As National Sawdust welcomes the start of an all-new live season, entitled The Future Is…, the N 6th St. venue reflects on the past two years.
In March 2020, National Sawdust was forced to shut its doors, with a performance from rapper and singer Rosehardt on March 12 as the first to be postponed indefinitely. Last week, in a poignant full-circle moment, Rosehardt performed the first show of National Sawdust’s new in-person season (with an all-women orchestra, Little Kruta), a performance which included a screening of a documentary film he and his team made over the course of the pandemic.
“I personally pressed sent on the email that told people the show was canceled [in March] and, because we’re a small staff, I was doing check-in at the show on Friday,” Zan Emerson, National Sawdust’s Director of Marketing and Design, recalled to Greenpointers. “I’ve never been so happy to see a door open. All of the energy around it was heartwarming and full-circle and that ‘keep you up at night’ kind of beautiful feeling, like when something so beautiful happens that you’re sad is over, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
But it’s taken a lot to get to that point, including having to be nimble and adapt quickly to the changing state of the industry as the pandemic took hold. For National Sawdust, this meant tapping into their rich archive recordings and turning them into a digital stage, aided by a generous donation from the Alphadyne Foundation in late March.
From there, the donation —including an equipment grant —helped them launch the Digital Discovery Festival, paying over 100 artists $1,000 each to record new performances to be live-streamed, as well as providing detailed technical support to ensure home-recording capabilities were up to par.
“This all happened so quickly: We planned a digital festival which was a completely new model for us and launched it in a month in an early pandemic,” Emerson explained. “And what we also realized in this new model was that as National Sawdust, being a mission-based nonprofit, we are very much based on mentorship across all levels of the ecosystem; whether you’re an emerging composer or very established musician, you may or may not have the tools at your disposal or skills to record in your living room well, so our tech staff, Charles, was able to do a detailed intake with each artist.”
And as for the fans, the festival was streamed completely free with no barriers to entry, in support of National Sawdust’s mission to create a communal processing of the pain and trauma of the pandemic in ways that aligned with the so-called new normal.
Speaking of a new normal, the venue’s decision-making has been anything but hasty. Aside from select programming and rentals this past fall, the plan was always to relaunch in the early stages of 2022, complete with adequate safety and health measures to keep artists, staff, and audiences safe.
“National Sawdust has been very grounded in intentionality; we’re very focused on doing it right and with that, too, we are being even more cautious with our safety protocols,” Emerson said. “When I zoom out, it is all about building off of the power of community; because if there’s one overarching lesson I’ve gotten from the past two years, it’s that when the big powers fail, it’s amazing what community can do.”
A big part of that community experience is the venue’s update sound system, which was installed in fall of 2019 and has yet to be heard by countless fans. The sound system partnership with Meyer Sound System was ushered in by Director of Sound and Technical Design Garth MacAleavey – who spends months leading up to a show working to get the perfect sound setup – and offers full-on spatial sounds to bring performances to life by way of the Meyer Sound’s Constellation acoustic system and other immersive components in the 2,200-square-foot hall.
To experience the sound system for yourself and support National Sawdust, see their upcoming calendar here. Donations are also always welcome, as well as memberships.
“What I really want is just for people to hear the room,” Emerson said.