Optimism tempered by uncertainty is the mood of area theater companies, which project several possible scenarios for re-opening their playhouses and getting back to producing shows, based on what the government will allow. While champing at the bit to be up and running, to have subscribers and single-ticket buyers return, their plans to restart vary over time, with options that stretch into next year. Such is “the new normal.”
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre was having a banner year, completing its fundraising for a $32 million expansion to its physical plant and about to open its season-ending musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, when the coronavirus pandemic brought its business to a screeching halt.
Obligated to its sizeable subscription base to deliver the show, artistic director and chief executive officer Andrew Kato mentally slotted How to Succeed as his fall season opener. “Of course we were going to have a fall season,” Kato assumed at the time. Now, he is not so sure. “At that time, that was pretty horrible. But yesterday’s horrible is today’s ‘Well, that’s not so bad.’
“The issue isn’t about whether we’ll be ready to do a season or not – I think everyone is dying to do shows,” he says. But will the audience be ready to return?
The issue is the cost of productions right now. “Because of the expense, you almost need a guarantee that they’ll come back.” And like most of the area’s theater executives surveyed, Kato feels firmly that “social distancing is not a possibility, because the finances of doing that are not there.”
In his 617-seat theater, Kato says he can need as much as 80 percent capacity to break even on his larger musicals, like the previously announced Sweet Charity and Sunset Boulevard for the 2020-2021 season. No wonder he is contemplating downsizing his productions or, in a worst-case scenario, scrapping next season entirely, going dark for 15 months until the audience’s safety can be assured. “In terms of emerging out of this, I think that we’re going to have to be super-conservative,” he concludes.
Still, with the status of the virus changing daily, Kato says, “Everything remains on the table, including the possibility of doing a (expansion) build-out,” rather than a season of shows. “I want to produce a show. This is horrible. Really the reason why the build-out might be the best thing right now is because the idea of doing nothing is not in my DNA.”
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The Kravis Center was also having one of its most successful seasons, led by a lucrative, beyond-sold-out engagement of Hamilton.
“We were very fortunate to have gotten our ‘Hamilton’ run in. That was really important,” says the arts complex’s chief executive officer Judith Mitchell by phone from her home in Stuart.
Still, between the two other shows in the Kravis on Broadway series that were scratched – Come From Away and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical – and many other attractions she had to scratch, Mitchell estimates the center lost some $4.2 million in cancellation refunds. “About 80 percent of that is in pure refunds, maybe 5 percent were people donating their tickets so the money did not go out the door, and the remaining 15 percent were people taking it in gift cards for future use,” she reports.
Ever since the center closed, the staff has been working on rebooking those canceled shows, but the long lead time of performing arts venues makes that challenging. “We work two and three years out. Next season has been long booked,” says Mitchell. “But many of the shows we’ve been able to reschedule to next spring. Hopefully we’ll be open and able to do it by then.”
The Kravis is now busy moving attractions that were booked for the fall, but do not interpret that to mean they expect to open by December. “We’re certainly not announcing any reopening yet,” says Mitchell. “The answer to almost any question, there are really two answers. One is ‘It depends’ and the other is ‘I don’t know.’
“We’re doing and planning for what we can, but there’s another piece of this that people aren’t even thinking about. That is whether we will have product to put on our stages. A lot of the artists have decided not to tour.
“Safety is our top priority for our artists, our staff and our audiences,” she says. “So I guess the answer is we’re going to open when it is safe to do so.”
For the sake of planning, the Kravis currently has three financial models for reopening. One reopens at the end of November, one in January and the third in March. “In that last scenario, we would have sort of a mini-season that would probably carry on through the summer. So we’re trying to be open and flexible, as far as what authorities would let us do, but even beyond that, we’re sort of taking our own slow rollout on this.”
In many respects, the Kravis was ahead of the curve when it comes to state-of-the-art sanitation. “We long ago put in UV lighting on our air handlers. We’ve already outlined a protocol for enhanced cleaning. We’ll probably be increasing, not decreasing, our staffing in areas of both security and housekeeping, our custodial team,” explains Mitchell. ‘The real comfort, I think, for the public is to know that we’re going to continue to follow CDC guidelines.”
Although it will not be evident for some time, the coronavirus will probably affect the Kravis’s programming choices.
“Initially, you may end up seeing more single-performer shows, more recitalists, more Jay Lenos, that don’t have the concerns about social distancing,” says Mitchell. “And you’ll probably see artists and attractions that are going to appeal to a much younger audience. It’s not that we haven’t done that in the past, but we’ll just be doing more of it.”
Much of these changes will happen without Mitchell, who had announced her retirement from the top Kravis position in January. “(The board of directors) know that I’m not going to leave them in the lurch,” she emphasizes. “In some ways, it’s as good a time as any because all of us, in whatever performing arts center you are, are going to have to be re-=imagining and perhaps working with a new business model. So it’ll be kind of a fresh start for whoever takes my place. And I’m still committed till the end of the year, but obviously if they need me longer, I’m going to be available.”
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Palm Beach Dramaworks had to cancel two of its productions because of COVID-19 – one of its most ambitious musicals, Light in the Piazza, and Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, about a young security guard in a Manhattan apartment building. But according to producing artistic director Bill Hayes, they will both be part of the company’s next season, whenever that will be.
“‘Piazza’ was mostly built. Because it was such a massive undertaking, we started the set much earlier than normal,” he says. “Costumes were probably our most ambitious to date. Rather than scrap that production, I decided to put it in storage. It is our intention to mount it, but of course I can’t tell you when because there’s just too many unknown factors.
“The same with ‘Lobby Hero,’ although we hadn’t built anything yet. We’re shelving it to next year or perhaps the following. So yes, it is still our full intention to do the two plays, we just don’t know when.”
Asked what the disruption to Dramaworks’ scheduled cost, managing director Sue Ellen Beryl estimates it at half a million dollars.
As to when the theater is likely to reopen, Hayes is necessarily vague. “We have worked out many different scenarios – the what-ifs. What if you open in the fall, what if you open after the first of the year, how many productions can we squeeze in. We’ve worked out scenarios of doing five shows, four shows, three shows, two shows, one show, no show. You have to work through the worst and hope for the best,” he says. “Fortunately, we’ve spent 19 years operating in the black, so we had a very healthy reserve fund. That’s how we’ve always operated, to be conservative in our thinking.”
He is adamant, however, that social distancing will not be feasible in his 218-seat theater. “If you consider the people on each side of you and behind you and in front of you, we would have 20 people in the audience,” says Hayes.
Because of its size, no productions at Dramaworks make money. “We establish our budget each year basically on a 50-50, earned to unearned income (basis),” says Beryl. “So even if we sold every seat, we’d still need to raise the same amount of money. We’d have to fill every seat for twice as much in order to break even or increase donations in the same ratio. That would be impossible.”
“But we are exploring other options, working with the city,” chimes in Hayes. “There are outdoor venues. When the time is right, if I can’t open up our doors, we’re looking to provide entertainment outdoors.
“Many of our clientele are older, they’re most vulnerable. So the economics aren’t going to work until we’re totally back to a safe environment.” When that will be is anyone’s guess.
“Things are going to change. Things have to change. You’ve got to take this as an opportunity,” he feels. “It’s not only about surviving this, but it’s finding a way that we can actually thrive. I don’t believe, even when we get the green light to ‘go,’ audiences are not going to rush back to the theater, they’re going to trickle back. And we can’t survive on trickle-backs.”
While the theater has been dark, Hayes has been experimenting with streaming live readings of new scripts, free of charge. The program built a following over time and Hayes thinks it could be a precursor of pay-per-view videos of the company’s full productions.
“I think people will always prefer to be in the building and on the premises, because it’s more exciting,” he says. “This would be an alternative for people who aren’t comfortable going out, people who can’t go out, whether they’re too old or too sick, or people that don’t live in our region. It’s really plus-plus, there’s no downside.”
Still, the emphasis at Dramaworks will continue to be the live productions and Hayes is already adjusting his play schedule to suit audience tastes in the time of a pandemic.
“We’re exploring opening with ‘Souvenir,’” an encore presentation from 12 seasons ago, which had already been on the schedule for the company’s upcoming 20th anniversary season. “Because it’s only two characters, no real set required, more of an emphasis on the actors and the costumes and there’s humor in it,” says Hayes. “That’s why we expect to bring back ‘Piazza,’ because it’s a feel-good piece and it’s got beautiful music.”
Acknowledging that so many fine local actors have been put out of work by COVID-19, Hayes also anticipates selecting material that can be cast with area talent. In that sense, the company would be harkening back to its roots.
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In contrast to other theaters’ wait-and-see attitude, Boca Raton’s Wick Theatre opened its doors to patrons for cabaret performances the first week of June. And until the end of the month, it was planning a series of seven mainstage productions that would have opened in September.
But The Wick called off those productions June 30, citing the national direction being taken by the theater and film community to postpone all shows until early 2021.
The Wick got in one weekend’s worth of performances of A Chorus Line in early March when it decided to close the theater “over an abundance of caution.” Box office losses for that Pulitzer Prize-winning musical and for the postponed Nunsense were “monumental,” says executive director Marilynn Wick. “I don’t want to quote the exact figure, but it’s definitely a huge, huge loss for the theater.”
For 2021, the Wick brings in the new year with a couple of large-scale musicals – Mamma Mia! (Jan. 7- Feb. 14) and A Chorus Line (March 4-April 4). The theater also plans to present Cindy Williams of Laverne & Shirley acclaim, as one of the singing-dancing Little Sisters of Hoboken in Nunsense (April 15-May 9).
The Wick’s eighth season will begin with Breaking Up Is Hard to Do (Oct. 15-Nov. 15), a jukebox musical of pop hits by Neil Sedaka, featuring Didi Conn and Barry Pearl, both featured in the movie of Grease. After that comes I Love a Piano, a revue of songs by Irving Berlin (Nov. 26-Dec. 19).
The season will also include a to-be-announced blockbuster to open 2022, followed by the 1955 Adler and Ross musical Damn Yankees (March 3-April 3) and then Smokey Joe’s Café, a revue of songs by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (April 21-May 15).
The Wick also sets itself apart from the other area theaters by its intention to practice social distancing in its main auditorium, as well as its cabaret. Although its theater normally seats 341, “we can seat 183 people within the guidelines of the governor’s requirements,” Wick calculates. From the feedback she gets, “people are very excited to get back to the theater and they will feel very safe when they get there.”
Still, keeping out of red ink for this season will be “extremely challenging,” she concedes. “Actually I figure it out where we’ll be fine, if we can get people to come. We are concerned about that.” As she candidly comments, her subscription revenue has almost been cut in half and requests for refunds have been plentiful.
Nevertheless, she insists that her patrons’ health is her top priority, not the bottom line. “We don’t want anyone sick on our watch. So we’re taking their temperatures when they come in. They all get a face mask. We made 3,000 of them and we sent them to every subscriber for free. And we’ll also have them at the theater too.”
This is The Wick’s seventh season, the one she once felt could turn the corner for her financially. Now she just wants to make sure she can keep the doors open. “I’ve been through some times in my 44 years of business, but I’ve never been through anything like this,” Wick says. “No one has.”