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The Torrance Cultural Arts Center forges ahead: a talk with Christian Wolf

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There’s a Zoom event with Oisin and Samantha (live from Ireland) scheduled for Sunday morning

Empty stages

Progress and possibility at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Those shows that you attended at the James Armstrong Theatre, the George Nakano Theatre, and elsewhere at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center? The man responsible for getting them booked and onstage is Christian Wolf. But then, in March, everything went south almost overnight. Six months in, these are his thoughts about where things stand, as well as his hopes for when the performing arts can return.

Easy Reader: Tell us about yourself, who you are in the larger scheme of things, how you came by your job as the Artistic Director of the Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation and what it entails.

Christian Wolf: My background is as eclectic as they come. I’ve been a performing magician, producer, director, video editor, writer, teacher, graphic designer, marketer… I’ve also programmed seasons for theatres from 199 seats to 1,500. Believe it or not, I think all that has served me well in my position with Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation (TOCA). We are a very lean organization with two full-time and one part-time employee. We produce up to 35 events a year, including special events like Dancing with the South Bay Stars, South Bay’s Got Talent and the South Bay Festival of the Arts. So, as you can imagine, we end up pitching in to help with just about everything.

ER: When did you first realize there’d be serious trouble… that shows might have to be cancelled and postponed? And did you ever suspect or think that the COVID-19 restrictions would go on as long as they have (and still no end in sight)?

Christian Wolf, artistic director of the Torrance Cultural Arts Center

Wolf: Since we didn’t really know what was going to happen, we chose to postpone shows incrementally. It wasn’t until we got the stay at home orders that we realized that we had to postpone the rest of our season… although we held onto hope that we would still be able to do some of the summer events that we had planned. But, ultimately, those never materialized. Our fingers are crossed that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel after the first of the year.

ER: How did you go about informing artists and management companies that their scheduled performances weren’t going to happen? (I assume they all saw it coming) At the time did most of them want to tentatively reschedule or did they agree to just wait and see what course the pandemic and the restrictions would take?

Wolf: While some had to cancel their performance all together because their tour fell apart, everyone else we had scheduled were willing to reschedule. I have to tell you, I have been so impressed with many of the artists’, agents’ and managers’ responses to the cancellation or rescheduling of performances. It really was a matter of “we are all in this together”.

ER: We can guess how the pandemic affected most performers… shows on hold indefinitely… but how did it impact you, both on the job and in your personal life?

Wolf: It’s really crazy how many this has affected. Not only performers and organizations, but technicians, box office staff, janitors… a real domino effect. For me, it really has forced me to think outside the box on how we can be of service to our audience and performers. Our mission hasn’t changed, just how we are delivering it.

On a personal level, I’m just trying to survive what I call the “Covid Rollercoaster.” Some days I’m really inspired and hopeful. Some days… not so much. But thankfully, there is a great community of creative and giving people in the industry who are there for me, and there’s the distraction of plans that need to be made for our future events.

ER: When the seriousness of it all hit home, did you and your staff then seek to find alternative means to produce and promote acts?

Wolf: Yes. But not right away. I was hesitant to dive into streaming or virtual programming because from what I saw, most of the performances weren’t produced very well. The image and audio weren’t up to a standard that I would feel comfortable presenting. Before we started I wanted to make sure that we could do programs with a high enough quality, [and that were also] innovative, fun and something you couldn’t just get from YouTube or some other content provider.

ER: Did you think that outdoor events would be likely if they could happen with social distancing? And if so, did or do you think that people will be willing to come out to them, or do you anticipate that there will be a certain reluctance among patrons that will linger until COVID-19 cases (and deaths) go way down?

Wolf: The City of Torrance recently did a survey asking about the likelihood of people returning to events at the center. While the full results weren’t shared with me, I understand that there is some apprehension on returning to venues. Still, I have submitted proposals to the city for drive-in concerts and socially distanced cabaret shows in the Torino Plaza. I believe that either proposal would allow patrons to be safe and still be able to enjoy the experience of a live performance. But we are just waiting for the go-ahead from the city, which I believe is waiting for the city and/or state to loosen restrictions.

Via Zoom, and by way of the Torrance Cultural Arts Center, Mariana Williams’ Storytelling Workshop is coming in October

ER: But you did come up with Zoom events, as have other arts organizations. How has this been working out so far?

Wolf: Our first online event was a magic show with Jon Armstrong. I think events like this are perfect for Zoom. It allows people to interact with the artist and the artist can see the audience. However, when it comes to musical performances, we opted for YouTube Live as we have more control over the sound and image. These are the two platforms we are currently using but are still researching for other options that can improve the experience for the patron.

ER: For that matter, you’ve got a couple Zoom events coming up quite soon. Could you say a few words about them?

Wolf: I’m really excited about our next event, “Breakfast in Ireland”. We have worked with these performers [Oisin and Samantha] in the past (“Atlantic Steps” and “Irish Christmas in America”) and thought they would be great to bring back virtually. Since they live in Ireland and there is an eight-hour time difference, I thought it might be fun to make it an early performance. This is going to be a great way to start the day! The show is on Sunday, Sept. 13 at 10 a.m.

We also have a three-day storytelling workshop that was planned for our 20/21 season. The instructor Mariana Williams and I talked and thought this would work just as well online. In addition, we are in the process of planning additional concerts, ideally shot live at the Armstrong Theatre.

ER: I know that it’s hard to predict anything (especially in an election year), but what do you imagine or at least hope for regarding the arts at the Center in the months ahead? Is there a tentative spring 2021 schedule in the works?

Wolf: As much as I hate to say it, I don’t think there will be any live events at the Center until after the first of the year. We will continue to try to bring events online from the Armstrong until we get the “all clear” to start presenting live events again. In the meantime, we are working on rescheduling the shows that we had to postpone and bringing in other artists and events to finish out what would have been our 20/21 season. Still, we need to get the okay from the city.

ER: What’s the best way for the general public to stay informed about events coming back to the Torrance Cultural Arts Center?

Wolf: All our online programs and events are on our website (www.torrancearts.org) and social media platforms. The best way would be to sign up for our email newsletter, which can be done from our website.

ER: Last words? Hopes and prayers?

Wolf: Everyone is going through their own struggle. Family issues, unemployment, lowered income, sickness… These really are some crazy times. But just remember what made you feel better or helped you escape, even for a short time. While the first responders will get us through these times, the arts will help people heal. But without support, the arts may not survive. I would urge people to support their local arts organizations through donations, ticket purchases… heck, even moral support is helpful.

Before you know it, we will return to the theatres and we look forward to welcoming everyone back. In the meantime, we will have to entertain you in the comfort of your living room. ER

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