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Performing arts groups get clearer guidelines—but much still impossible due to virus 

Three months after the local performing arts industry issued a plea to health officials for more clear and reasonable regulations to follow during the pandemic, arts groups are now allowed to record live performances without audiences, as well as host drive-in, movie theater-style concerts. But that's about it.

In November, the SLO County Public Health Department revised its regulatory framework for the performing arts sector to permit those limited activities—a move that followed statewide complaints that the industry was ignored in California's Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

click to enlarge THE SHOW MUST GO ON SLO Symphony musicians record a performance at Cass Winery's barrel room in November. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SLO SYMPHONY
  • File Photo Courtesy Of The SLO Symphony
  • THE SHOW MUST GO ON SLO Symphony musicians record a performance at Cass Winery's barrel room in November.

"It was really exciting when that was released," said Anna James Miller, executive director of the SLO Symphony, who led the 40-member Central Coast Coalition of Arts Leaders to lobby for changes locally. "I'm really confident that our advocacy efforts were a big part of this solution."

The SLO Symphony has quickly taken advantage of the new guidance. Late last year, it recorded two small group performances that later aired at drive-in concerts held outside the Madonna Inn. A third show is on the way.

"We just recorded an octet with eight string players at the Performing Arts Center," Miller said. "Feb. 6 is going to be our virtual concert in the Madonna Inn meadows."

Before their performances, symphony musicians are tested for COVID-19 and are physically distanced on stage. The full SLO Symphony has yet to play together as it's opting for small group performances to ensure safety. While the situation is less than ideal, Miller said it's at least given the arts community something new to enjoy.

"It's so important to do something, to keep the music alive," she said.

The SLO Youth Symphony is also finalizing plans to record its first performance of the pandemic. Miller said that youth symphony members have missed out on the enriching experience of playing as a group.

"These kids are used to rehearsing for two hours every week with 40 to 50 of their peers. It's something they really miss," she said.

But while some arts groups like the SLO Symphony have benefited from the recent rule changes, others are still sidelined.

Kevin Harris, managing artistic director for the SLO Repertory Theatre, said that the new allowances haven't changed much for the popular local theater company. Live theater just doesn't translate well to a digital platform, he said.

"Our bread and butter is really live performance," Harris explained. "Live theater online usually stinks."

SLO Rep continues to produce its weekly The Intermission Show, which has been a hit, he said. The nonprofit is also in active talks with the city of SLO on constructing an outdoor theater space, where it can host shows and a small live audience when permitted.

"Hopefully in the late spring or summer," he said. "We'll have a show ready to go as soon as we can have 49 socially distanced people outside." Δ

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