Editor’s note: This story is part of our MC faculty and staff series in which professors and/or staff members discuss relevant topics within their areas of expertise. Jason Bruffy is the arts center manager at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center located in the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus.
By Jason Bruffy
In March 2020, the Cultural Arts Center (CAC) at Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus shut down for what was to be a short closure—like everyone else we thought the shut-down would be brief. Then, while other industries re-opened, the arts and entertainment sector remained closed. According to the New York Times, over 60 percent of workers in arts and entertainment were unemployed during the height of the pandemic, compared to the national unemployment average of 8.5 percent.
As companies looked to pivot to a virtual experience in summer 2020, so did the CAC. We are grateful to the College leadership, especially Dr. Brad Stewart, vice president and provost of Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus (TP/SS), for giving us the latitude to reinvent our programming in support of the College community. Our full-time staff of two (Christopher Campanella and I) dug in deep to our CAC core mission: radical inclusion, student success, and diverse performing arts opportunities. The greatest question we addressed: “What does it mean to do live performing arts in a virtual world?”
Christopher and I had already been working on a plan to install video switching capability and cameras into the venue, so we could livestream from the stage. So, in the summer of 2020 we moved ahead with the installation.
As much as our work has been within the arts, it has also been in support of MC programs. Our dedication to the College’s and students’ success is foremost.
The new systems have allowed us to present speakers, panel discussions, and workshops live from our CAC stage. We were hoping in the near future to record and/or livestream performances from our stage without audience, pivoting again to hybrid events with audience. We have worked with the Office of Equity and Inclusion, Department of Visual Performing and Media Arts, the TP/SS Provost’s Office, and more.
We then began working with a number of artists and managers on how we might pivot and what this unknown terrain really looked like. Those conversations led to a number of collaborations. One such collaboration premiered and debuted in September: a virtual experience involving collaborators from London, Mexico, New York and Montgomery County, the most important being eight performers from MC; all telling their Truth To Power (as the performance was called).
I believe one of the greatest gains from this time has been the access to international programing. Right now, you can see the Metropolitan Opera for free. You can watch works from the Royal Court in London to Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles; any number of international and world-class professional arts are literally at your fingertips. I suppose this is a huge portion of what we have tried to showcase in this time and provide to the community, access. This is what led us to launch the Virtual Hippodrome.
Supporting MC Programs
As much as our work has been within the arts, it has also been in support of MC programs. We have operated in support of both IT and MCTV in terms of the overwhelming workload in the virtual space. Our dedication to the College’s and students’ success is foremost. Most recently our support was for MC’s Equity Week, devising solutions for a week-long event, including lobby space, communications, and webinar meetings.
What does the future hold for the arts and entertainment sector? The industry is in the process of reopening and large venues (such as Broadway) are starting to see the fall as a very viable option.
The Way Forward
At MC, we have some big events on the horizon. We will be hosting singer/songwriter/advocate MEKLIT in residency (in-person, virtual or hybrid) this November with her PRX concert series and podcast MOVEMENT. This event is co-commissioned by MC as well as many others to be announced. We will also be presenting the incredible work by AMERICAN PATCHWORK QUARTET, reimagining American Roots music through a contemporary immigrant lens.
A mentor told me years ago: out of great chaos, emerges great art. So out of a virtual world we are launching MC SPKRBX (speakerbox), a TedTalk salon style series featuring speakers on a myriad of topics in short virtual presentations, sharing knowledge. We invite every faculty and staff member of Montgomery College to participate in this new venture (those interested can reach out to me). In this new normal, MC Cultural Arts Center will assist in bringing the arts community back to life in Montgomery County and at Montgomery College in the coming year.
What I believe is one of the greatest lessons we learned in this time is best explained by Jeremy O. Harris: it is theatre because we say it is theatre. Or in my words, the ‘undiscovered country’ is ours for defining.
A perspective on the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center at the Rockville Campus will be published in an upcoming edition.