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Summer Events Back On After A Year Hiatus Due To COVID-19

Summer events across Montana were canceled last year thanks to the pandemic. This summer the restrictions are lifted and event organizers are eager to welcome back their legion of faithful followers.

Augusta Rodeo’s Chairman Ben Arps says rodeo organizers knew by the end of March 2020 their big money maker for the Augusta community of 300-plus residents in north central Montana would not happen.

“Nobody said we couldn’t but just from everything we’d been hearing if we couldn’t have no spectators it isn’t worth putting a rodeo on cause that’s what it takes to pays the bills is putting people in the stands,” Arps said.

This year the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association-sanctioned Augusta Rodeo is back, along with the music, parade, carnival and food that draws crowds the last weekend in June.

“It brings a lot of people to town. This is the 84th year and people have been coming for a long time and we have a pretty faithful audience that have been coming here year after year,” Arps said.

The Billings Symphony also has a large, faithful audience that fills the north end of Billings’ Pioneer Park with blankets and lawn chairs for the annual Symphony in the Park, the last Sunday in June.

John Roberts y Pan Blanco are this year’s guest artists who will be there in person along with the symphony, food vendors, instrument petting zoo and kids’ conducting contest that makes this outdoor performance a family event. Last summer the pandemic shifted Symphony in the Park to a virtual event.

“We were still giving concerts, just doing them in a different way,” says Sandy Cantesano, the symphony’s development and event manager.

They used funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act to keep their musicians employed and performing, not just for a virtual symphony in the park but for much of their concert season.

"We started live streaming, which was very new to us and having those dollars gave us the opportunity to continue to do concerts,” Cantesano says.

The symphony returned to in person concerts this spring.

Virtual events also helped to keep Montana Shakespeare in the Parks active, says their executive artistic director Kevin Asselin.

“We stayed relevant on a virtual level by doing a number of interesting programs,” Asselin says.

They produced a radio play version of Hamlet that aired here on YPR back in January. They also did virtual camps for students and Shakespeare for the Schools.

This summer they are back on the road starting on June 15 in Bozeman with live, in person performances of Shakespeare’s "Cymbeline" and "A Midsummers Night’s Dream".

Bringing a company of actors on tour during a pandemic is not something Asselin says he trained for as an artistic director.

“And so like all of us, we all have needed to pivot and get inventive and look at the safety measures that need to be implemented for all of our staff, artists and communities we are working with,” Asselin says.

Traveling with the company this summer is someone Asselin calls a COVID officer who will work to keep actors and audience safe.

“Her role is going out in the space with the tour coordinator helping manage the park while our actors are free to stay within their job responsibility and making the show happen,” Asselin says.

Despite the challenges of COVID, Asselin says it will be great to be back on the road.

“It’s such a great feeling that we can get back out in our communities and share our free programming at a time when we all need it,” Asselin says.

Kay Erickson has been working in broadcasting in Billings for more than 20 years. She spent well over a decade as news assignment editor at KTVQ-TV before joining the staff at YPR. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in broadcast journalism. Shortly after graduation she worked in Great Falls where she was one of the first female sports anchor and reporter in Montana.