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From The Institute
Creating, connecting, and contributing
A few weeks ago, I read a letter from George Saunders to his students at Syracuse University. He pointed out that while we may not have experienced a pandemic quite like this before, this is not the first or the last time the world has been upended. “And always there have been writers to observe it,” he wrote, “and (later) make some sort of sense of it, or at least bear witness to it. It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer, too.”
Between sickness, anxiety, crushing financial realities, and isolation, it’s not easy to make art in a pandemic. A recent survey from Americans for the Arts found that 95 percent of artists have lost income because of COVID-19. But even in the face of extraordinary hardship, artists are doing extraordinary things: the vast majority report that they have used their work to raise morale, help those who are struggling, or bring people together.
Over the last few weeks, we at Sundance have found ourselves passing around stories of artists who are finding new ways to provide hope and joy, bring people together, and lift up their communities. These stories have been a bright spot, and helped guide us as we navigate a tumultuous time. So we come to you today not with program updates or announcements but to hopefully pass along a little inspiration.
Artists are creating.
- Boston-based film curator and accessibility consultant Mara Bresnahan met Lauren Schwartzman, the associate producer and assistant editor for Crip Camp, while both were at Sundance this year in support of the film. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Mara returned to her role as RN at Mass General Hospital. When Mara sent Lauren a portrait her friend Thyra Heder had created of the nurses on her unit, it inspired a mission: to engage a range of artists to create more portraits that would humanize and honor essential workers. Artists have leapt at the chance to use their talents as part of Essential Portraits, and portrait subjects describe feeling seen and appreciated in a unique and meaningful way.
While isolated in their homes, with work on hold, director Lance Oppenheim and filmmaker Max McGillivray realized they were both “itching to make something -- anything! -- and find ways to make use of our pent-up creative energy to help those in need.” Lance and Max invited artists around the world to create short films, post them online, and encourage audiences to donate to World Central Kitchen’s #ChefsForAmerica relief work. In the first few weeks of “Shelter Shorts,” they’ve received more than 300 original submissions. In Lance’s words: “Who knew there were so many ways to photograph one’s home/community!”
Artists are connecting.
In mid-March, filmmaker and Sundance Institute board member Ritesh Batra decided to use his regular writing break to connect with anyone who was feeling stranded at home and interested in talking about screenwriting. The response was so overwhelming that he came back two days later -- and the day after that, and the day after that. His Instagram Live sessions have drawn people from around the world to share favorite movies, writing tips, and recommended reading.
In the midst of the pandemic, writer and actor Sherry Cola realized she was far from the only Asian American experiencing “the same two things: unemployment and racism.” She decided to launch a series of interviews with members of her community to catch up and remind audiences that we’re all in this together. In Sherry’s words: “As much as we dig deep about how far Asians have come to prove we belong in this country and in this industry, I’m also discovering things like Jon M. Chu’s favorite films of all time or why Remy Hii loves Kevin Bacon. … Whether it’s human, whether it’s WiFi, we’re all realizing how important CONNECTION is.”
When filmmaker Sasha Wortzel halted production on her film and began sheltering in place on the Gulf Coast of Florida, she was overwhelmed by loss, collective grief, and uncertainty. She found a moment of respite watching the sunset each evening, and decided to share that moment with her friends and loved ones. “These livestreams are an offering of solidarity, a reflection on our deep entanglement, and a reminder that wherever we are, we are on this earth, and the sun will both set and rise again,” says Sasha.
Artists are contributing.
- Musician Laura Karpman created Unison Orchestra in the midst of fear and uncertainty. “While we all crave to be together and make music,” she explained, “it is simply not feasible, nor responsible, at this time, and may not be safe for the foreseeable future. For the scoring world, the question is, ‘How can we still be together through music making?’” Along with conductor Marin Alsop, composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, and violinist Lisa Liu, she launched a virtual orchestra to bring together musicians, clients, and audiences. Laura sums it up this way: “It’s amazing what grit and technology can do!”
In the early days of the pandemic, Ro Haber helped bring together queer and trans women of color filmmakers to gather personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers in Los Angeles. They collected thousands of N95 and surgical masks, gowns, gloves, face shields, and shoe covers, and more than 100 gallons of hand sanitizer, and distributed them to local ERs. As the pandemic wore on, the doctors suggested they redirect their efforts to serve the most vulnerable populations. Today, working with lawyer and activist Megyung Chung, they’re raising money and putting together hundreds of survival kits for LA’s downtown homeless community. “Doing this work felt like a way to channel all our anger, fear, pathos, and grief into something actionable,” explains Ro. “It reminded me that we can find creative ways to support each other when larger governmental systems are failing, and it was inspiring to see how friends and strangers showed up to form a community of collective care.”
Inspired by the artists-on-behalf-of-artists activism of Elizabeth Swados, Sundance Theatre Lab alums Taylor Mac, Niegel Smith, and Morgan Jenness, along with Kristin Marting, Emily Morse, Blake Zidell, Tod Wohlfarth, Willa Folmar and a group of more than 50 other New York City artists launched Trickle Up NYC, a new grassroots subscription video platform that posts work from artists who are suffering from lost income. As Taylor says, “Trickle Up NYC is a network where you would see stuff you would never otherwise get to see. When else are you going to see the playwright read their entire play?”
As people everywhere continue to respond to this crisis, the actions of these artists and many others are a reminder that creativity, joy, resilience, and compassion are all around us, even in uncertain times. We look forward to continuing to lift up the stories of artists who are creating, connecting, and contributing: If you or someone you know is using art to make a difference, we’d love to hear from you; please share your project on Twitter or Instagram and tag us (@sundanceorg).
Last week, filmmaker, Sundance Institute alumnus, and Sundance Labs creative advisor Rodrigo García captured what so many are feeling in a beautiful letter to his father, Gabriel García Márquez: “I’m still in a fog. It seems for now that I’ll have to wait for the masters, present and future, to metabolize the shared experience. I look forward to that day. A song, a poem, a movie or a novel will finally point me in the general direction of where my thoughts and feelings are buried. In the meantime, the planet keeps turning and life is still mysterious, powerful, and astonishing.”
We’re grateful to everyone using art to lead the way forward and shine a light on all that is mysterious, powerful, and astonishing.
To read past COVID-19 updates from the Institute, please visit our archive.
Many of our summer programs, including our labs, are moving onto our digital platform, Sundance Co//ab.
A Note from the Sundance Co//ab Team
We have thought a lot about our programming and really want to keep it going for the many of you who are already planning to participate in our upcoming events.To make it a bit easier for everyone for the next few months, we are going to make all of our member webinars and Master Classes free to attend. We will also be adding a forum for your questions and concerns at this time where we encourage you to support one another, to tell your stories, and to be generous as always with listening and advice. We will soon be adding a focus for any ideas, questions or concerns you want to share with us, where questions will be answered by Sundance Institute staff and artist mentors, advisors, and alumni.
Our team has been thinking deeply about the programming we will roll out this month to help support you. Please check the newsletter where we'll add our special events and features to the top. There will be new programs as we take some of our live programs digital, and also special events dedicated to addressing the impact of the pandemic and the economic slowdown on the creative community.
We are all in this together and will do everything we can to ensure that this community supports you and your work. We look forward to your energy, creativity and brilliance at this time, so please use the forum to let us know what you need.
Founding Director, Feature Film Program
Chief Product Officer, Sundance Co//ab
Sundance Institute labs, intensives, and sessions will take place on our digital platform, Sundance Co//ab, through August 31, 2020.
Applications are still open. Learn more about the latest Sundance Institute opportunities as we continue our commitment to offering dynamic programming that supports artists at every step of the creative journey.
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