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The arts manage to stay active amid lockdowns

One year after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the arts are still managing to stay active at New Mexico State University and within the surrounding community. While in-person performances and exhibitions have mostly ceased since March of last year, some artists have found creative ways to engage with the public.

NMSU Pride band director Steven Smyth said he has dealt with many bumps along the the road, including accusations that his band is spreading the virus.

“I received an angry email that called us ‘COVID canons,’” Smyth said.

Despite the perception held by some that playing music during the pandemic is dangerous, Smyth explained the department achieved breakthrough success when the uniform manager for the Pride band, Katelyn Zuments, partnered with a mechanical engineering student to create face masks that would allow students to play music while still wearing them. The masks are being produced locally by The Print Guys, and are selling to schools nationwide.

NMSU Pride Band members play with specially designed masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The band also has adopted the use of instrument bell covers to block aerosols that may contain the virus. (Courtesy Photo)

Smyth compared these special masks to men’s underwear, with a small opening that allows them to play the instruments while staying safe. He explained that 30,000 of these masks have been sold around the country.

“The entire New York City school system has music right now because of our masks here in Las Cruces,” Smyth said.

Proceeds from mask sales helped raise $10,000 in scholarships for the NMSU music department.

“I think our bands have flourished because the strength of our students,” Smyth added. “I mean, our students are resilient, they’re fantastic. There hasn’t been a single case of COVID, and we have 227 in our band.”

While studies on the spread of COVID-19 through wind and brass instruments are still underway, it is recommended to use multi-layer covers on instruments. These covers work similarly to face masks by filtering out aerosols that may contain the virus.

“I think our bands have flourished because the strength of our students. I mean, our students are resilient, they’re fantastic. There hasn’t been a single case of COVID, and we have 227 in our band.”

NMSU theater department head Wil Kilroy remembers having to stand outside the ASNMSU Center for the Arts turning people away from the American Southwest Theatre Company’s scheduled performance of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” because the pandemic had just hit the week before. The theater department was allowed to perform its last show on March 13, 2020, with limited seating and social distancing. This would be the final regular production for ASTC since the pandemic began.

A sign in the front window indicates the Las Cruces Community Theatre is closed. The theater has been dark for over a year. (Photo by Raul Flores Escudero/Kokopelli)

Since then, both theater classes and performances have been strictly virtual. Kilroy explained that since classes went online, students have had to record all of their performances.

“I didn’t have expectations that were that high, but some of them really went beyond what was required, and I thought it was incredibly creative,” Kilroy said.

The theater department has also stayed active outside the classroom. Kilroy said that students have been occupied creating virtual plays. He raved about “Tracer,” a whodunnit directed by assistant professor Nichole Hamilton that was screened online via Zoom.

“Destination: Broadway” is the latest show performed by the NMSU theater department. It premiered March 19, 2021, and was streamed via Zoom. Tickets were $25 each and all proceeds went to the department in support of NMSU theater students.

The Las Cruces Community Theater has also been shut down since the pandemic started. LCCT was forced to cancel its production of “Harvey,” which was scheduled to open March 20, 2020. According to theater president Janet Beatty-Payne, the production was ready for an audience just as the shutdown was announced.

“We still have a long way to go before we are allowed to open again to do shows,” Beatty-Payne said.  “So, financially, we are now struggling to keep paying our rent and utilities. It’s definitely a very difficult time for the theater arts.”

Marisa Sage, director of the NMSU Art Museum, said that the new museum located in Devasthali Hall opened on Feb. 28, 2020, and had been in operation for only two weeks when it was forced to close because of the pandemic.

“We were closed completely until early October, and then we had a couple of weeks when we could do time entry. And what we did is we set up free ticketing that you could sign up for online,” Sage said.

The “Labor: Motherhood & Art” exhibition was postponed in March 2020 and later reopened for a few weeks near the end of the year. The exhibition has since gone online, with a full video walkthrough and photographs of the entire installation.

Home to the University Art Museum, Devasthali Hall officially opened Feb. 28, 2020, just two weeks before the pandemic struck. (Photo by Raul Flores Escudero/Kokopelli)

“We were able to quickly transform all of our programing that was going to happen in the museum into an online platform,” Sage explained.

The University Art Museum is currently hosting a fully online experience titled “ALONE/TOGETHER.”

According to information published on the UAM website, this series of prerecorded programs represents an attempt “to rethink what ‘community’ means in a world where suddenly the majority of human connections are being forged and sustained online.” The series utilizes an array of social media and online apps.

Sage confirmed the museum will open its doors from April 23 to May 15 to exhibit student projects, although she specified the museum will open at only 25% capacity, meaning no more than 18 people will be allowed inside at one time. According to Sage, individuals will be allowed to remain inside for up to 30 minutes.

Located in downtown Las Cruces, the Rio Grande Theatre first opened in 1926. It has been closed since March of last year. (Courtesy Photo)

Information about current and future exhibitions at the museum is available on the UAM website.

NMSU’s Pan American Center is one of the largest entertainment venues in the region, hosting a variety of celebrity performers, sporting events and major entertainment acts from around the world. The Pan Am has been dark since March of last year, when all scheduled performances were postponed indefinitely.

Currently, the Pan Am Center has four rescheduled shows that have been confirmed. JoJo Siwa’s performance that was originally set to happen on March 14, 2020, is now scheduled for June 19, 2021. Rage Against the Machine has been rescheduled for June 5. Luke Combs’ sold-out show is also scheduled for Oct. 15, and the Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” is set for Nov. 3, 2021.

The Rio Grande Theatre, which first opened in 1926, also had to shut down. A classic film series was scheduled to be screened throughout all of 2020. Only the first two films on the list of 12 were screened; the rest are still on hold.

Chris Favre, who oversees the Rio Grande Theatre, said the venue can’t open until Doña Ana County’s COVID-19 status turns green. Currently, Doña Ana County is in a yellow status, which prohibits live audiences in indoor spaces. Favre explained that until the status changes, the theater is not allowed to reopen.

As COVID-19 restrictions loosen up throughout the state, the arts at NMSU and in the greater Las Cruces community may finally have a chance to prosper again.

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