Faced with an extended closure because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Kennedy Center reinvented its annual celebration and largest fundraiser, the Kennedy Center Honors, to adapt to the changing conditions.
And then it adapted it again — and again and again, right up until the clock ran out, officials say — as it designed a part-live, part-recorded show celebrating the lifetime achievements of singer Joan Baez, country musician Garth Brooks, dancer-choreographer Debbie Allen, violinist Midori and actor Dick Van Dyke.
Rather than an early December weekend celebration with a three-hour Opera House performance as its centerpiece, the 43rd Honors will be filmed Tuesday through Saturday in multiple Kennedy Center spaces, including its stages, its roof and the Reach, an expansion that opened in 2019.
Some of the tributes to the five honorees — performed by a roster of A-list artists that remains top secret — will be filmed individually without audiences. The live segments will be presented in two parts for crowds up to 250 each: the first on Thursday in the 2,465-seat Concert Hall and the second Saturday on an outdoor stage. The show — hosted by 2017 honoree Gloria Estefan — will air June 6 on CBS.
“From the very beginning, we knew that we would want to have a piece of the show be a live performance,” said Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s president and chief executive, adding that the production remains “incredibly fluid. “We are still discussing how much of it is virtual, how much will be in person.”
The center never considered canceling, Rutter said. And it will produce the 44th annual celebration — the second this year — in December.
“This is about the evolution of the pandemic, and our understanding of the impact of the pandemic,” she said. “We really had a belief for a period of time that we would have a traditional Honors in March. And then in December, late December even, we realized that March was completely unrealistic. And I would say with nerves of steel and perseverance, our institution decided that we were going to have an Honors in May.”
There will be no rainbow lights bathing the Kennedy Center’s exterior, no snaking line of limos dropping off about 2,200 fancy-dressed patrons, and no post-show, three-course dinner starting around 10 p.m. on a school night. Instead, a small number of longtime supporters of the arts center — who had to give at least $10,000 for the chance to purchase tickets at $7,500 apiece — will attend the performances, each lasting 75 to 90 minutes with no intermission.
The traditional Saturday dinner at the State Department — when honorees receive their rainbow-ribboned medallions before family and friends — will be moved to Friday night on the Opera House’s stage because of coronavirus restrictions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s attendance has not been confirmed, but Rutter said he is trying to find a way to participate.
The celebration will include a White House reception, a long-standing tradition that did not happen during the Trump administration. Details for that event, including the date, were still being worked out.
“We are really excited that the president does want to greet the honorees and he will do a formal elbow bump and congratulations with the honorees,” Rutter said of President Biden. “He’s a big fan and he is looking forward to having a real partnership on into the future. So that’s really great.”
Since choosing this hybrid format, the arts center has kept three goals in mind: produce an entertaining television show, create special moments for the honorees and their families, and raise money. Each will look and feel different from the past.
The center hoped the honorees would be able to attend in person, but officials planned for recording Van Dyke, 95, receiving his medallion at his California home. They hoped for live audiences — perhaps as few as 50 — and they planned for some tributes to be filmed elsewhere if travel restrictions remained in place.
In the end, the arts center will have 250, including all of the award recipients.
“And all five of [the honorees] are coming. We’re absolutely gobsmacked about that,” Rutter said, adding that they confirmed their attendance last month.
Safety has been a primary concern. The Kennedy Center has been mostly dark since the pandemic struck, but it developed a safety plan for performers, staff members and visitors, said Melvin Gerald, vice president of campus planning and head of the center’s coronavirus compliance team. In addition to social distancing and mask requirements, the center conducts temperature screenings for everyone entering the building, a protocol that will continue for the Honors. It has installed hand-sanitizing stations in all restrooms and at entrances.
The Kennedy Center requires a negative coronavirus test result for anyone who has to be unmasked for a performance and for those who can be masked but who will be in proximity to others for an extended period of time, he said. Only one positive test was traced to the center since March 2020.
“We have developed a host of protocols and procedures and signage to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing,” he said. “How we look at Honors is it is just a larger scope of those activities.”
Working with Vigilant EHS Solutions (a firm that has worked on the Oscars broadcast), the production created three zones: one for the production, one for the production offices and spaces where production crews gather, and another for the arts center staff not involved in the Honors. In Zone A, where performers will be, all people will be tested regularly, Gerald explained. “Everyone is going to be divided into these different zones, and in order to get to Zone A, where all the action is happening, everyone will have to have a negative test,” he said.
Safety concerns prompted the arts center to lock in the number of guests at 250, even though Washington’s guidelines now allow 25 percent capacity up to 500 people. For the past 12 months, the Kennedy Center has held only a few events, with crowds of fewer than 100, Rutter said, so she chose to be conservative and cautious.
The center has created the Honors Hub, a password-protected area of its website offering exclusive access to donors of $1,500 or more. The annual celebration is the largest fundraiser for the arts center, usually bringing in about $6 million to $6.5 million annually. This year, the goal is about $3 million. Many of the major sponsors — including CBS, Delta and Boeing — have contributed, and about 250 donors have joined the Hub, with more expected as the event nears, said Leslie Miller, senior vice president of development.
Offering exclusive content online was a way to make up for the smaller in-person crowds and allow the center to stay connected to the several thousand supporters who would not be able to attend.
“The idea is that the Hub should be a complement to the performance. It’s something that people can enjoy in conjunction with the broadcast, and then up to the broadcast as well,” Miller said.
The Hub will post behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the show and other content in the weeks leading up to the airing. It also will hold virtual versions of the weekend’s traditional social events, including the annual chairman’s lunch, traditionally an event for about 350 that features Kennedy Center Board Chairman David M. Rubenstein introducing the honorees. It will live-stream the two performances and the medallion ceremony and will present a pre-broadcast toast with host Dee Dee Bridgewater and special guest Rita Moreno on June 6. (Access to that is available for $100.)
The Hub’s videos include Mary Chapin Carpenter interviewing Baez, and Aoife O’Donovan singing Baez’s “Love Song to a Stranger.” John Lithgow chats about taking a dance class with Allen, and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet interviews his friend Midori. There is also behind-the-scenes footage from previous events and a selection of the best tribute performances.
The artists participating in the Hub aren’t necessarily the same ones who will perform on the broadcast, said Matthew Winer, director of special programming and internal producer for the Honors who coordinates with White Cherry Entertainment producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss. The weekend celebration usually attracts dozens of artists, including previous honorees and others with close connections to the Kennedy Center.
“We wanted to come up with a digital component that allowed all of these very dedicated Honors attendees to participate virtually, knowing that we would not be able to have space for everybody physically,” Winer said.
The virtual format has broadened their reach, Rutter added. “The riches and the richness of the artists who are signing on to do special things for the honorees through the Hub is mind-boggling,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than getting on a plane right now.”
The hybrid format has presented other opportunities, too. In the past, they have considered incorporating some of the Kennedy Center’s other spaces into the broadcast, but December weather and the center’s traditionally busy holiday performance schedule made that impossible. But May’s higher temperatures and the pandemic closure will allow them to film in multiple indoor and outdoor locations. When the medallion ceremony was expected to be very intimate, the producers decided to film in advance the traditional toasts to the honorees, allowing them to ask special friends to make heartfelt remarks. Even when the event grew in size, they decided to stick with that plan.
Although planning for this unusual event began in the darkest weeks of the pandemic, the production gets underway in a more positive landscape. The event now feels like a symbol of rebirth.
“We have a group of honorees who are all very aware that the arts have been shut down for a great deal of time, but they all were very excited to serve as the torchbearers for the relaunch,” Winer said. “The Honors will serve as this demarcation line for, ‘Okay, let’s get back to business and start doing what we do best again.’ ”