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Dr. Phillips Center Reimagines Entertainment in a Pandemic.

Living room concerts streamed on YouTube, live play readings via Zoom calls, and pop-up venues for drive-in movies and music events. Since the spring of 2020, the ways we consume our favorite forms of entertainment have changed drastically. This transformation has been difficult for audiences, and even more so for those in arts and entertainment who have been displaced by it.

At an outdoor press conference in November for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings highlighted the local impact of these changes: “The pandemic has had a devastating effect on our nonprofit arts organizations: nearly 10,000 events canceled, nearly 4,300 jobs lost, translating into roughly $4 million in lost wages.”

Kathy Ramsberger, president of the Dr. Phillips Center, shared another statistic: “There are 3,000 independent theaters across the country, and many of them have closed permanently.”

The Dr. Phillips Center has been a beacon for arts in the community since opening just six years ago. Its events have invigorated not only the creative spirit of Central Florida but its economy as well. In 2020 alone, Ramsberger said, the center was set to present 600 to 650 events, each requiring the support of 600 to 700 people.

When COVID-19 made it clear the facility wouldn’t be able to open its doors anytime soon, Ramsberger and her team took a look at the potential lying right outside: the center’s front yard.

A Group Effort

Announced in October 2020 and kicked off Dec. 5, the Frontyard Festival uses the space on the lawn in front of the center to host a one-of-a-kind outdoor celebration running seven days a week through May 2021. The six-month event was the brainchild of Ramsberger, although she’s the first to say that making it happen was entirely a team effort. It has involved not only Orange County but also Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, the Downtown Orlando Community Redevelopment Agency and the Orlando City Commission.

“What I’ve learned in my work with Mayor Demings and Mayor Dyer and their teams, and through this partnership between the center, the city and the county, is that when we put our minds to something, we’re going to get it done — even if it seems impossible,” Ramsberger said. “Any idea only becomes great when you have an exceptional group of colleagues and partners to make it a reality.”

Demings described why the arts are so important right now: “2020 has been a difficult year for all of us. So to be here at this event, for me it really signifies that we are learning to live with the virus and do so in a safe manner. It’s nothing short of extraordinary. Helping a local arts and live entertainment industry is vital to our community.

Keeping Everyone Safe

Once the funding began to come together and the community came on board, the next step was determining how to keep everyone safe. Another partnership proved instrumental there.

“We have been working with AdventHealth since we opened,” Ramsberger said. “We have always felt that the arts and entertainment are part of a healthy lifestyle, and they’ve been with us every step of the way with the pandemic.”

In the past, the team has produced programs like the AdventHealth School of the Arts at the Dr. Phillips Center, in addition to research studies used to inform the programs.

“AdventHealth and the Dr. Phillips Center began our partnership many years ago, as we know the arts can have a significant positive impact on our health — body, mind and spirit,” Sharon Line Clary, vice president of marketing and communications for AdventHealth Central Florida, said in a press release. “We applaud the Dr. Phillips Center and our
local leaders for their innovation in bringing the arts back to Central Florida.”

So what does a pandemic-safe festival look like? The Seneff Arts Plaza in front of the Dr. Phillips Center has been filled with 380 elevated steel “pods,” each measuring 5 feet by 7 feet and spaced six feet apart. A group of up to five people can purchase tickets for a pod, although two different parties cannot purchase tickets for one pod to avoid potentially dangerous intermingling. Masks are required except when guests are in their assigned pods. The whole space is enclosed by a wooden fence with an entry gate, and guests must pass temperature checks as they come in.

Food is available on-site through restaurant partners. Guests have the option of ordering a picnic basket for their box and having the food delivered through the use of a mobile app, or walking to their favorite restaurants and bringing food back to their pods.

The Lineup

Entertainment is set to include everything from music to film to live theater to health and wellness activities. The first section of the lineup was announced in late November with musicians including Citizen Cope and G Love & The Juice, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, and Smith and Myers of Shinedown, as well as performances of Ragtime and the holiday tradition “Songs of the Season.”

More are soon to be announced, but Ramsberger gave a hint of what’s in store for the months to come. In addition to the currently announced programming, the festival will present and co-present events with partners down the street including The Beacham, as well as team up with the YMCA to hold yoga classes and other health and wellness programs every morning.

The Central Florida Music Association will help present a series it is calling “Live and Local,” with an emphasis on giving back to the artists who have donated so much to the community through their talent and time. “When the Pulse memorial was on this site, there was live music here for six weeks, twice a day,” Ramsberger said. “Musicians came out here every day and gave that to the community for free. So I called them and said, ‘It’s time for us to pay you back.’”

Every day between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m., the center will be paying professional local musicians to play, and people are invited to study, work, eat lunch or just watch from the pods and enjoy the music.

“Millions of people have been here since we opened, and when they come down for this they are going to be amazed, said Chuck Steinmetz, vice chairman of the center’s board of directors, who spoke at the announcement event. “We think it will attract people who haven’t been here before, who can become advocates for the Dr. Phillips Center.”

In turn, the center will continue to advocate for the arts at a time when the community needs them more than ever.

About the author

Meaghan Branham

Meaghan Branham is a writer and communications manager for i4 Business magazine. A Florida native who graduated from UCF with her BA in English literature in 2017, she looks forward to more opportunities to share the stories of those shaping Central Florida.

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