I’m The Times’ culture listings editor. Coronavirus has upended my job
The first cancellation notice came early last week — Tuesday afternoon, March 10, to be exact. The founder of the early-music ensemble Con Gioia emailed to say she was calling off a scheduled concert of German lieder by Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart. It was the first drop in what would soon become a deluge of coronavirus-related cancellations and postponements of film screenings, plays, concerts and other arts-related events all around Southern California.
I’m The Times’ listings coordinator. I compile the weekly updates on cultural events — new movies, classic movies, theater, classical music, dance, etc. — that run in The Guide in the Sunday Calendar as well as online. I also write the TV This Week column and weekend arts picks, in addition to working on the arts previews and other special projects.
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I grew up in a house full of records and books. I was raised on TV and movies, like most of us, but also attended plays and concerts and visited museums with my parents. I did community theater as a kid and was in drama club in high school. I was briefly a music major in college, I’ve been a musician since my teens — even picked up a few bucks playing here and there — and worked at several record stores in the 1980 and ’90s. I’ve had a lifelong love of the arts, with a particular passion for live performance.
I’m not really a writer. But I am detail-oriented and diligent and adept at combing through the scores of press releases and checking dozens of websites every week, then collating and condensing all that information into digestible bites for print and online. In so many ways, this job was made for me.
It also comes with a major perk: press seats to screenings, performances and productions. And it is a perk of which I take full advantage, schedule permitting. Le Salon de Musiques’ presentation of the Schubert song cycle “Winterreise” last month. Mariinsky Ballet’s beloved “La Bayadere” at Segerstrom Center last October. “Tempest Redux,” Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and New American Theatre’s shattering reimagining of Shakespeare’s fantasy-drama in 2016. Los Angeles Opera’s staging of Brecht-Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” with Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 2007 (paid out of my own pocket for that one). In my 25-plus years with The Times, I have seen some of the best shows ever on offer here in Southern California.
The Con Gioia cancellation was disappointing (I love German lieder — an acquired taste, I know) but wasn’t too much of a surprise: It was to take place at Scripps College in Claremont. And by that point in this then slowly unfolding ordeal, many colleges and universities had already begun to cancel classes and other large events for fear of COVID-19.
Conferences, shows, concerts, ceremonies and sporting events here and around the world have been canceled or postponed. Here is a list of many.
That Tuesday, I was still busy putting the listings on the page for March 15-22 (I’ll let you in on a little secret: The Sunday Calendar section actually goes to press the preceding Wednesday). I work closely with the designer and the copy editor to make as many events fit on the page as possible. I recommend cuts and trims and the designer resizes and rearranges — “Tetris-ing,” she calls it — the boxes for the various categories. A few more nips and tucks et voila, the page is done. And I’m ready to move on to setting up listings for the week following.
That’s how it’s supposed to work. But not this time.
Last Wednesday morning, the cancellations began as a trickle. All upcoming performances at the Wallis in Beverly Hills? Canceled. Events at the Irvine Barclay Theatre? Canceled. The multivenue Piatigorsky International Cello Festival? Concerts on the USC campus, canceled, but concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall still on the schedule (though that wouldn’t last). But since the page was not scheduled to go to press until later that night, I was able to pull those events before the page was released.
Thursday came the flood.
All performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall — Frank Gehry’s iconic L.A. landmark, a shining temple to the arts and music on the hill above The Times’ former offices — canceled until March 31 at least. The Holocaust memorial concert “Violins of Hope” at the Soraya in Northridge, canceled. East West Players’ upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical thriller “Assassins,” postponed. Performances of “Hamilton” at the Pantages, also postponed (ouch — I had press seats and was looking forward to finally seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster this week).
The hit musical’s return to L.A. for an eight-month run has been paused, following major cancellations elsewhere in the theater world.
To say nothing of the smaller shows, like classical music recitals at local churches and libraries and plays at local 99-seat theaters. Many representatives for these venues that I contacted, or who contacted me, held out hope their shows could go forward, but all eventually capitulated in the face of the crisis and closed up shop for the duration.
It was too late to cut any of those from the print product that had shipped out the night before, so I spent most of Thursday cutting them from The Times’ online listings. Contacting publicists. Rewriting headlines. Pulling photos off of posts and replacing them with photos for different shows, then replacing those photos with new ones once those shows in turn were canceled. In the end, the cuts were too deep, and with too many shows unable to confirm if they’d be going forward or not, I surrendered. The movie openings and classic movies posts would go online, but not theater, classical, dance or museums.
The listings I had spent the previous several days carefully crafting and curating had mostly crumbled before my eyes.
The last to remain open, the botanical gardens at the Huntington, announced Tuesday that the whole campus is closing.
By Friday, it appeared the shutdowns would be near total, but I still spent much of the day cross-referencing the press releases I had been sent for the week of March 22-29 with the recent cancellation and closure notices I’d received, and perusing websites, looking for any show, performance or exhibit that might have survived. But little remained.
And so, after conferring with colleagues on Monday, and with many movie chains also having decided to close down, it was agreed there would be no listings in print or online for March 22. No movies, no theater, no classical music, no dance, no museums and galleries. The world of live, in-person arts and entertainment largely fallen silent, with only TV, radio, records, books, board games and podcasts to sustain us.
Right now, I am in a holding pattern, keeping my head down, working from home (as most of us are) and strategizing how I will handle the workload once the coronavirus coast is clear and the schedule of movies, plays, concerts and exhibits ramps back up to something approaching normal.
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I mostly don’t mind working from home — compiling the actual listings is a solitary vocation, requiring a monk-like focus, which suits my introverted, introspective nature and self-diagnosed OCD. And I definitely don’t miss the commute to our otherwise lovely offices in El Segundo. But putting print pages and online posts together takes more hands than just mine, and I already miss the camaraderie and ease of communication from being in the same space as my coworkers.
Shared experience is one of the things I love best about live performance: a packed house pulled together to witness something ephemeral and often transporting, or at least entertaining. Experiences that tell us we are all in this together. Not just through the current crisis but in this world, this life, this plane of existence.
So when all of this is over, come and find me. I’ll be at the ballet.
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