Diamon Jones (above) on the cello, and Brian Ray (left) on the violin from Catalyst Circle Rock playing for the Sistema Ravinia Orchestra at the Kehrein Center for the Arts. | Photo by Lynne Peters

It’s safe to say that no not-for-profit made it through the Covid-19 pandemic unscathed. Months of closures, testing, quarantining and masking took their toll on everyone. For organizations which rely on face-to-face interactions, the pandemic was more than challenging. While the pandemic is not over, vaccines and changes in practices are allowing many local groups to bring back some element of in-person interactions as 2021 closes. 

Lois Baumann, Maywood Fine Arts executive director

Ed Siderewicz of Austin’s Kehrein Center for the Arts says the pandemic forced the center to make some quick changes. Faced with the potential of no in-person events, they quickly moved to upgrade their theater to allow for live streaming of events.  Having that capability for the past year allowed Kehrein to continue to reach its audience. 

Today, Siderewicz says, “The gas pedal just hit the floor about two or three months ago. October was an incredibly busy month in the theater with live events. The pace has really accelerated.”

He says the last weeks of October they hosted three events, including a school orchestra partnership between its Catalyst Circle Rock School and Ravinia. He notes, “The stage was full of kids, some of them performing on stage for the first time. Parents, community members and people from Ravinia were there.”

It feels good to be back. He sums up, “Despite all the virtual events, there’s nothing like being back in person. It’s like a warm hug.”

He acknowledges that not everybody is ready to attend in-person events yet, and says Kehrein honors and respects that and makes options available for those patrons as well. Events and schedules can be seen at www.kehreincenter.com.

Like Kehrein, Maywood Fine Arts pivoted to virtual performances during 2020 and into 2021. Executive Director Lois Baumann says of that period, “We became great at filmmaking. This was our second year turning our Pumpkin Patch performance into a movie. This year, it showed at the Lake Theater.”

In spite of the success of virtual shows, she says, ‘We’re really glad that theaters have opened up. As long as protocols allow, we’ll be performing Sleeping Beauty in April at Trinity (High School) in person.”

Whether in person or virtual, says Baumann, “We work magic at Maywood Fine Arts. We make sure that every day is enchanting.”

She adds that experienced students are excited to get back on stage, and new students are thrilled to be on the stage for the first time. 

Another perk that didn’t stop? The preparations. Baumann says, “Our children are happy to be in costumes and makeup. We didn’t stop any of that. We’re just scrambling to get masks to match the costumes.”

Like Maywood Fine Arts, Oak Park’s Wonder Works has a young clientele, and the pandemic was particularly hard on the play-based organization. Julianne Nery, president of the board of directors, says “We had to shut down and lay everyone off. It was a really hard thing to do.”

By the end of summer 2020, it was apparent that the children’s museum would have to remain closed for the immediate future. Nery says, “We had to pivot and figure out how to protect our finances so that we could reopen.”

The not-for-profit made improvements such as redoing an outdoor garden space and repaving parking pads and walkways. They also upgraded technology and reorganized their leadership structure.

Nery and board Vice President Sara Yount, said that financial donations and the support of community stakeholders were invaluable in helping Wonder Works reopen in June 2021. 

Operations are still influenced by the pandemic. Staffing is a challenge, and keeping up with reduced capacity, safety measures, and reduced hours means that the building is only open five days a week for two sessions per day and for rentals for groups.

Still, Nery notes that the new nature play space and the outdoor area for STEAM activities are big draws, and it is all worth it to see children in the space again. 

She says, “It is such a thrill to be there and see the kids’ faces. Some of these kids are young enough that they hadn’t really been out in a setting with other kids like this. They’ve never played with anyone before. It’s so wonderful to provide that opportunity for kids to start socializing.”

Jean Gottlieb | Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater interim artistic director

For Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater, the past year has been one of transition. Founder Ann Filmer stepped down this fall, and Interim Artistic Director Jean Gottlieb says the theater is still operating in a virtual format.

While the theater is hoping to be able to present live events later in 2022, she says that they are keeping open the idea of continuing to do digital shows as some people prefer that option. She thinks the ability to have this option is a bright spot that came out of the pandemic, saying, “I like the virtual theater, it is one thing good that came out of the pandemic. It opens up our little theater to people everywhere.”

The Symphony of Oak Park’s Music Director Jay Friedman says the group recently hosted its first in-person concert since the pandemic began. In fact, he says, “We have our normal five concert series coming up.”

Returning to in-person is important he says, noting that “A lot of orchestras went out of business in the pandemic. There’s not enough culture in the world as it is. It’s more important now than ever.”

Jay Friedman, music director of the Symphony of Oak Park | PROVIDED

After providing virtual chamber concerts to keep their audience engaged last year, Friedman notes that it is good to be back to normal, almost. Concert attendees are masked, and socially distanced. They almost must provide proof of vaccination.

He says the musicians are so happy to be back in person for rehearsals and performances, and he adds, “Eighteen months is a long time not to pursue your creative hobby.”

Like other organizations Oak Park’s Nineteenth Century Charitable Association was forced to cancel months of events, as well as events that community partners such as Future Philanthropists and the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust hold in the club.

Erin Payton, Oak Park’s Nineteenth Century Charitable Association executive director

The entire 2020-21 season went online, including the gala.  Executive Director Erin Payton notes that Zoom had some pluses and reports the group, “Started getting attendees not only from the Oak Park and River Forest area, but from as far away as California, Florida, New Zealand and Ireland.”

The group’s regular Monday lunch transitioned to at-home events with catered meals to-go. This fall, Monday lunch and enrichment is back in-person. Payton says, “The first live audience music program was held on Oct. 4 and you could feel the excitement in the ballroom.”

The Nineteenth Century Club is taking precautions such as limiting capacity, masks and distancing, but Payton says, “It has been amazing to see members come face-to-face, or mask-to-mask, for the first time in months. The community aspect of our organization is what has kept us going for 130 years, and you can see it best when members are gathered together.”