Loss of live entertainment leaves seats, people empty

With canceled musical and theater performances and sporting events, the COVID-19 virus has claimed — at least temporarily — some of the region's favorite leisure activities.

Lee deLisle, a professor of recreation, tourism and sport management at Southern Connecticut State University, spoke to how people explore themselves in their free time. Right now, he wrote in an email, people are experiencing enforced leisure, or "having free time that we may not have chosen or planned for. It can place people in a state of discomfort or dis-ease."

According to deLisle, the uncertainty and social aspect of live entertainment is what draws people to it.

"Live performances, whether in sport or entertainment, include the element of unpredictability because the audience or fans do not know the outcome ahead of time," he wrote. "This provides a tension that is real and entertaining. There is also a sense of community that is built between the audience and performers and between the audience members."

For Steve Sigel, executive director of the Garde Arts Center in New London, a long list of stalled productions does not represent a lack of creativity but one of community.

"If you look throughout the history of civilization, there are always poets and minstrels and writers and entertainers, so I don't think people are being deprived of creativity," he said. "What we are being deprived of is the opportunity to explore life communally with others around us."

Goodspeed Musicals Executive Director Michael Gennaro also said people come to the theater for the "communal experience."

"They experience with their families, they experience with their neighbors, they experience with their children, there's just a lot of great things that right now have been compromised by the distancing we're required to do," he said. "We're all hoping, at least in the theater world, when this finally resolves itself, people will be anxious to go back."

Gennaro also remarked on theater workers affected by closures. "There's a strong and vital industry of theater artists in Connecticut, and they're all going to be impacted by this," he said. "We should all try and stand together and support them as much as we can."

Sigel mentioned that bars, restaurants and theaters closing has happened at the worst time — just when people need these outlets most. In a similar vein, East Lyme head basketball coach Jeff Bernardi lamented the fans and players affected by having no state tournament basketball this year.

"I guess fortunately for us, we only had six wins," Bernardi joked, "so we didn't miss out on any playoffs. But I surely empathize with coaches who've missed out on playoffs; I understand what it's like to devote not just this year, but pretty much your whole life to a goal and a mission. And to have it taken away from you is devastating." 

"Psychic income" is a term deLisle used to describe "tangible, measurable feelings of reward, joy and satisfaction" when a fan's team wins, something winter sports fans can't experience for the time being.

Even though East Lyme wouldn't have been participating in the state tournament this year, Bernardi said he empathizes with teams that have had outstanding seasons, such as Old Lyme and Norwich Free Academy.

Bernardi brought up fans of schools such as Valley Regional, Old Lyme and East Lyme: "You think of 'Hoosiers,' where the town shut down for the game. And that's what makes it so special, it's not just the school. It's not just the players. It's the entire community that rallies around a team. Parents of players who aren't even on the team anymore come to games. That's special, so yeah, it's disappointing for all parties involved."

The virus's theft of scheduled live entertainment represents what deLisle calls "a sense of loss" — when something we're accustomed to experiencing, such as watching the NCAA college basketball's March Madness or seeing a band play Irish music at a pub on St. Patrick's Day, "is taken away from us."

Waterford Public Schools Athletic Director Chris Landry also shared thoughts on the cancellation of winter playoffs and the delay and possible cancellation of spring sports.

"Not having sports outlets is likely tough on a lot of athletes, parents, coaches, school administrators and spectators," he wrote in an email. "People go home and look forward to that time to watch live sports on TV or to go to a game in person. For many people, it is quality time as a family and needed downtime."

Psychologist and Connecticut College professor Nakia Hamlett wrote that sports "allow a safe vehicle for outward emotional expression: anger, sadness, joy, tears, when, for many, there may be few other vehicles for such expression."

Hamlett went on to spell out what may happen when people can't enjoy live entertainment.

"People look forward to social events as a distraction from the day to day realities of life," Hamlett wrote in an email. "People thrive on routine and consistency, including the opportunity to regularly engage in sports and other forms of entertainment. When things change unexpectedly like they have presently, this can be difficult for people, causing anxiety as well as feelings of disorganization or chaos."

Hamlett's take on binge-watching Netflix during this time was a bit different from others: She argued it can fuel social engagement because people talk to each other about what they're watching and reach out to actors on social media. In addition, video games offer a chance for people to "get their virtual 'sports fix,'" as Hamlett put it.

For deLisle, Netflix represents a more passive form of involvement with sports or shows. In his words: "Live events should engage all five of our senses — they let us know we are alive and happy to be so."

To combat the strangeness of quarantining, Hamlett suggested people embrace the reality of the situation, and while people should of course tend to personal or financial concerns, "be mindful of who around you might need help or support and seek them out in the community," she wrote.

Phillip Michalowski, president of the board of trustees of the Garde and a sports fan himself, mourned the cancellation of high school and college sports, calling it "one of the true casualties of the coronavirus epidemic."

"Those young athletes have put forth great effort in their sport, and to have it instantly taken away is very hard on them," he wrote in an email. "They probably do not yet appreciate the life lesson on the fragility of human endeavor."

As far as live theater, Michalowski pointed to "the chemistry that happens between an artist and audience during a live performance" as something sacrificed to coronavirus.

Attending events at the Garde is an important part of people's social lives, but Michalowski is doing his best to stay busy: "Losing that outlet is a disaster that no amount of yard work can replace," he wrote.

s.spinella@theday.com

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