JANESVILLE—Unless you’re invested in companies manufacturing vaccines, ventilators or PPE, you might struggle to find anything good that came out of 2020.
In the last 11 months, a deadly virus has claimed nearly 2.5 million lives worldwide, and face masks have become required fashion. Schools have closed, travel has stopped and festivals have gone on hold.
In addition, loved ones have died in unfamiliar surroundings after spending their final moments separated from family, and millions of Americans face insurmountable hardship as unemployment and underemployment continue to cripple them financially.
The latter has been a particularly harsh truth for those in the performing arts industry, as even venues able to stave off closure have seen their event calendars decimated and their earning opportunities obliterated. Now, as optimism grows and shots go into arms, it becomes clear recovery will be a long process, not a switch flick.
At the Janesville Performing Arts Center, there is reason for hope. After nearly a year of close-to-free underground entertainment options in the form of live streams and limited-attendance presentations, organizers are cautiously ready make a break for it.
Buoyed by a continuing grant from the Janesville Foundation and the fiscal finesse of its management and board, JPAC has announced plans to host an outdoor performance of Shakespeare in mid- to late summer this year. Then, in 2022, it will introduce a speech competition program for students along with a large community musical production.
“A lot of these programs were supposed to be implemented this fall, but we didn’t think it would be responsible to try and pull it off this year,” said Nate Burkart, executive director at JPAC. “Now that we know more about the vaccine distribution, we can start looking ahead, which is refreshing.”
First up will be the Shakespeare presentation, which will be performed free in July. Burkart said a specific play has not yet been selected, but he believes whatever is chosen will be well received.
“I think there is an appreciation because it is Shakespeare. There is this mystique, a romantic feel to it,” he said. “When I started building this, I called (American Players Theater in Spring Green) and talked to them about how they got it going. They suggested picking shows people know best in the beginning and going from there. It becomes a tradition. That’s kind of what you’re touching into.”
Burkart said Shakespeare also checks the box of diversifying the theater experience JPAC offers without stepping on the toes of the facility’s resident groups.
“We always try to produce something that our resident groups aren’t doing a lot of,” he said. “Shakespeare has been done at Rotary Gardens before, and it did well there. The Milton Preservation Society did a fundraiser a few years ago that did really well, but nobody seemed really focused on doing it annually. We decided to pick it up and run with it.”
In 2022, JPAC will introduce “Speak Out Students,” or SOS. The speech program, which originated years ago with the Janesville School District, divides students ages 7-18 into different divisions where they compete while improving their public speaking skills.
According to Burkart, younger students will focus primarily on getting used to speaking in public and improving their skills. Older students will be asked to develop presentations similar to TED Talks, focusing on current issues in the local community and presenting recommendations on how to address them.
“The younger generation likes to be proactive and voice what they think about things,” Burkart said. “This gives the next generation some ownership so that they might want to stay in Janesville (after graduation). This gives them a chance to come in and be leaders, and if they see something they don’t like, they will have the power to change it.”
The third project JPAC has proposed is the large community musical. Burkart said the expected time frame—January 2022—likely ensures availability of the stage and puts the show in the lineup for JPAC’s annual Local Talent Month.
Burkart recognizes the already-strong theater presence that exists in Janesville’s high schools, and he stresses JPAC’s efforts are intended to accentuate those efforts, not replace them.
“The high schools have shown us a really creative way to produce shows. You can learn a lot from how they do it because they bring in a lot of people,” he said. “As much as I like plays, there is a capacity limit on plays, and you fill much less than 660 seats (JPAC’s capacity). You need a musical to bring that up.”
Burkart said it’s important JPAC’s musical not coincide with local high school shows, as both JPAC and local young thespians could benefit from this added opportunity.
“If someone is from a high school show and they want to be a part of (the show at JPAC), that’s great. I am open to working with anyone who wants to work,” he said. “But it also has to fit with the school district’s calendars. Historically, (high school) shows don’t produce shows (in January). They usually do shows in November or December, and then again in spring.”