Carrie Morris Arts Production adapts to continue performing community role during COVID-19

This story is part of a series supported by the New Economy Initiative (NEI).

When COVID-19 hit Michigan, Carrie Morris’ performing arts laboratory demonstrated it was more than just an entertainment group. Younger members of the Carrie Morris Arts Production (CMAP) production group started making grocery runs for isolated residents and the team was constantly checking in with neighbors.
 
“The biggest thing that was at the forefront of my mind was making sure everyone in our community was safe,” says Morris. “We had a bunch of fabric so we started outsourcing whoever had time to make masks and donated them to some community organizations who weren't on the city’s radar, like drug treatment and senior centers who didn't have access to [Personal Protective Equipment].”
 
“We thought if we can’t use this fabric to make puppets let's make something else that's useful.”
 
The puppetry group formed in 2004 and became an official nonprofit in 2012. The group works with a neighborhood advisory committee, collaborating over the way they steward their space on Carpenter Avenue, so are well-placed to check in with community members during the pandemic. 


 
After the initial COVID-19 health concerns, however, the group was left with the question of how to connect with an audience when they weren’t physically present. The answer came from a surprising source — the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). In 2019 CMAP was commissioned by the zoo on a 10-month project to stage shows in May through August, and were set to repeat the success this year, but it quickly became apparent that 2020 would be different.
 
“In March it became really clear that the zoo was also trying to pivot, and early on there was this question about transmission between humans and animals,” says Morris. “Once they got their feet under them they wanted these works to be premiere videos in a virtual format.” 
 
So CMAP teamed up with local video production company SPCMNKY to create three filmed performances as part of the DZS educational puppet show series, streaming the shows via Facebook. The series, which included stories about sustainable palm oil, and about the colorful peafowl that stroll the grounds of the Detroit Zoo, wrapped up in September. “Gorillas on the Line,” the second performance, featured in August and garnered over 6,700 views on Facebook alone. 

One of the puppets from the Zoo Stories series, created by the Carrie Morris Arts Production.
 
Changing mediums
 
Going from live performances to video posed some hurdles for the artists to overcome. Experimenting with the difference in peripheral vision on screens, shooting outdoors, wearing masks, and performing while 6 feet apart were part of navigating shows during COVID-19. 
 
With a contractor pool of up to 15 artists for the zoo series, getting everyone on the same creative page was a challenge, but the group adapted. 
 
“By the time we filmed the third show we started working more with SPCMNKY to approach the work as a film, rather than a filmed live show,” says Morris. 
 
Next year, the team plans to focus on creating a puppet film, with the understanding that this trend is not unique to the current pandemic, but a much larger shift in performing arts programs.
 
“That’s the natural progression of where this work needs to go,” says Morris. “The limitation can be a new way in.”

Carrie Morris says there's future value in the way her arts production team has pivoted during COVID-19.
 
Digital dilemma
 
For a production company that has always held accessibility and affordability as a core goal for its participants and audience, the successful digital platform poses another kind of challenge, however.
 
“When we think about this recent push to provide digital engagement, it’s based on the assumption that everyone has a computer and internet,” says Morris. “That’s not always true, especially with parents now having multiple children doing online schooling.” 
 
“That’s still a barrier,” she says. “We are conscious of it and trying to consider it.”
 
One of the ways the team is considering working around this is in other projects that could involve distributing physical art supply kits for participants, something they have seen modeled by other arts groups.
 
Lindsay McCaw designed and created a peacock puppet for the Carrie Morris Art Production collaboration with the Detroit Zoo.

Weathering the COVID-19 storm
 
CMAP is in a rare position to survive the COVID-19 financial fallout a little better than some other performance-based groups. 
 
“We weren’t unaffected,” says Morris, “but because so much of our emphasis is providing access, ticket sales weren't really driving our revenue.”
 
Morris was recognized as a Detroit Innovation Fellow recently, which as well as generating funding, came with the chance to connect with other grassroots organizers supporting each other in making their community work sustainable, even — and perhaps especially — during a crisis. 
 
“Being able to connect with [renewable energy innovators] Ryter Cooperative Industries, also a 2019-20 fellow, helped us see how solar energy could be an affordable, easily installed component of our outdoor amphitheater space,” says Morris. 
 
This year, CMAP applied to the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs for funding, and were awarded funds that they plan to use to install the solar components in the spring of 2021.
 
Morris hopes 2021 also provides more chances to tell Detroit’s stories, particularly with the internationally renowned Bread and Puppet Theater, with whom they have hosted and fostered connections previously. With funding to support 10 Detroit artists to work alongside 10 Bread and Puppet mentors, Morris hopes their plans to kick off a free performance series in May can still happen. 
 
“Right now our plan is to resume summer 2021, in a safe way in our outdoor space,” says Morris. “Recognition from the Detroit Innovation Fellowship team confirmed that we are on the right track and broadened my awareness of the engagement work we are doing as an organization, and how important that work is — not only for our survival as a business but for our survival as a neighborhood and as a city.”



This is part of a series supported by the New Economy Initiative (NEI), a special project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that is working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Social entrepreneurs featured in this series are fellows of the last cohort of NEI’s Detroit Innovation Fellowship (DIF), a talent development program that connects, promotes, and invests in people who are leading projects to transform their communities.

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor based out of Detroit. Contact her at [email protected].
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