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Resiliency in the Theater District: Houston Symphony
Organizations respond to pandemic with creative programming

Downtown’s Theater District has been the cultural heart of the city for decades. A place where people of all ages, races and denominations have gathered together to experience vibrant, profound and fantastical works of art. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the damage to many of the venues and organizations was devastating, but they came back stronger than ever. Now, just a little more than two years later, COVID-19 has struck, forcing each organization to re-think the way shows are produced and executed. In today’s physically distanced way of life, the Theater District now looks to Houstonians for support, as their lights remain off and their stages dark. Despite all the challenges, the Theater District organizations continue to hold on to the mantra of “resilience”, something our city knows a thing or two about.

The Houston Symphony was among the first to ask ticket holders to donate their cost of tickets and quickly put virtual programming at the forefront of their planning.

As Houstonians dealt with the daily challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the symphony came to the rescue and provided soothing music every Friday evening through the appropriately dubbed Living Room Series, an hour-long livestream performance from artists’ homes. According to the symphony’s Senior Director Of Communications Eric Skelly, the performances (which cost a meager 10 dollars) were an immediate success.

“The smallest audience was about 400 screens,” said Skelly. “The most-watched performance was over 700 screens. We have no way of knowing how many people are behind each screen so that could be as many as a thousand people watching that performance.”

However, in a move crucial to ensuring its immediate survival, the symphony announced layoffs of 21 full- and part-time employees in early June, reducing their overall staff to 62. Like others in the Theater District, the symphony received a loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which helped for a period of time. But survival as an organization depends on budget cuts across the board.

Less than a month later, the orchestra found itself back on stage for a three-hour live-streamed performance in the Freedom Over Texas celebration. This performance gave way to Live from Jones Hall, a new series in which Houston Symphony musicians perform live, socially distanced of course, onstage each Saturday night.

“Without performing, my life has been fine — even pleasant in some ways,” said principal cellist Brinton Averil Smith. “But I’ve been missing this fundamental meaning that music gives us, (and) I can’t wait to sit again with my colleagues and bring music back to life.”

Each of these performances lead toward reintroducing small audiences back to Jones Hall as soon as it’s safe. Tickets for the Live from Jones Hall concerts can be purchased for $10. Purchasers will receive a private link to the concert, which begins at 8 p.m. every Saturday.

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