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In just a few weeks this spring, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the performing arts world upside down. Theaters closed. Performers couldn’t interact. Audiences couldn’t gather. Less than two months later, Stephen Brown, founder and director of SB Dance, and his team produced the first Curbside Theater program. The Salt Lake-based nonprofit is one of six resident companies at Salt Lake County’s Rose Wagner Center for the Arts.
“I don’t know of anything similar done anywhere,” says Brown. “After many years in New York City and Austin, I started my company in Utah because it is such an affordable and accessible place to build, design and create,” said Brown.
The curbside theater is a small, mobile and maneuverable stage with battery-powered lighting and audio. It becomes a must-see platform for professional, short pieces of dance with live music delivered curbside at night. Productions take place outdoors and, by design, include social distancing. The company performs at four to five locations per night, and each show is about five minutes long.
We’ve played for picnickers spread out on park grass, a single mom and her kids in a semi-industrial strip of green, a neighborhood cul-de-sac, outdoor cafes and other locations,” Brown said. “We’ve performed for many vulnerable people who haven’t been beyond their porch since March.”
In six weeks, the company played at more than 40 locations to approximately 500 onlookers. Ordinarily, reaching that number of people would only require three performances in SB Dance’s home theater.
“Most arts groups are attracting viewers online,” said Brown. “SB Dance has taken the opposite approach. We want to explore how our live performance can negotiate the many obstacles of the pandemic and still deliver memorable performances.”
To reach people who could not otherwise afford it, Curbside Theater is free of charge (with a suggested donation). Curbside Theater is supported in part by grants from Utah Arts and Museums, including Utah federal CARES Act funds, and Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts, and Parks. Productions are supported by many individual contributions, including individuals who have never seen the program.
”We’ll keep going until the funding dries up or the weather turns,” Brown added. “For artists, it’s especially joyful to present work when times are uncertain. When people see professional performers pull up on a trailer stage, they realize we’re in this together.”
Photographers: Paul Christean and John Brandon Sound: Ischa Bee (vocalist) and Raffi Shahanian (guitar, bass)
Dancers: Ari Hassett (long curly blonde), Annie Kent, Stephen BrownDirector: Stephen Brown