Like other theaters across the nation, the Lied Center for the Performing Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska, watched its 2020 season end abruptly last March. Performances from the Boston Pops to “The Wizard of Oz” to Irish singer Michael Londra were canceled, a cruel end for the 30th-anniversary season.
But something unusual happened at the Lied, nestled next to the University of Nebraska campus. Two weeks after the shutdown, performances shifted online.
In June, the nationally recognized Music on the Move program – live performances atop a bicycle-powered stage – began winding its way through Lincoln neighborhoods. The Lied even paid its musicians.
By September and the 2020-2021 season, live in-person performances were back. Broadway sensation “Newsical the Musical” led the way, complete with carefully crafted COVID-19 protocols for artists, crew, staff and audience. The Broadway cast performed for the first time since the pandemic began in front of 600 masked human beings in a theater that normally holds 2,200.
“It was so wonderful to hear the laughs – it’s a comedy show,” says Bill Stephan, the Lied’s executive director. “And the artists were crying backstage, they were so happy to be able to perform again.”
The Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, Neb., put in place strict COVID-19 safety measures, including sanitizing each seat after every performance and lecture. (Photo: Jon Hustead)
How did the Lied pull it off?
A confluence of factors helped the Lied, Stephan says: A staff willing to learn how to work donated equipment to put programming online for the first time. The physical space that venues in big cities such as New York just can’t offer. A university partner world-renowned for infectious disease expertise.
And a community that stepped up.
Friends of the Lied, a supporting group of more than 1,000 members, rallied, Stephan says. Corporate sponsors gave. The University of Nebraska began using Lied space for socially distant classes. Free Friday night concerts featuring local performers drew up to 1,000 viewers, stoking awareness. All that helped limit staff cuts to 30% and programs to continue.
In a normal year, ticket sales account for about half the center’s budget. This year, it’s 5%, Stephan says. Donations, sponsorships and earned income make up the rest. Donors understand the Lied, Stephan says, adding that he’s grateful.
“They also really appreciate the fact that we didn’t just shut down,” Stephan says, “that we found a way to continue to bring the arts to the community, and they wanted to thank us, as well as be part of it.”
That kind of support – and strict safety protocols – attracted Londra, who gained worldwide recognition in the juggernaut show “Riverdance.” His in-person show, “Celtic Fire,” was canceled with the Lied’s season. (He did perform online).
Michael Londra and the Celtic Fire band rehearse at the Lied Center on March 16, 2021. It was the first time in a year that the band was able to perform live together. (Photo: Jon Hustead)
Planning a live tour is impossible for international artists in the pandemic, Londra told USA TODAY hours before getting on the Lied’s stage March 16. So he pared his normal crew to five from 15 and flew them to Lincoln for “Celtic Fire’s” only live-audience show during the pandemic.
Because he lives a three-hour drive away, and the Lied “knows what they’re doing,” he felt comfortable bringing his band – whom he calls “my family” – to the stage. It’s an opportunity many artists don’t have. Unemployment rates for actors, dancers and choreographers exceeded 50% in the third quarter of 2020, according to a report from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I’m hoping that I don’t start crying in the middle of some of my songs,” Londra said, confessing some nervousness. “But what the hell. It happens.”
Michael Londra, known for his role as the lead singer of "Riverdance" on Broadway, performed his first live performance during the pandemic at the Lied Center on March 16, 2021. (Photo: Jon Hustead)
The Lied will probably keep some popular online programs, Stephan says. His advice for other small businesses beyond strict health and safety protocols?
Be creative, and brace for some trial and error.
“There is hope,” he says.
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