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A Few Pandemic Positives In Northeast Ohio Arts Scene

Young puppeteers at the Foluke Cultural Arts Center get ready for an episode of "Mr. Stevie's Neighborhood" [Foluke Cultural Arts Center]
Two young, masked puppeteers on the set of "Mr. Stevie's Neighborhood" at the Foluke Cultural Arts Center.

COVID-19 has put the creativity of Northeast Ohio’s arts and cultural community to the test. As 2020 comes to a close, there were things to celebrate as some people found positives in the pandemic.

As the year started, Dava Cansler had ambitious plans for a play to be staged at the Foluke Cultural Arts Center on Cleveland’s East Side. The performance would document the involvement of children and teens in the civil rights movement. Students from the Cleveland school district would act, create the sets and otherwise mount the production. Rehearsals were underway, and then COVID hit. 

I guess you could say, over the years, I've kind of learned to just roll with the punches,” Cansler said. “That was a gut punch.”

The Foluke Center's Dava Cansler says she's learned to roll with the punches [Dava Cansler]

That’s a perspective Cansler has learned as founder and executive director of Foluke for the past 20 years. The center offers arts education to at-risk, school-aged children in the Central neighborhood. But, once the coronavirus protocols and restrictions were laid out, it was time for some brainstorming.

Because if we don't reinvent, if we don’t re-image ourselves, we're not going to survive this,” Cansler said. “So that was it. It was like, it wasn't an option.”

The result was the online video series “Mr. Stevie’s Neighborhood.” Teaching artist Stephen Hood worked with a small crew of masked students who built a set, along with an assortment of puppets. And like his public television inspiration, Mr. Stevie’s episodes are a mix of entertainment and instruction, covering topics like the census, the importance of voting and pandemic safety.

Stephen Hood, a.k.a. "Mr. Stevie," poses with "Cray Cray," one of the residents of his "Neighborhood." [Dava Cansler]

In Lorain County this past summer, a very different sort of production was playing out on the big screen – actually, two big screens at North Ridgeville’s Aut-O-Rama Drive-in.

A few months ago, ideastream reported on the increased popularity of drive-in movie theaters during the pandemic. Now that the outdoor screenings are coming to an end, Aut-O-Rama owner Deb Sherman reports her facility did bang-up business this season.

I mean, even with being cut down to half capacity, what seemed to offset things was that we were busy every night, not just on Friday and Saturday nights,” she said. “We were busy during Monday through Thursday and Sundays as well.”

Aut-O-Rama audience members listen to the movie through an FM signal on their car radios [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

And although the drive-in experience harkens back to an earlier era of entertainment, Sherman said they were ready to update their operation to accommodate the current trend towards online ticketing.

It was the first year we've tried that,” she said. “We had that in motion to go before COVID. So, it just was perfect timing for us, having been able to implement it right away.”

The signature event of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland is the Pride parade. Executive director Phyllis Harris said this colorful presentation of personal identity helps amplify and spread the center’s social service mission throughout the city.

Every year we come together to be visible in our community, where we live,” she said. “And our fight isn't over.”

The LGBT Center's Phyllis Harris marching in a Pride parade in pre-pandemic days. [LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland]

But, you can’t have thousands of people marching and dancing in the streets during a pandemic. Harris and her team members knew what it meant to be marginalized during the breakout of a mysterious disease that some government officials don’t seem to take seriously.

“LGBTQ people are among some of the most vulnerable who will be impacted negatively by this pandemic,” she said. “I told them, ‘We know how to do this. Let's act up.’ I even called back to language from the HIV AIDS epidemic: the activist group Act Up.”

Out of safety concerns, the 2020 Pride event was a "Pride Ride" [Kim Wasielewski Photography]

So, this past fall, 200 decorated cars, bikes and scooters honked, pedaled and zipped their way through some West Side neighborhood streets, instead of jamming together into Public Square. They called it a “Pride Ride.” Supporters cheered and waved from porches and storefronts.

The 2020 "Pride Ride" even included a contingent of scooters. [Kim Wasielewski Photography]

Two weeks later, the LGBT Community Center also posted a musical program of virtual performances online.

This pivot taught us some new things, and it's likely we're not going all the way back to where we were,” said Harris, speculating about 2021 and beyond. There will be sort of like a hybrid model around getting to folks.”

It’s been a year of change for a whole lot of people learning to roll with the punches.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.