Pennsylvania School of the Performing Arts charts a different course during the Covid pandemic

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Terri Garcia-Lee is the artistic and company director of the Pennsylvania School of the Performing Arts (PSPA) and Spirit in Motion Ballet Theater (SIMBT) in Bucks County. Established in 1996, PSPA is a highly regarded pre-professional institution for young actors, singers, and dancers.  Lee danced with Pennsylvania Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, and North Carolina Ballet before moving to New York and performing in a variety of Broadway musicals.

For months Lee, the school’s faculty, and students had been rehearsing for their 25th Anniversary Gala – Reflections, originally scheduled for performances this month at the Bucks County Community College.  Then in March, like all performing arts organizations, Lee had to put everything on hold as the Covid-19 pandemic was becoming more ominous with every passing hour.

In a phone interview last weekend, Lee talked about how she had to close down normal operations at the school and suspend tuition fees for her students, regardless of the outcome.

On the day she decided to close the school, she had just learned that her daughter, Paloma Lee, in the Broadway cast of Moulin Rouge had tested positive for Covid-19. It was also the very night that Broadway went dark. Her immediate impulse was to go to her daughter but Paloma convinced her not to take the risk of coming into New York City, which had already become the epicenter of the outbreak.  (Paloma was quarantined at home and now is fully recovered.)

Meanwhile, Lee was making fast decisions to organize everything at PSPA for converting to the new virtual performance reality. She instructed her teachers to make practice videos for the anniversary show, which included demonstrations of all of the choreography in slow motion.  In addition to the rehearsal videos for the upcoming performances, she had all of her teaching staff record personal messages to their students and ZOOM sessions were set-up to keep everyone connected as a group.

Lee was quick to add, “Because we have the lifeline to the Broadway community and already had Broadway actors participating with online masterclasses for us, I wanted to come up with something bigger and better.”

Even though Lee was moving in the direction of virtual classrooms and instruction, she acknowledges the limitations of this medium for dance training. She also believed it was unfair to charge for content.  “I started seeing that everybody was going to virtual classes online and most were planning to keep charging regular tuition fees.”  Lee just didn’t feel that was right for her students or her school.

“I wrote an email to all the parents and told them that I was going to stop all payments. Everything will be free.  That we’ve got to keep these kids and happy and not afraid,” Lee explained. And she let parents know that the students’ tuitions and monthly fees for the term would be put in an escrow account with the option of it being returned to parents.

After assuring parents and students that training and classes would continue without concerns for money, Lee had to organize contingency plans for the immediate financial consequences. The first thing she turned to was the well-publicized but dysfunctional US government relief programs for small businesses.  Lee found them at best to be “confusing and full of restrictions.”

The bank her school did business with for over 20 years, told her that they couldn’t expedite or even offer information about the federal government’s new relief program,  PPP or Payment Protection Program which was set up to provide emergency funding to small businesses.

She also found out that she would be expected to continue to pay rent on her studios without any relief or deferment in the coming months. In addition,  because everything from her phone to the internet was located there, the overhead for the organization would also have to be kept up.  On top of all this, Lee had already picked up the $30,000 tab for the costumes for the student show, for which there was no refund available as they were specifically customized for their student show.

Now, after a month into the online classes, motivational ZOOM sessions, engagements with faculty and guest artists, Lee acknowledges that this online training has not only instructional limits but financial ones as well. Somehow all of this will have to be made up for down the road when the pandemic is finally over.

There are other issues as well. As inspiring as virtual instruction can be, Lee says, in many respects “it’s just not great.  Some of it is just dangerous in many home settings. On pointe what are you going to do on a tile floor in the kitchen?”

The wide variety of free workshops, classes and dance sessions being streamed right now could potentially create other problems. Even with Lee’s model of free content, realistically how long can that be sustained as a full alternative to in-person training? How long will students be willing to train cut off from studio engagement and live performance experiences?

“I don’t even want to think about how I’m going to pay rent,” she notes with a sigh as she contemplates the many consequences of her choices, wondering, “I don’t really know if I did the right thing.”

Even with these doubts, Lee remains optimistic but is acutely aware of what’s at stake in real-time. “Everything is on hold right now. How do you make changes mid-action when none of us… can really know what is going on? The situation changes daily and is all so unknown.” Part of that unknown is whether the 25th Anniversary Gala will go on. For now, the Reflections Show is still booked at Library Auditorium at Bucks County Community College for three performances, May 16-17 but that could change in an instant.

Since that day in March, Lee has had many sleepless nights about how to continue with her life and her life’s work. Dancers are resilient and Lee recalls previous seemingly insurmountable circumstances that shut down the performing arts industry.  “We went through AIDS epidemic, which was so devastating for theater and dance, and the 9.11 shutdown in New York, then the financial crash of 2008 and we got through, and, you know, in the end, it’s all about community. We’re performers, that’s why we do what we do.”

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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