So, What Really Happens When You Try to Open a Theatre in the Middle of a Pandemic?

Written by Deanna Thompson |

Southern Theatre followed up with the six theatres featured in our Summer 2020 issue that either had opened or hoped to open for summer seasons in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked them a series of questions about how things have gone for them since the magazine went to press in July. We wondered: Were they able to open (or stay open)? Did any cast or audience members get COVID-19? Did audiences come? What advice do they have for other theatres based on their experiences? Some of their answers were surprising.

INDOOR THEATRES

Barrington Stage Company
Pittsfield, MA
Planned Opening: Aug. 5, 2020
Opened Its Season: Aug. 5, 2020

Answers provided by
Julianne Boyd,
Artistic Director,
Barrington Stage Company

How has the season gone?
The season has gone extremely well, but it wasn’t without its challenges. We thought our biggest challenge would be getting Equity approval for doing indoor theatre. After weeks of negotiations, we were thrilled to be the first theatre in the U.S. to get approval, but then our governor delayed reopening some indoor gathering spaces, including theatres. We eventually did our first production, Harry Clarke by David Cale, outdoors under a tent (as well as our second production, The Hills Are Alive with Rodgers and Hammerstein, which had already been planned for outdoors).

We’re still waiting for indoor approval, but we are ready when we get permission – and can move quickly to do indoor theatre, if COVID remains very low in our area.

What have your audiences been like?
Sold-out shows – everyone hungry for live theatre. Also, they were very appreciative of all of our safety protocols. A larger number than usual gave me checks on the spot and made donations because they were thrilled with “live theatre.”

Any new lessons learned about operating in a pandemic that you would pass on to other theatres?
Be patient. Dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s. Leave nothing to chance. Speak to medical specialists, air conditioning specialists, your local and state Boards of Health, etc. And then be even more patient! This process takes longer than you could ever imagine.

Anything else you would like to share?
We collaborated with many more local businesses and organizations than ever before. Our community was rooting for us, which was very rewarding and made it all worthwhile.


Bigfork Summer Playhouse
Bigfork, MT
Opened Its Season: July 2, 2020

Answers provided by
Brach Thomson,
Associate Producer,
Bigfork Summer Playhouse

How has the season gone?
The season is just about over for us. We just closed our final show, Hits from the ’50s ’60s & ’70s – a musical revue. The musical portion of our season ended Aug. 22: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Newsies, Sister Act and Something Rotten.

All in all, it has been a good season. Of course, there were different levels of comfort from our audiences, but for the most part they respected the social distancing and the mask wearing.

Our acting/production company stayed healthy and was able to perform all season. (We had a couple scares but, after testing, found it to be no more than a bad cold.)

The good news was that we were able to give close to 50 people jobs in the entertainment business, we brought people into town to help the restaurants and shops, and we were able to stay healthy while doing it.

What have your audiences been like?
Audiences were good for what we could do. Our normal 435-seat theatre was at full capacity at around 200 with the social distancing rules. But we saw close to “full” houses most of the summer. The audiences were SO appreciative to be able to see “live” entertainment. We were thanked time and time again for being brave enough to give it a try this summer (and for being able to keep up with our typical standards of excellence).

Sometimes our audience members were uncomfortable if they felt too close to others, but with the seats being blocked off near them, we could usually “juggle” them into seats that had more distance.

Any new lessons learned about operating in a pandemic that you would pass on to other theatres?
These times are tough! If we sell 4 tickets, we have to block off 3-4 in front, 3-4 behind and one on either side, losing that income. So, the entertainment was definitely for morale – not to make money.

We learned a LOT about people this summer. Some are flexible and grateful, some are more demanding, and some just weren’t sure what they wanted. But even the uncomfortable patrons loved the shows and the live performances. I believe that our situation is unique because we could, and did, quarantine the company. They all live in housing that we provide, so they could keep themselves sequestered for the entire summer. It meant that they couldn’t enjoy the music and fun of the Garden Bar after the shows, but they found other ways to have fun after the shows.

If things are the same next summer, the isolation is the key to keeping your company healthy and performance-ready. Keeping them out of any close contact with audience members was important as well. (Unfortunately, adoring fans have to be seen from afar.)

Anything else you would like to share?
I am glad we had the opportunity to share live theatre this summer. Although everything was different, we still got to do what we love! We learned a lot, from pre-paperwork and COVID safety plan packets, to rehearsal and distancing practices, efficient cleaning of the theatre and facilities, and audience fixes to encourage them to feel safe.

OUTDOOR THEATRES

From This Day Forward
Old Colony Players
Valdese, NC
Planned Opening: July 17, 2020
Opened Its Season: July 17, 2020

Answers provided by
Edyth Pruitt,
General Manager,
From This Day Forward

How has the season gone?
We were able to open and complete our summer run. I am proud to say that as of now – one week after closing – we are still COVID-free as a cast and crew, thanks to the dedication of the cast in following our very strict COVID protocols. We actually did the show in masks (well, gaiters) and, to everyone’s surprise, the masks did not take away from the performance but actually enhanced it in a strange way.

We made sure to follow the governmental guidelines on audience size. Since we are a venue over 500 (573) in capacity, we were able to admit 25 in our audiences, not counting cast, crew and workers. This was a real blow to our budget. When North Carolina did not move to Phase 3, we were forced to consider cancellation for financial reasons, and our board went to break the bad news. It is then when a cast member called a meeting and all actors decided to rewrite their contracts for the summer. Some chose to stick with their original contracts, but over 3/4 of the cast and crew opted to go with diminished pay or no pay for the summer so the show could go on. With only 25 in the audience (and sold out every night), we were able to make a modest profit.

What have your audiences been like?
The audiences were very receptive to our script (which was newly revised – unrelated to COVID-19) and were so grateful for the safety measures we had put into place. As you can imagine, 25 in a 500-plus-seat amphitheatre looks very sparse. But when people spread out in groups, everyone was happy. We did sell out every night except for one very rainy night, but that is not too hard a stretch when sticking to the executive orders of 25 per performance.

Any new lessons learned about operating in a pandemic that you would pass on to other theatres?
Have a plan, and stick to it. Do all you can to keep actors/crew and patrons safe and healthy, including modifying choreography to reduce touching during dance and combat. It is possible to act in masks (after all, the Greek tradition told us that long ago), and carefully placed body mics made the transition easier. I believe our season was successful only because we ALL were dedicated to obeying safety protocols first and foremost.

Oh … and get gallons and gallons of hand sanitizer. Have it at every entrance and exit. Make it easily accessible backstage and around the audience seating area.

We would be glad to share our protocols with anyone who is considering going forward with a show.

Anything else you would like to share?
We are very blessed that we have such a wonderful outdoor facility. We have just concluded our auditions for The Crucible, which we will present in our outdoor space in October. By the reactions of our audiences, people are still hungry to experience the stories that only live theatre can deliver. We were so blessed that we were able to tell ours.


The Great Passion Play
Eureka Springs, AR
Opened Its Season: May 22, 2020

Answers provided by
Kent Butler,
Operations Director,
The Great Passion Play

How has the season gone?
Attendance has been depressed because of the pandemic, but recently the attendance has been less depressing. The encouraging parts are that we have not had any known cases or community spread within our cast. Following the directives of the Arkansas Department of Health and best practices by the CDC has been challenging, but, ultimately, we have been successful at keeping our staff and audience safe. Our cast has gotten used to masking and has done well at not letting their guard down.

What have your audiences been like?
Our audience demographic has trended toward younger families, with less senior travel. We have been surprised at the number of people traveling. Past attendance trends have also been disrupted. Historically low performance days have actually even seen some increases.

Any new lessons learned about operating in a pandemic that you would pass on to other theatres?
Do not let your guard down. Pretend that everyone has COVID-19, and you’ll actually keep people safer. The fact is, the safer people feel in the theatre, the more likely your show will be able to draw your audience into the illusion and create the emotional impact that people so desperately need, even in the middle of the pandemic.


Montford Park Players
Asheville, NC
Planned Opening: Aug. 14, 2020
Unable to Open

Answers provided by
John Russell,
Executive Director,
Montford Park Players

How has the season gone?
We’ve not been able to open for live performances. The governor extended Phase 2 of the reopening process due to an increase in COVID-19 cases. Phase 2 allowed a maximum of 25 people at outdoor gatherings. It wasn’t feasible for us to open with that size of audience, particularly because we share common space with the Asheville Department of Parks and Recreation, including the restroom building. Parks and Rec has kept the restrooms locked and has cancelled all other activities on the community center property, so legally we couldn’t open unless we were willing to spring for portable toilets.

We didn’t see a way to open until Phase 3, which is yet to be determined. That said, we reluctantly decided to cancel the remainder of the 2020 season and move our scheduled 2020 shows to 2021, opening May 7.

Any new lessons learned about operating in a pandemic that you would pass on to other theatres?

  1. Based on studies we follow on a regular basis (particularly https://www.colleendilen.com), audiences will not feel comfortable attending a performance, even an outdoor performance, unless wearing masks and social distancing are made mandatory by the facility and the rules enforced for everyone.
  2. We believe that outdoor theatres are uniquely positioned to recover from the effects of the pandemic, due to being outdoors and, with large seating capacities, being better able to socially distance patrons and still have audience numbers that can make shows profitable.
  3. While audiences are hungry for some form of entertainment and will embrace virtual programming, there’s no substitute for live theatre.

DINNER THEATRE

Derby Dinner Playhouse
Clarksville, IN
Opened Its Season: July 7, 2020

Answers provided by
Lee Buckholz,
Producing Artistic Director,
Derby Dinner Playhouse

How has the season gone?
So far, artistically, the season has been a huge success! The patrons are thrilled with the shows and have met all of our changes with a truly positive response.

What have your audiences been like?
According to our state mandate, we’re still only able to sell at 50% capacity. Sadly, because our seating is based on table sizes, once we sell two seats at a “6 top,” that table is unavailable for any other sales. So, we’re really only playing to crowds of about 30%. Sadly, this business model is unsustainable for too much longer. If we can make it till Christmas, we’ll have a fighting chance!

Any new lessons learned about operating in a pandemic that you would pass on to other theatres?
Honestly, it seems as if every day brings a new, unexpected challenge. As long as you keep the safety of your audience and employees as your first priority, the rest seems to fall in line.

Anything else you would like to share?
Theatre is hard, y’all!! But along with meeting the challenges comes an even stronger sense of accomplishment. Our passion will overcome. Most importantly, we MUST support one another. Even if we don’t always agree with specific choices other theatres and their producers make, remember that, as individuals, we may not have all of the details that led to that choice, and we should support each other with grace and kindness. Leave the judgment and the negative comments outside for the virus to contend with. LOVE each other!


This article is an update to How Theatre Makes Its Comeback: Producing Shows in a Pandemic which originally appeared in Southern Theatre, the magazine of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, Volume LXI Number 3, Summer 2020



Written by Deanna Thompson
Deanna Thompson is editor of SETC's publications: Southern Theatre Magazine and SETC News.

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