The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Entertainers promised to see us through the quarantine. Even they are running out of steam.

Actor and filmmaker Paul Feig began “Quarantine Cocktail Time” on his Instagram as a way to stay occupied, but after 100 episodes felt fatigue set in. (Paul Feig)
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Around show number 70, Paul Feig began to feel the shift on “Quarantine Cocktail Time.” The audience for his Instagram Live show was drifting. The mood in the country had turned from the anxious sadness surrounding covid-19 to outrage over police brutality and the killing of George Floyd. And Feig, 57, the director of such films as “Bridesmaids” and “A Simple Favor,” had missed a script deadline for the first time in his career.

So, on June 27, Feig hosted the 100th episode of “Quarantine Cocktail Time” from Los Angeles — his last before going on hiatus.

“My cautionary tale is always like the Rat Pack,” Feig said in a phone interview. “Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were doing those shows in the late ’60s while the entire culture was changing. Everything seemed so out of touch. That was in the back of my head. What’s the moment when you’re out there going, ‘Come on everybody, party!’ ”

There is no script for this moment, as in-person, live entertainment remains mostly mothballed until at least 2021. That first, crushing wave of cancellations, in March, spawned an informal network of free-streamers, from museum curators and ballet dancers to Jeff Tweedy doing birthday requests from his living room. They promised, through sometimes blurry feeds, that they would be doing this “until we were back.” And then we weren’t, as the curve carried on and talk turned to superspreaders and bleach. Suddenly, what had seemed like a whim, a relief, a coping stopgap had become a never-ending Zoom appointment. Is there any way to stop this train?

“I wanted to be the band on the Titanic,” says comedian Paula Poundstone, who was posting almost daily bits and “Quarantine Corner” updates through April on Instagram but stopped by late May. “But the Titanic sank faster. It just occurred to me now that that’s what was wrong with my plan.”

Actually, nobody really had a plan, only time and an almost Pavlovian sense that this is what performers do.

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Cold War Kids singer Nathan Willett, in Los Angeles, knew his band would lose its tour, particularly painful with a new album coming. He decided one day to go into his garage, prop up his phone and go onto Instagram. He did that 54 more times. The gigs, anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes long, helped build structure into his day. He also appreciated the exercise of digging up and relearning some of the band’s rarely played songs.

“And then I don’t know why, but you feel like you’re at the limit,” Willett says. “That’s when you think, I don’t think I can keep doing this every day.”

Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz launched a Saturday afternoon series, “Virtual Happy Hour,” from his basement in Lexington, Mass. He took requests and tossed an occasional Kinks or Van Morrison song into his set of originals. By May, his audience was thinning and his other gig, as a real estate broker, was heating up. He found it harder to haul himself downstairs. The last “Virtual Happy Hour” came in June.

“I’m a whiner by nature, so every week, after the first couple, I was like, oh, I’ve got to get down there,” Janovitz says. “But it gave me something to do and kept me connected to music. I haven’t taken my guitar out for two or three weeks now and that’s a sin.”

Not everyone needed a guitar.

In March, after Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts closed, provenance curator Victoria Reed began posting, on Facebook and Twitter, stories of artworks with fascinating backgrounds. There were real high points. One of her April entries, about a 15th-century tapestry in the MFA collection, got picked up as a story in the Times of London and the Art Newspaper. She noticed the National Gallery of Art director, Kaywin Feldman, following her feed. So were her mom’s friends.

“It certainly helped me feel connected to people,” Reed says.

Sarah Darling, who plays viola and violin as a member of Boston’s A Far Cry orchestra, wasn’t sure whether going online made sense. One day in April, she asked her roommate to film her performing in the living room. She was surprised by how good it felt to play.

“It feels like you’re screaming into the void but then afterward, my roommate showed me all of the people who had been listening and what they had been saying and suddenly this medium that feels so sterile was this amazing beacon of communication,” she says. “So we realized, we just had to do it.”

Harper Watters, a Houston Ballet soloist, decided he would try to create something special for his more than 218,000 Instagram followers. He asked choreographers to create short dances and filmed them with a cinematic sweep in multiple locations — on a parking deck, backed by a grove of trees, in a field as a train passed. He sent the footage to a friend to edit into postable clips.

“I was really interested in tackling social distancing,” he said. “I wanted to figure out how I could create.”

But Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis on May 25, and the protests that emerged, brought his performances to a halt. Dancing seemed insensitive. Instead, Watters went online to talk about race and identity.

“It really took me something to type up something and press post on my Instagram,” Watters says. “What I was really struck with was that there were 65 dancers in my company who had never discussed these issues before. As a black, queer dancer, I was motivated to start creating awareness.”

There is no scientific way of measuring why audiences began to fall off. Was it the protests drawing attention away? The weather? The varying phases of reopening across the country?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s social accounts were booming in March. But engagement fell off as the summer wore on, says Claire L. Lanier, the museum’s social media manager.

“Zoomed out,” says Nicole Clarke-Springer, the artistic director for Chicago’s Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, in describing why she thinks the company’s classes became less popular as April turned to May.

“I’m looking out of my window right now and it’s 91 degrees and gorgeous outside,” Clarke-Springer says. “I also think it’s a testament to the dance world that we need interaction, that physical thing that happens only when we’re all together.”

The fine arts face a special challenge as the shutdown continues. The novelty of free offerings has passed, says Aubrey Bergauer, executive director of the Center for Innovative Leadership at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Elvis Costello can get away with a ragged performance on his bed, but try replacing the Jupiter Symphony at Severance Hall with a violin sonata on an iPhone.

“To the credit of the arts world as a whole, there was a really fast pivot online and that was good,” Bergauer says. “With ‘good,’ I am sort of using air quotes because it was something to stay relevant. But the shininess of it wore off and [many] organizations have not invested in digital projects. Living room performances were okay for a short period of time but that and archival, point-and-shoot cameras at the back of the hall does not enriching content make.”

The show is not over, particularly on Instagram. Questlove keeps spinning into the early morning. Sir Patrick Stewart has been reading a Shakespeare sonnet every day. Sarah Stone, who plays cello and viola da gamba, has stuck to her “Bach Everyday” performances from her apartment in New York City. Since March 19, she’s done a Bach Chorale each day.

And on the first Tuesday in July, Feig found himself missing “Quarantine Cocktail Time” enough to pull on a blue suit and purple tie and select a gin-based drink, Lady in Blue, to mix and sip on camera. The show returned, at least for one day.

“I thought, ‘I miss you all so much,’ ” Feig said, staring into the lens. “And I got my work done for today. And I found a great drink recipe and because things aren’t going that great with this virus thing, I sort of feel like we’re back in quarantine right now.”

After a brief scold to the non-mask wearers — none of them likely in his audience — he picked up a bottle of gin and started show 101.

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