Editor’s note: The following is part of Startland News’ ongoing coverage of the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Kansas City’s entrepreneur community, as well as how innovation is helping to drive a new normal in the ecosystem. Click here to follow related stories as they develop.
The show might go on in some fashion, said Molly Balloons, but “normal” won’t be returning to the runway any time soon for performance artists denied an audience because of COVID-19.
“I immediately understood that this was a whole new world,” said Balloons, experience and events curator and empress of the only balloon empire in existence, discussing the social distanced reality facing live performers. “There is no normal anymore and I don’t think there’s going to be a sudden back to normal. We will thrive again, but industry-wise, we’re not going to be permitted as a public to just go back to what we were doing.”
Molly Balloons made a name for herself in Kansas City specializing in large scale art installations, balloon couture, innovative entertainment using balloons, and event curation. She and her team are known for elaborate balloon dresses, deliverable and wearable balloon sculptures, custom balloon art pieces, and a packed-house Balloon Fashion Show.
Balloons — the performance surname of Kansas City renaissance woman Molly Munyard — sees her live, event-related business “shriveling” in the quarantine era, she said, but her potential for growing as an artist continues to inflate.
“I would have loved art school and the time [it gives you]. When you’re in art school, your only job is to create art, and I never had that. So I’m using this time to sharpen my axe and work on building the quality of my tools instead of working on using them,” she said. “I know how Americans love to cling to dear life to their sense of normalcy and ability to prioritize their own needs, so yeah, it’s going to take a second for us to come to term with this, but I quickly was like, ‘OK, this is not a money-making season for Molly Balloons. This is a get-better-and-learn season.’”
Click here to learn more about Molly Balloons.
Focused on creating content in different mediums — like fine-tuning drag and costuming processes or sharpening fine art skills — the artist theorizes that tangential disciplines contribute to an overall career, Balloons said.
“It all helps,” she said. “I probably spent a week making my bedroom into a drag queen palace. I hung up wig heads and painted crazy makeup faces on them and I put ballet racks in there, so there’s literally just racks on racks of my clothing. So my costuming has been really inspiring and it just makes me want to get dressed up and costume my life with more efficiency and excitement.”
Balloons is a performer and entertainer first, she said, with “businesswoman” firmly behind in her priorities.
“If I didn’t have to, I would never work hard. I love running a business, but my soul doesn’t crave business — but no one else is going to build my balloon empire so that’s really on me,” she added. “So the chance to not have to run a business and have my bandwidth completely emptied out has given me an unprecedented amount of creativity.”
While most visual artists and performers quickly moved to throwing content online and building audiences over social media during the COVID-19 pandemic, Balloons has no desire to add to the oversaturated market without the proper inspiration, she said.
“I’m not going to drop the quality of what I’ve been doing as a performer just because I’m bored and available,” she laughed. “I don’t want to add noise.”
Stage lit with optimistic energy
Kansas City theater actress Shawna Peña-Downing finds herself cast in an enviable role among many of her peers — she’s able to work from home without straying too far from her chosen performance profession.
Despite the pandemic, Science City at Union Station retained Peña-Downing for its shift to online educational content and activities, she said, and technology also allows her to continue her part-time job teaching theater classes to youth internationally.
“That was a really big weight off of me in regards to what my future looks like and having two companies that are very big into supporting their employees and making sure their employees still have a future to look forward to,” Peña-Downing said.
Click here to learn more about Peña-Downing’s work as a performer and arts educator.
With outside performances and shows planned for the previous and coming months now canceled, the situation could have been overwhelming, she said, but performing since youth instilled some adaptability in the veteran performer.
“I wasn’t completely in a state of disbelief. I was kind of ready to take it day by day and get answers when I could get answers” Peña-Downing said. “I’ve been able to hone into a different energy, which is really nice. My teaching style will be like what my artistic work looks like while I’ve been really investing my time and energy to working from home.”
Peña-Downing is expected to volunteer for a national youth seminar in Chicago in the summer months — a program that so far has not been cancelled, she reports, noting a smaller number of students attending is expected.
“Even if it goes virtual, I’ll still be excited because it wasn’t canceled,” she laughed. “At least I do have that to look forward to within the next few months. That’s probably the biggest one.”
Sign from the universe
COVID-19 hasn’t silenced Kansas City-based singer and songwriter Nicole Springer.
With her “three-gigs-a-weekend” schedule lost amid the shutdown, the chanteuse turned to offering her online audience virtual singing telegrams to make up missing revenue.
“I still wanted to contribute and take care of [our household], so I was getting a little creative and I really enjoy it,” she added. “I just put it out there and I ended up doing about 17 of those in the first week and for that time it made up for a couple of my weekends. I’m still getting a few every week now and it was just really a great way to branch out and show myself that I can find a way to get by.”
Click here to learn more about Nicole Springer’s virtual singing telegrams.
Momentum was building before COVID-19 hit, she said, noting the bigger events for The Nicole Springer Band that were previously scheduled slammed into a “hard stop.”
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s funny sometimes, you’re going so fast and you can go on for so long that you don’t realize that you need a break,” Springer said. “I thought I was going to be devastated, but actually, there was time to stop and reexamine so what I thought was going to be devastating turned into kind of motivating and insightful.”
“I also understand that I have some privilege in being able to make some extra money in a creative way that I’m very grateful for,” she added. “But, I’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Click here to learn more about Nicole Springer’s painful path to her latest album.
Alongside the optimism, Springer had been actively manifesting a clear path forward, and recently received news that The Nicole Springer Band made the top 10 semi-finalist list to join the lineup on the Melissa Etheridge Cruise in October, she said.
“I kind of needed the universe to show me something to keep my heart engaged and make me feel like the future is filled with music and that was a huge sign,” she added.
Click here to vote for Nicole Springer and the Band in the Melissa Etheridge Cruise Soundcheck.
The band’s new song “Come Clean” is set for release Thursday, Springer said, noting a virtual 7 p.m. release party on Facebook Live is expected to involve a live Q&A with the music video’s director and herself after the viewing.
Click here to watch the music video.
Feeling artists’ impact in their absence
Support for artist entrepreneurs in the current climate has been inspiring, said Peña-Downing.
“I find it really impressive how the community has come together to really help each other and make the best of where they are right now,” she said. “I find it really heartwarming and humbling and I just hope we continue to grow further in the online space.”
The Kansas City community has maintained its support for artists and other “non-essentials” overall, added Balloons, though a larger interest in public entertainment might only be seen once the public is allowed to inhabit bigger spaces without fear.
“I really appreciate how much Kansas City appreciates Kansas City,” she said. “People have been really supportive and I think when a new normal is created and we’re back to our newly-reformed regular sets of programming, the events industry and the arts and the ‘non-essentials’ are going to be more appreciated because the absence of them is really tangible.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.