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That theater experience, and people giggling, is what at-home content misses 

click to enlarge The Dryden Theatre - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DRYDEN THEATRE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DRYDEN THEATRE
  • The Dryden Theatre
The problem with our new reality is, we can’t see it from where we are now.

The new reality, of course, is COVID-19. The numbers — more than 600,000 dead worldwide, more than 140,000 dead in the United states — tell us the virus is not a conspiracy theory. Science tells us it’s not going to simply disappear.

Yet, like zombies stumbling through an apocalyptic landscape, our culture continues to search for nourishment. Some of these efforts — the rush to open bars and restaurants and beaches — have been ill-advised. Many states are re-shutting down their reopenings. The Phase 4 reopening guidelines remain a cautious work-in-progress, even as local cultural institutions such as The Little Theatre and the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre have been working on reentry plans that, admittedly, are not at all certain.

“Less and less so as we move forward, we’re still waiting on word from the state that we can open,” says Jared Case, curator of film exhibitions at the Dryden. “But we have been in Phase 4 for nearly a month now, and I don’t think that I know of anyone that has an estimation as to when theaters will be expected to reopen.”

The Dryden’s monthly lecture series, “Focus 45,” will explore the issue with a live, online Zoom discussion at 1 p.m. Friday, July 24. Not to alarm anyone, but it’s called “Cinema in a Time of Crisis.” Case will be joined by former Eastman Museum curator Jim Healy, now director of Cinematheque Film Programming at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And former Eastman Museum Curator of Film Exhibitions Jurij Meden, now curator of the film program at the Austrian Film Museum, will be there in a recorded conversation as well. The lecture is free, although you must register at eastman.org.

At what point does the need to generate the income a business must have to survive trump — pardon the expression — the need for government-mandated regulations to eradicate the kind of killer pandemic that we haven’t seen in our lifetime? Both The Little and The Dryden have been subsisting on a diet of virtual showings in your home. But their ribs are showing. They need… people.

“You need to plan well ahead of time,” Case says, “but also to be able to turn on a dime.”

The Dryden has set five reopening dates through this spring and summer, plans delayed by either construction at the museum or coronavirus pandemic concerns.

The Little, which had been planning a July 17 reopening, has been caught in coronavirus uncertainty as well. It’s been living off the virtual film showings, often tuned to another one of the summer’s social reckonings, Black Lives Matter, with films such as “Miss Juneteenth” and “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”

And by selling its excellent popcorn.

And with its 7 p.m. Sunday, July 26, fundraiser called “The Little Couch Concerts.” It will stream on The Little’s YouTube page, a show assembled from video of 15 musicians who have played The Little Café: Joe Crookston, Debbie Kendrick, Paisley Fields, Connie Deming, Sarah Eide, Benny Bleu, Kinloch Nelson, Heather Taylor, Tyler Westcott, Tasty Parker, the Laura Dubin Duo, Bob Sneider with Andrew Williams, and Kristen Shiner McGuire with David McGuire. Other Little Couch Concerts will be coming throughout the summer.

But at some point, we’ll have to get off the couch. At The Little, that means “The Little in the Lot,” sometime this summer. A revival of The Little Café experience, with a movie and musicians playing in the parking lot behind Little Theatre 1, at the entrance to Theatres 2 through 5. And as Rochester’s short outdoors window closes, and perhaps restrictions relax, the scene moves indoors.

Yet the guidelines have been a moving target. While the state of New York has done an admirable job of reducing its COVID-19 numbers, the rules for reopening venues have been a matter of individual interpretation and semantics. Citing reports of physical guidelines being ignored, last weekend Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued new regulations calling for alcohol at bars and restaurants to be served only to patrons who are seated at safely spaced tables, and who are also ordering food. And no more outdoor walk-up bar service.

The social media outcry from bars and restaurants that have been playing by the rules, as they read them, has been long and loud. The question: Why should they be penalized for the transgressions of others?

Until this is settled, culture has been surviving. Virtually. In a socially distanced way. But that’s not enough, Case says. He longs for “the theater experience.” The immediacy of the event, which can’t be put on pause by hitting a button on the remote. The physical place, the huge screen, surrounded by speakers that are “putting you inside the art.”

When the Dryden gets the OK to reopen, on August 18 or otherwise, Case has carefully plotted out an appropriate set of programs.

“That first week of film is all about the moviegoing experience,” he says. “It’s about how special it is, and bringing people back to it and hopefully celebrating it as they come see the film.”

There will be movies about movies. Starting with “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie.” And “Have You Seen My Movie?” That takes scenes about going to the movies from movies themselves. The entire experience of driving up to the theater, buying tickets, the concession stand, audience reactions, people leaving as the movie ends. The satisfaction of a shared experience.

It is film not only as an art form, but a social event. Sitting in the dark with other people, mostly strangers, picking up on the “little micro-reactions, whether it’s a giggle over here, or a sniffle over there, to sort of clue you in to how the rest of the audience is watching this film,” Case says.

“It can affect the way you are experiencing it as well, it’s that cinema we are trying to get people to come back to. And how do we make sure we are getting that message home? That’s always been a struggle for us, because these moving images are so much more readily available. Not just through home video, but through streaming, that people may just want to just sort of see the content, rather than having that cinematic experience. And what we are trying to tell people is that cinematic experience actually transforms what that content is, into something different.

“We preserve the films at the museum,” he says. “But we also preserve that cinematic experience.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.
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