Organizations turn to creativity in unusual season

February 13, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY SUSAN HANAFEE – Virtual speakers, open air musicals, art shows without the usual wine and cheese receptions, pop-up history tours in parking lots – all have been part of the creativity local not-for-profit organizations have exhibited in dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic.

And the results have been gratifying for most organizations, as support and generosity from Boca Grande residents has continued despite a “season” that is turning out to be anything but normal.

“People seem to understand that expenses are ongoing and have been very generous,” said Ann Fletcher, Royal Palm Players (RPP) board president. She noted that when RPP decided to cancel the last two performances of its annual musical last March, half of the refund checks sent to ticket holders were returned as contributions.

Similarly, the Art Center had strong sales when it put together a masks only, social-distancing required November show after canceling its big spring show last March.

“We had the doors open, a limited capacity and followed the Lee County protocols and the Boca Grande pledge,” said Tonya Doherty, executive director. “We still had a steady flow. It felt like people wanted to come out and see art live.”

The Friends of Boca Grande have launched a Friends@Home membership, allowing viewers to see all of the group’s virtual programs for $500. More than 100 households have subscribed, as have people that want to view individual speakers.

Aaron Wakley (left) and Debbie Frank from the Friends organization have sharpened their technical skills during the pandemic. Photo by Susan

“We are finding that almost twice as many people are watching the recorded content as those tuning in real-time,” said Debbie Frank, program director. “Also, the feedback from our Canadian friends and those that are unable to travel is that they are enjoying the opportunity to still connect with us.”

Along with looking at activities in a new way, the threat of losing its audiences for various programs prompted the Friends to move from analog to digital wiring this past summer. It was a giant leap forward in programming capability for the organization, and one that might have been delayed for a couple of years if not for the pandemic, explained Marta Howell, Friends executive director.

“A vast number of our programs have been selling out and while we could simulcast in a couple of our Community Center rooms, we were feeling the pinch of being able to meet all of the island needs,” Marta said.

In May, she and Kyle Rich, the show production coordinator, went to the organization’s board and suggested that $200,000 from the “rainy day” funds be used to provide the Friends with the ability to do virtual programming.

While others were wondering how they would deal with the virus, Friends staff came back to work – after shutting down in March – to implement the new equipment starting in August. When the first virtual programs were launched, four people were designated to answer the phones.

“Like clockwork, the minute the show started the phones began ringing,” said Marta. “The sound didn’t work or their picture wasn’t quite right. We had to become technology experts – and in some cases our newest technical employee, Aaron Wakley, made home visits. We giggled about it, but we totally understood.”

Tonya Doherty at the Art Center shows some of the art that will be raffled off at the No Ball At All on March 1.

The Boca Grande Historic Society also was forced to close the History Center to the public in March. The move by Lee County left volunteers Jim and Rose Marie Blaha without a locale to work on the extensive archival projects they have spearheaded for the last several years. They quickly remedied that problem by remodeling an office in their home to accommodate their work, and then recently returned to the office, which is still officially closed to visitors.

“We are lonely there,” Jim said. “So, when someone shows up, like the couple from Naples with a son with disabilities, we let them in with masks on. They were there for quite some time and the reward for us was allowing the young man to ‘run’ the train on exhibit and watch his eyes light up.”

Not being open to the public hasn’t slowed the society’s efforts to chronicle the island history. With the help of Rick Montgomery from Island TV, the group made a film about the impact the virus has had on Boca Grande’s people and businesses. It is available for viewing on the society’s website.

“It had to be done, and who better to do it than the historical society,” said Jim, who is also a board member. “There are some very tender moments. I was moved by Blanche Vedette at the Loose Caboose breaking into tears about how the virus was impacting her. She maintains a wildlife refuge and part of what she earns supports that refuge.”

The Blahas, along with other board members and with help from Montgomery, have also set up a free “Pop-Up” then and now photographic exhibit. The first show was held on January 18 in the parking lot next to the Boca Beacon office. Similar exhibits are scheduled for February and March.

Even as local groups have adapted to the immediate impact of the virus, they are also learning how to deal with an uncertain future.

Royal Palm Players has kept its directors, lighting and sound people onboard even though Managing Director Kathleen Kelleher is not selling tickets at the moment. Because no one knew what would happen, RPP continued preparing for the shows to go on as scheduled. Actors auditioned in March via Skype, Zoom and videos. Shows were selected and rights purchased. When it became obvious the stage lights would remain dark a while longer, Ann Fletcher maintained an optimistic attitude.

“Now, actors will have more time to learn their lines and rehearse,” she said.

The group did put on a Christmas program outside, setting up six-foot square areas for golf carts and individual groups to watch the festive show.

“We kept it short, following the protocols for COVID, and did not have breaks where people might congregate in the restrooms,” Ann explained. “I would say it was successful although we were disappointed in the sound: all three nights were windy and you could hear when an airplane passed overhead.” An outdoor cabaret, with a tweaked sound system, is in the works for April.

At the Art Center, the annual Valentine’s Day show is ongoing today through Sunday, with restrictions. The spring show also will be held but limited to the Art Center building on March 18 through the 21, and will not include the usual floral arrangements from the Garden Club.

Conducting classes also has been a struggle, said Tonya Doherty, although the sailor valentines sessions have been well attended.

“If people feel passionate about something, they are willing to do it within our guidelines,” she says.

Perhaps the most appropriate money-raisers for not-for-profits are ones like the Art Center is planning for the end of February. It’s called the “No Ball At All.” Each person buying a ticket to not attend the members’ function will receive a raffle ticket for one of six pieces by local artists. The drawing for the winning tickets will be March 1.

For those who are skeptical about how much fun it can be to attend an event at home via computer or from the comfort of your golf cart outside, Debbie Frank at Friends has some good advice: “Try it, you just might like it.”