‘The status quo is an illusion’: An interview with Cal Performances’ Jeremy Geffen

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On March 17, Cal Performances closed Zellerbach Hall and canceled the remainder of its season. March and April are usually two of the busiest months of the performance schedule, but because of COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, drastic changes have had to be implemented.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Jeremy Geffen, the executive and artistic director of Cal Performances, reflected on COVID-19’s impact on the performing arts and how the community is staying resilient. 

Geffen described how the impacts of COVID-19 have forced many to confront how tenuous existence is at both the individual and organizational levels. He also discussed the importance of remaining connected and finding solace in community. 

One of the ways that Cal Performances is reaching out to its audiences is through a playlist series of YouTube videos titled “Now, More Than Ever.” 

Geffen curates the playlists himself, aiming for depth and variety. 

“I want a variety … beyond what Cal Performances has traditionally presented,” Geffen said about the playlist series. “But in a way that represents the eclecticism that is the hallmark of a Cal Performances audience member.” 

Geffen feels strongly that he is not working with one audience, but many, curating for a multifaceted community.

According to Geffen, this community wants “to be drawn to things that are good, that are high quality and don’t easily fall under one label.”

The playlists themselves also resist being labeled. They are a mix of artists and performances past and present, emerging and established, intimate and grand. What word is there to homogenize a compilation that embraces Mozart, jazz legend Nina Simone, dance companies like Alvin Ailey and ballets like Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”?  

“The comments coming back from the public show that the effect of this one gesture, which is small but very sincere, has been beyond our expectation,” Geffen said. “It’s been really heartening to see the solace, the normalcy, the beauty and the joy that the performing arts can, even in this less-than-ideal form of delivery, bring to people’s lives at a moment at which they truly need it.” 

Geffen sees “Now, More Than Ever” as a project in step with a much larger movement occurring across the performing arts in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“In this moment, there has been such a desire to share, that institutions of all sizes have taken it upon themselves to reach out to their audiences as a gift, to basically bond over our shared humanity,” Geffen expressed. 

These “gifts” take many forms, ranging from Geffen’s curated playlists to major dance companies like Alvin Ailey temporarily making recordings of performances like “Revelations” available to the public. 

Geffen sees these as moments of altruism, but he also worries about them setting a precedent for the future. 

“At the moment, all of these performances are being delivered free. Now something on YouTube is free because it’s there for the public,” Geffen said. “When you get to a group like Alvin Ailey, or a major symphony orchestra or opera company, it’s not.”

Geffen entreats audiences to consider the labor and financial resources that go into a performance. 

 Geffen explained: “The reality is that everyone who is performing in front of that camera, as well as the people that are operating those cameras and the organizations that provide the structure under which the performances can take place, all cost money. People’s livelihoods depend on this.”

Technology has made the performing arts accessible, but it has also obscured the financial reality behind it.  

“It’s easy to take for granted because so much of our current media landscape has the impression of being free,” Geffen said. “But there’s a lot of investment that’s needed to get to free.” 

When the closures due to COVID-19 are eventually lifted, Geffen fears that audiences will continue to turn to digital media and remain reticent about supporting organizations that depend on large gatherings to meet their bottom line. 

“It’s actually not a substitute for the live experience,” Geffen insisted. “There is an idealism, an altruism in that moment (of live performance) that is not replicated in our daily existence.” 

This speaks to the larger role that Geffen believes art plays at the individual, community, and transnational level, as well as the role it will play in our recovery from COVID-19. 

To Geffen, it seems unlikely that there is a “normal” waiting for us on the other side of this pandemic. In fact, perhaps there was never a normal to begin with. 

“I feel like the status quo is an illusion,” Geffen said.“It’s something we invent in hindsight, rather than an actual expression of the moment.” 

The future that Geffen imagines is one seemingly characterized by grief and survivor’s guilt but also by profound joy in the act of living. 

“For decades, centuries after this, we are going to be turning to the works of art produced during this time as the documents of the actual experience of having lived through it,” Geffen said.

Geffen believes that reading about history in a textbook is one thing, but clarified, “It’s another thing entirely to feel a reflection of that moment in a nondidactic, emotionally direct sort of way.” 

That is what the artistic experience has to offer. It is a profound statement of resilience not only because it allows us to look forward to better times, but also because it will allow us to look back.

This article is part of a series in which local artists and art organizations discuss how closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak are impacting them.

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].