By Elizabeth Sobol
Guest Columnist
Saratoga Springs, NY, USA

Around this time, every year, we at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) would be buoyed by the onset of Spring, reveling in reflections of the previous season – and excitedly anticipating a line-up of amazing artists and performances just on the horizon.

Instead, we find ourselves here on the SPAC campus – alone. Our magnificent amphitheater – normally a frenetic hive of activity – is now shuttered. A whole summer season of spectacular programming, lovingly conceived and carefully crafted, evaporated into thin air as we announced the cancellation of our entire classical season.

Saratoga Performing Arts Center during the COVID-19 Pandemic (2020)

The world around us has been forever altered – fragile and riven by an eruption of historical pain and injustice. And at a time when we most need each other, hungry for that sense of interconnectedness, we are bound together most by our fear – our uncertainty – and our biology in the face of a global pandemic.

For 53 years, SPAC has been defined by the unparalleled artists and performances that have graced our stage – Balanchine, Beethoven, Belafonte, Baryshnikov. Many thousands of performances, literally millions of artists and audience members gathering in our park, on our lawn, on the stage, in the amphitheater – for over half a century. The memories formed around those experiences of shared joy, celebration and beauty are lodged deeply into the very bones, psyche and DNA of our community.  

SPAC Movie Night (2019)

And so, who or what is SPAC – in a summer that seems to have gone silent? And who are we in a world of hurt that longs for healing?

Elizabeth Sobol at SPAC

As a passionate lover of plants and gardening, my mind always turns first to earth-based metaphors. And a gardener knows that if a plant does not flower one year, the answer is not to let it die. To the contrary, you tend it, you care for it, you refortify it so that, next summer, it returns – even stronger and more beautiful.

So we turn our focus to nurturing the institution by reaching out to new audiences through long-term plans that involve outreach and education and connecting with our dedicated community through online offerings while looking for opportunities to welcome audiences to in-person experiences when it becomes safe to do so. 

Despite the fact that our whole office began working from home in March, SPAC pivoted quickly into the new “normal” – driven by the commitment to provide the same kind of uplifting, transformative and inspiring experiences that SPAC is known and loved for. And driven by our commitment to art, to artists and to our community.

We know there will be no future for world-class performing arts without a new generation exposed to the joys and transformative experience of meaningful contact with the arts. SPAC serves more than 50,000 students annually through classes, events, performances, and presentations at SPAC, in schools and throughout the region. Once the pandemic hit, however, our education department had to call an immediate halt to all in-school activity, quickly turning to the creation of the SPAC Learning Library to make creative, arts-based, and free on-line content for children and families. In an effort to keep money flowing into the hands of the many artists who would have been teaching in the schools, we commissioned those artists to help us create content. The Learning Library continues to grow every week, filled with ever more material promoting activity and creativity

Connecting with Audiences

Though we were forced to cancel the 43rd Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival slated for late June, we quickly got to work to realize the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Fest Stay Home Sessions, a virtual jazz festival featuring both national and local artists, produced in partnership with Caffe Lena. Much more virtual programming is in the planning stages – including Beethoven 2020; performances by Joshua Bell, Time for Three and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Time for Three at SPAC (2017)

Though the amphitheater is currently projected to remain dark all summer, the SPAC campus will not remain empty and silent. The one timely and valuable resource SPAC has plenty of is outdoor space. Our operations team has been tirelessly working on COVID protocols and procedures – and our creative programming team has been re-imagining SPAC on an intimate scale. We are ready to walk through whatever doors may be open to us this summer to provide art, inspiration and support for our community.

To those who may ask why art is important during times like these, when even basic survival may be in question, remember this: art is not entertainment. Art is not a beautiful pastime. Art is a profound and essential expression of the human soul. Allowing us to see the world through other lenses – taking us out of our own narrow individual slivers of human experience and into the large expansiveness of humanity – across continents, across cultures, across time. Beauty – both man-made and natural – opens our hearts and reminds us of our deep connection, our mutual responsibility – to each other – and to the natural world that sustains us.

Ballerina at SPAC (2019)

SPAC is so much more than just a presenter of programming on an amphitheater stage. We are educators, we are conveners of community, we are stewards of our unique place, we are creators and purveyors – of possibility  – and of experiences that encourage and allow the human spirit to flourish – needed now more than ever.

(Elizabeth Sobol and Time for Three photo credits: Lawrence White; SPAC Movie Night photo credit: Gary Gold)



Elizabeth Sobol is the President & CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.