With Canadian wildfires came canceled performances

With Canadian wildfires came canceled performances

Madison arts organizations grapple with effects of poor air quality

The effects of Canada’s record-breaking wildfire season have reverberated across the United States. 

Hazy conditions hit southern Wisconsin hardest in late June, with more smoky air expected throughout July. Air-quality warnings were issued, face masks made a resurgence, and outdoor events were canceled — including those across Madison’s arts scene.

Some major Madison events were called off, including the season’s first Concert on the Square and a concert at Breese Stevens field featuring Garbage and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.

Jesse Steinberg, a guitarist, was one musician who had to make such a call. His Madtown Mannish Boys were scheduled to play an outdoor show at the Lone Girl Brewing Company in Waunakee on the evening of June 29, when smoke levels were at their worst.

“[The air quality] had been bad for a couple of days, and it looked as if it was going to clear, so we just kind of waited until the morning to make the decision,” Steinberg said. “The air quality rating was, like, a 207 or something in the morning, and it didn’t look like it was going to get anywhere near 100, so we just thought we should call it as soon as possible.”

On the air quality index, 100 is the cutoff between fair and poor conditions. When its rating is above 100, one should limit their outdoor activity if they are pregnant, elderly or have conditions like asthma, heart disease or high blood pressure.

Multi-instrumentalist Dan “Spiffy” Neuman, the music director at Milwaukee’s Greater Mt. Sinai Church of God in Christ, said that health concerns were a factor in the cancellation of his church choir’s performance at Olbrich Botanical Gardens that same night. Eight members of the Judah Singers, as well as numerous instrumentalists, a sound technician and a couple of special guest performers expected to make the hour-plus trip for a concert.

“(Program Specialist) Mike (Gibson) from Olbrich actually called me and said, ‘Hey, we’re really concerned about the health of your singers,’” Neuman said. 

Neuman’s co-leader has asthma, while Neuman has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, called COPD, from long COVID. 

“With my breathing issues, I have a harder time when it’s a really humid day than when it’s a really smoky day… both of us were fine with going forward,” he said. “I was at my house here in Madison, so after talking with Mike, I said, ‘Let me drive over to Olbrich and see if it’s worse over there.’ Obviously, nobody from Milwaukee knew what the air quality was here, so they were trusting me to say that it was OK.”

Gibson wanted to check whether Olbrich staff had any breathing problems, and in the end, it was Olbrich’s call to cancel the performance. While the Judah Singers hope to reschedule, it’s a long shot to find another date that works for a dozen people and the venue.

Managing director Sara Young of the American Players Theatre, which canceled one night of its performance of “The Liar,” said the wildfires’ impact proved a valuable lesson on air quality and its effects. The outdoor theater company began monitoring the situation in early June.

"Our colleagues at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, have dealt with this from the California wildfires for many years, so we were familiar with the process that they have gone through and we actually had a couple conversations with them to get some advice,” Young said. “We imagine that this is something that will be going on throughout the summer, and something that we’re going to need to keep dealing with.”

The Madison skyline is barely visible across Lake Monona through haze from wildfire smoke from Canada.
The Madison skyline is barely visible across Lake Monona through haze from wildfire smoke from Canada. The smoke created dangerous air quality conditions in June 2023, which prompted the cancellation of many outdoor events, including music and theater performances. Photo by Trevor Keller used with permission.
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