Every performing arts organization in the area, and across the country, will need to make their own individual decisions about how and when to reopen given the huge impact of COVID-19. For our community theaters, those decisions arrive sooner than most other arts groups, since their seasons begin in September or even August, rather than in October or November.
So how will the shows go on—if indeed they do—with maximum safety for audiences, cast and crews? And how will they pull in enough money to make presenting them financially viable? As the Players Centre for Performing Arts interim CEO and managing artistic director Jeffery Kin says, “We’re all in the same storm, but in different boats.” Each theater leadership has, at the moment, plans in place with some variations.
First off, the Players, which canceled its summer season early on and instead presented some virtual performances. “We’ve been doing a deep clean of the theater, which hasn’t happened in a long time,” says Kin. “We’re also selling some props [at their vendor space in The Bazaar on Apricot and Lime].” They’re also talking about where they will present shows in the future after restart, since the organization has been in the midst of change even before the pandemic hit.
The Players have been raising money for a new theater space in the Waterside development at Lakewood Ranch for some time, but their contract allows them two years to even begin to build. In the meantime, with a lease on their longtime property on North Tamiami Trail set to expire in October, Kin says he has a verbal extension to May 2021 for staying in the current space. Like other theater companies, the Players are also looking to possibly present some shows in outdoor venues.
But beyond that, there is the question of what types of shows they can present. “Community theaters like us are used to doing great big musicals,” says Kin. With large casts and demands on technical staff, “How do we keep them safe?” That’s also the concern in orchestra pits, where musicians play in close proximity. And forget wind instruments; they’re not safe in the current environment. “We can have a small band,” says Kin, “a drummer, a guitarist and keyboards.” Or maybe they resort to recorded music—a loss for local musicians in need of work.
While the Players’ 2020-21 season was originally set to open Sept. 16 with the large-scale show The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Kin says they are pondering whether it’s possible to offer audiences instead the musical Anything Goes, which had to close early at the end of the past season, since it was already cast and rehearsed. In a theater with almost 400 seats, at the mandated 50 percent occupancy, is it financially viable? Will people come? Other concerns: what to do about restrooms and volunteer ushers, who tend to be part of an older, susceptible demographic. (No printed programs or tickets, either.)
“It’s possible to produce,” says Kin, “but is it really safe? Would it be worth the risk if even one person got sick? What is the cost of entertainment? I want to make sure I give everyone the confidence” to proceed.
At Venice Theatre, producing executive director Murray Chase is dealing with the same concerns. But VT is, as of now, moving ahead with plans to open July 11 with a production in its annual summer cabaret series, in rehearsals now. If deemed safe, that show will take place not in the usual intimate Pinkerton Theatre space, but the larger (and recently renamed) mainstage Jervey Theatre, to allow for physical distance.
Like the Players, VT has been working diligently to “super sanitize” its building, says Chase. “We’ve had six-bar hydrogen peroxide fogging done, like what they do for ORs,” he says. And with the use of HEPA filters and an overhauled heating and air conditioning system, decades of collected residue is gone, he adds.
In addition to the summer cabaret, VT plans to continue with its summer stock program involving young student performers, but not with the originally scheduled production of the musical Jekyll & Hyde. “We’re now looking at The Fantasticks instead,” Chase says, because of its smaller scale. Musicals, so often the most popular fare, “will have a minimum of live musicians performing, and cast members will not be singing way downstage,” he says. “We’re setting a line below which no one can sing.”
Does he feel that audiences will return? “I’d suppose the same responses we see across the county,” he says. “Some won’t feel comfortable for a long while, some will sooner, and some will right now. I hope that enough will feel confident enough to give us a try.”
At the Manatee Performing Arts Center, producing artistic director Rick Kerby had planned to open the mainstage season in Stone Hall with a production of Pippin in August. Now, he says, “We are planning to open with You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”—a smaller size production and one that had already been rehearsed for last spring before the theater shut down.
MPAC will do social distancing, with seating groups of two, three or four spaced six feet apart. There will be temperature checks at the door, and no concessions will be open or programs or tickets printed. There won’t be an intermission, either, to reduce the risk of infection in crowded lobby areas.
Another possible replacement show this season could be something like the musical I Do! I Do!, which has only two cast members. Runs of shows are likely to be extended beyond the usual length, in order to make up for lower ticket sales due to spacing.
Like other performing arts groups, the Manatee Players are also looking into possible livestreaming and into partnering with entities like Realize Bradenton for a possible drive-in live show, or even perhaps with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ LECOM Park, outdoors and large enough to accommodate more patrons safely. With a large warehouse of sets at its disposal, MPAC plans to repurpose as much as possible for the coming year to save money, too.
“We are still trying to keep as much programming as possible,” says Kerby. For all the theaters, plans are subject to change. “Things are in flux, and any information can change on a daily basis,” says Chase.