Pandemic gave Presser Arts Center chance to reassess, organize and prepare for fall

By: 
Charles Dunlap

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., every single industry had to find ways to adjust, including the arts. For Presser Performing Arts Center in Mexico, adjustments still are underway.

Some of the first steps for Presser staff was to postpone or cancel productions and in-person arts classes over the summer. Classes are returning to the center for the fall, but are limited to six to 10, depending on classroom size.

Staff went through special training to receive Missouri ArtSafe Certification. Along with staff efforts, including sanitation and disinfection, students must wear masks or other face covering. All staff and teachers are wearing masks as well.

“The board voted to suspend large gatherings in our buildings through 2020,” Executive Director Lois Brace said, adding the decision was not made lightly. “With more children’s programs and older adult programming that we were going to offer for the fall, we thought that was safest way to accommodate and serve our community.”

The summer closure also allowed staff to go through old sets and costumes to organize and take inventory in Richardson Hall, which was a blessing in disguise, she said.

“That building became a catch-all for all things neglected,” Brace said. “We cleaned house over there most of the summer.”

Along with the cleaning, some painting and renovations were done, she said.

“It was well worth the effort,” Brace said. “It is now beautiful, organized and we know what our holdings are so we can get it and know exactly where to find it. If anything good came out of our stay-at-home-orders, it’s been that.”

Free monthly craft classes are filled for the fall, Brace said. Music teachers are providing one-on-one lessons. All class participants have to register.

“Sept. 8 is kind of our kickoff for all things fall,” Brace said.

A ceramics class starts that day and and a calligraphy and other ink-based arts course is planned in October, known as Inktober. A health and wellness class also starts Tuesday, which is one-on-one, Brace said. It is known as Gyrotonics, which uses specialized equipment for the exercise.

“Right now we are planning month to month and we are used to planning year to year,” Brace said. “So our calendar has been wiped clean to plan next month’s activities this month, to see what the responses are going to be and how we can adjust.”

The shutdown took a financial toll on the center and it is working to build capital back up. That is partially through classes and developing other tuition-based programs. Community financial support also is appreciated, Brace said.

“As a nonprofit, it’s really hard to keep going, to justify what we are doing and try to eek out some income,” Brace said. “Years past, our summers were great income generators. This year we had planned our biggest summer ever, so that was emotionally devastating to watch that slip away.”

Despite this, the staff continue to try to keep a positive outlook, she said.

One new program was announced this week for students if area school districts have to quarantine classes. Staff will be able to provide supplemental instruction for up to 30 first- through eighth-graders, Brace said. The program is known as @Home@Presser.

“If any one of the schools have to go into quarantine for any reason, we want to be able to support our parents and our communities that have to work and can’t leave their children at home,” Brace said.

Students will be split among three different classrooms, with social distancing. They will be able to do their online learning at Presser since it offers a strong Wi-Fi connection, Brace said.

“If there is time, we will be able to supplement their education with some fine arts,” Brace said. “We definitely will offer some movement and some physical activity to keep students healthy.”

While in-person productions have been suspended, the center is planning a special cinematic-style production for November called “Griffin and Sabine.”

“It is kind of exciting because we have never done that before,” Brace said. “It was a bestseller about six years ago. It’s a trilogy set and it covers the span of those three books.”

Rehearsals for the production are being done virtually. Some scenes will be prerecorded as a teaser for the production, which will be posted online, Brace said. It will be a ticketed event and Presser is working out the technical aspects to allow only those who purchased tickets to be able to view the production.

“The idea is everyone will log-in at the same time and watch the streaming of it live, together and comment to each other about what they are watching,” Brace said.

The production will be prerecorded before it is streamed.

The story is about two different people who write letters to each other and develop a relationship through the letters, Brace said.

“They intend to meet, they try to meet, but it’s not in the cards for them,” she said. “It will be a cinematic wonder.”

The online production won’t be a trial run for Presser technology, though, Brace said. The center is working on developing a workshop which will be available virtually. Details still are being worked out.

“There are two different, very fun workshops coming up at the end of September beginning of October,” she said.

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