As local businesses shutter in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Western North Carolina isn’t losing just eateries and entertainment venues — it’s losing the practice and performance spaces for its creative culture.
“The close of The BLOCK [Off Biltmore] has … created a serious lack in the heart of our city — where community gathered at the intersection of art, activism and good company … letting off some steam, and finding other like-minded people from many different walks of life,” says Gareth Higgins, founder of The Porch Magazine. The literary publication held regular events at The BLOCK that included writers, storytellers and musicians. There, “Cam [MacQueen]’s hosting helped us feel so welcome, so at home and so at liberty to do whatever we wanted.”
Higgins adds, “We don’t have another location in mind at present, as we’re not planning in-person gatherings until it serves the common good to do so.” And luckily for the publication, its “online activity has certainly increased during the pandemic — both readers and submissions.”
But other arts groups haven’t been able to turn to the internet for performance and engagement opportunities. And post-pandemic planning has depended on the ability to safely gather for rehearsals.
“We were in such a nice groove at the end of last year,” says Jen Murphy of Street Creature Puppets. The local collective, which started in 2011, had been using porches and basements to meet when an enthusiastic city of Asheville staffer spotted the puppeteers in the Asheville Holiday Parade and offered to help them find a practice space. That kind gesture led to rent-free digs in the North Asheville Recreation Center, complete with a storage closet and enough room to host rehearsals, plus meetings by other groups such as Asheville Fringe Arts Festival, Asheville Second Line and Zed AVL.
“It was like the Goddess descended and blessed us,” Murphy says. “From there, we really took off.”
Indeed, Street Creature Puppets has showcased its larger-than-life creations at many LEAF festivals and Asheville Mardi Gras, and also oversaw the Asheville Puppetry Alliance when that organization’s leaders retired. But in March, they had to close down — the rec center is a city building, and Murphy says they couldn’t use it due to COVID-19 regulations.
A few months later, city representatives informed the puppeteers that the rec center space would be housing activities — details of which are still in the works — under new COVID-oriented guidelines, and the group’s lease wouldn’t be renewed. Arts organizations that had benefited from Street Creature’s space wrote letters of support, and Murphy says the collective itself “tried our best to pitch that we could cohabitate.” But ultimately, she and her collaborators had to accept a pending move.
Pulling up roots is nothing new for Asheville Improv Collective. The performance and workshop group was previously based out of Habitat Tavern and Commons. When Habitat closed in early 2019, AIC began making plans for alternative meeting, practice, performance and teaching locales. Connections with UpCountry Brewing Co. for shows and Land of the Sky United Church of Christ for classes were in the works. “It felt like we were kind of turning it all around after getting booted,” says collective member Clifton Hall. Then COVID-19 hit.
AIC attempted some Zoom classes but ultimately “felt like there were a lot of people who were Zoomed out,” says Hall. He also notes that improv “is hard to do online” — there’s an energy in the room that’s key to the collaborative process of creation.
Masked practices present an obstacle, too: “You’ve got to see if somebody’s smiling or if they look mad,” he says. “That’s hard when [part] of your face is covered.”
So, for now, AIC is in a holding pattern. Hall hopes that the pre-COVID opportunities for performance and workshop space will be available post-pandemic, but he and his colleagues “want to wait until everything is safe.”
Street Creature Puppets, on the other hand, needs to find a new home soon. “If it came to months and months of not being able to meet, I’d worry people would put their creative energy into other things,” Murphy says. Ideally, the right space will present itself, though Street Creature’s members describe the perfect combination of location, square footage and storage as a unicorn. But this group has found its unicorn before: “I’m trying to be positive,” Murphy says.
Higgins is also seeing a silver lining. “Our retreats both in the U.S. and Ireland were all canceled as a result of the pandemic, which has had an enormous impact on income,” he says. “But, on the other hand, the pandemic has caused so many of us to reflect on what really matters in life and to adjust our habits accordingly.”
And the mission of The Porch — to help make the world better through learning and sharing a better story — isn’t going away anytime soon.
“When the pandemic subsides, the questions we ask will be the same: What story are you telling? Is it the truest version you could know? Is it the most helpful way to tell it?” Higgins says. “If the answer to either of those latter questions is ‘No,’ then let’s help each other find a truer story and a more helpful way of telling it.”