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From sidewalk serenades to virtual theater, Baltimore arts groups reach out amid coronavirus pandemic

Katie Long is one of a few musicians providing "sidewalk serenades" through Creative Alliance as people are self quarantining and social distancing.

Singer-songwriter Katie Long stood on a sidewalk in front of a red brick rowhouse on Ellwood Avenue, pulled her ukulele out of its embroidered case and, note by note, began to bring together the neighborhood.

“Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something / You need to understand,” she crooned last week to the tune of the familiar Beatles melody of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

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“When I say that something — we need to wash our hands.

“We need to wash our hands. We need to wash our hands.”

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Homeowner Katherine Klosek had hired Long, who crafts parody songs with timely messages, to perform a “sidewalk serenade“ or mini-concert organized by the Creative Alliance.

The serenades are an attempt to put a modern-day spin on the medieval tradition of roving troubadours, according to Josh Kohn, the Creative Alliance’s program director, while also providing suddenly out-of-work musicians with some revenue. The mini-concerts range from $50 to $150.

“The experience of enjoying an intimate, live performance is becoming increasingly precious these days,” Kohn said. ”We wanted to give people a chance to relax their minds and just breathe.”

Baltimore’s movie theaters, concert halls and museums might have shut their doors in response to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s edict aimed at slowing the spread of the highly contagious virus. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped serving the public. They figured that if their audience can’t come to them, they will come to their audiences.

Established groups, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Center Stage and the Parkway Theatre, began making plans to stream performances and films. Museums have put together virtual collections of their artworks and tours of historic spaces. Individual artists began streaming concerts from their living rooms. An entire new local troupe with an appropriately irreverent name — The Pandemic Players — has been formed.

As Long strummed the ukulele on Ellwood Avenue, her partner, Annie Worth, stood a short distance away. With one hand, Worth struck a tambourine on her hip in time to the beat. With the other, she held the leash of the couple’s dog, Louie.

Klosek and her husband, Mark J. Dimenna, leaned over their porch railing, grins on their faces.

Neighbors living in rowhouses all down the block came out to listen, some holding plastic cups full of wine. A pedestrian lingered while maintaining a responsible six-foot distance. The group even flagged down a passing motorist they all knew.

“This is a weird situation that we’re in,” Klosek said after the mini-concert, referring to the shut-in lifestyle that many Baltimoreans are leading during the pandemic. “What Katie was able to do was to create a little community space. That’s something we all really need right now.”

As Stephanie Ybarra, Center Stage’s artistic director expressed it: “The arts at their core are about bringing people together.”

“To have that fundamental piece of our mission suddenly stripped away has been really disorienting. But it’s been comforting to watch the myriad ways in which artists across disciplines are pushing through the difficulties to hold their communities up. We’re going to keep people connected through this pandemic, come hell or high water.”

For example, Center Stage originally planned to begin previews on its next big show, “Where We Stand,” on April 2. When the brick building in the 700 block of N. Calvert St. was ordered to close to the public, it also put the kibosh on plans to send the troupe’s mobile unit on a free, two-week neighborhood tour of Donnetta Lavinia Grays’ fable about a mysterious benefactor’s impact on a community.

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Fortunately, “Where We Stand” is a one-actor show — and the playwright doubles as the performer.

”We very quickly pivoted to the idea of putting the show on camera,” Ybarra said. “We adjusted our staging and found a Baltimore-based film crew all in one day.”

The online video version will be made available to ticket-holders, and the troupe Is also selling “pay what you can” tickets with a starting price of $5.

As Ybarra put it: “We understand that financial considerations are very real for everyone in the country right now.”

Local community troupes didn’t have it so lucky; it’s nearly impossible to rehearse a play with multiple characters while still maintaining social distance.

So thespians Stephen Deininger and Paul Valleau put their heads together remotely and came up with a plan. And thus, the cheekily named Pandemic Players was born.

”We formed two weeks ago and we hope to exist for not too long into the future,” Deininger said. ”We were looking for an opportunity to provide a creative outlet for folks who are stuck at home and to help some of these small organizations pay their bills.”

Their solution? A series of staged readings. Recent offerings include George Bernard Shaw’s acerbic comedy ”Saint Joan” and Oscar Wilde’s famously witty “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Each cast member records his or her performance. Crew members then splice the parts together into a single feed. The performance will be available at 7 p.m. Saturdays by live feed via the group’s Facebook page. Though the screenings are free, donations are solicited each week for a different small local troupe.

“When we’re looking at the Baltimore theater scene in a few months, we don’t want to see a bunch of closed doors,” Valleau said.

Sandra L. Gibson, executive director of the Parkway Theatre, thinks that a decision made from necessity could yield unexpected benefits.

The Parkway is working with independent distributors to provide virtual screenings of the films it had been scheduled to show in its Station North theater. Now, audience members pay $12 to receive a link to screen the film from their homes during a designated period.

Those audience members potentially can live anywhere — with the result that the Parkway is suddenly within reach of film fans nationwide.

”I love the idea that my friends and people around the country can learn what we’re doing,” she said. ”They’ll have access to independent films they might not have seen otherwise.

“We get to bring in some revenue and really serve a community that’s hunkered down in their homes. This is an incredibly unknown and scary time. We’re trying to take some of the ’scary’ out of it.”

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra just launched BSO OffStage, a dedicated section of its Facebook page that includes at-home recitals performed by BSO musicians, a podcast about classical music featuring WBJC’s Jonathan Palevsky and occasional concerts. The content offered on BSO OffStage is free.

For example, associate BSO Concertmaster Audrey Wright will perform an informal lunchtime solo violin concert of baroque music at 1 p.m. March 29 that will be livestreamed on Facebook and posted the following day on the BSO website.

There’s also a selection of more lighthearted fare, including a two-minute video produced by the bassist Jonathan Jensen. He plays the piano in the living room of his home while singing:

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”In 2019, we didn’t need to quarantine, / went out and partied just for fun. / Those days are done.”

Behind the piano but in clear view of the camera, half a dozen rolls of toilet paper are stacked next to an empty bottle of scotch.

Audiences are responding to the plethora of online cultural offerings with an enthusiasm that at times borders on desperation.

The classical pianist Lura Jonson has begun performing a free online concert series from her home on Wednesday evenings titled “We Shall Overcome.”

She has watched her audience grow in the past few weeks from perhaps 300 viewers to more than 1,500.

“I get so many message of gratitude,“ she said. “People tell me, ‘Thank you so much. This was badly needed. You have given me hope.’ ”

BSO percussionist Brian Prechtl thinks that this public health crisis will reaffirm the critical role the arts play in helping people navigate their daily lives.

“Once this is over and we think of all the hours we spent listening to music and watching films,“ Prechtl said, “I think we will realize that the arts are what got us through this.

”In times of trouble, it is the arts that will sustain us.”

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