt Lake City on the long-range schedule for the 2021 holiday season. That all changed, of course, and Utah Presents' existing relationship with Taylor Mac made it possible to be part of what is now a nationwide shared live experience.
"We've worked with Taylor and Taylor's collaborators two times previously, to great success," Horejsi says. "And there's been a real relationship that's developed, not just between us and Taylor but between our audience and Taylor. There's been connections made outside of those shows that have continued. We thought, 'Let's support the virtual show right now, and support this group of artists that we've had a relationship with.'"
One thing Utah Presents does have in common with producing arts organizations is a growing realization of the kind of virtual show that audiences are actually seeking out right now. While recorded performances do offer flexibility for viewers, it's clear that people feel more connected to a live presentation. For Holiday Sauce ... Pandemic!, that includes a virtual "holiday party" with fellow local audience members, as well as drop-in visits from the show's performers and collaborators.
"Remember when we used to be in theaters, shoulder to shoulder?" Horejsi says with a laugh. "And even if you didn't know the person, there still was the opportunity for the shared intake of breath, or making eye contact. When we sit in front of our screen, we lose part of what makes that experience so magical. Anything that's closer to that, I think audiences are responding to.
"People are getting tired, not just of the pandemic, but we're in front of our screens all day—not just in our professional lives, but in our leisure time. The questions I'm going to ask are, "What about that particular piece virtually makes it compelling?'"
Another component that makes the show more local and personal has been built into the structure of Holiday Sauce ... Pandemic! The show is dedicated to Mac's late drag mother, Mother Flawless Sabrina, and each local institution presenting the show this year was asked to honor an LGBTQ community elder who has made a significant contribution to nurturing the local queer community. Utah Presents selected Dr. Kristen Ries, a pioneer in providing care to AIDS patients during the 1980s at a time when the disease was still deeply stigmatized.
"We took lots of suggestions," Horejsi says of the process for selecting Dr. Ries as the local honoree. "What it came down to with Dr. Ries is ... the work she did was amazing. That work has a particularly strong resonance right now—someone who worked during a pandemic in another time, and stood up. But she's also the most humble, charming, kind person and an absolute delight."
While Holiday Sauce ... Pandemic! offers something unique and possible in this particular moment, Horejsi knows that we're all looking forward to the opportunity to share live arts experiences again. Yet as uncertainty remains over exactly when "normalcy" will return, she acknowledges that virtual presentations might still be part of Utah Presents' planning.
"As much as the vaccine news is great, it's going to take a while," Horejsi says. "Even in the fall, we probably need to look to thing that have a hybrid nature, as some people might not be comfortable going out to larger gatherings. We and the artists we work with have to look toward not being caught unprepared. This is COVID-19, but what about [the next]? In our whole future, there could very well be more of these, so let's be prepared for it and use the creativity of artists."