The recent news that the Metropolitan Opera would cancel its entire 2020-21 season sent shockwaves through the performing arts world. Organizations like the Met are considered bellwethers for what might happen in the rest of the country.
Despite efforts by arts leaders to regroup, shift and pivot with their programming, the outlook for what we know to be the performing arts – large crowds gathering together in theaters to watch or listen to performers – is challenging at best.
Closer to home, museums have reopened and some community theaters in our area have been testing different types of approaches to presenting theater, from drive-in movie style productions (Manatee Players) to actually having live, face mask-wearing audience members in theater seats watching a show (Venice Theatre and Charlotte Players.)
Sarasota Orchestra last week unveiled plans for a series of small chamber programs that will be available in person (with limited capacity) in Holley Hall, as well as online. The Sarasota Ballet kicks off its season Oct. 23 with the first of several digital programs featuring company members performing pieces by Sir Frederick Ashton. They are taking extra precautions as they rehearse and film each piece and have selected works that feature just one to three dancers.
The Sarasota Opera relaunches its HD at the Opera House series today, with screenings of opera and ballet productions from around the world. But only 100 people will be allowed inside and masks are required. In November, the company will present one indoor concert in the Opera House (in place of its full fall productions) and two outdoor concerts (at Selby Gardens and Historic Spanish Point).
Sarasota Contemporary Dance launched the first of its combination of in-person and digital options this week.
You haven’t heard much from the area’s professional theaters because they’re caught between nervous patrons, who may want to venture back to live performances but aren’t sure it’s safe, and reticent unions that have not been giving the necessary permission to theaters for proposed productions.
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe leaders say the Actors’ Equity Association turned down their proposal for an outdoor production of Nate Jacobs’ original revue “Soul Crooners,” a past hit with a small cast. The theater planned to have the cast perform on the patio outside the theater lobby doors and at least 10 feet from the closest patrons, who would be seated at safe distances scattered across the parking lot.
It was the first production that I’ve heard about that sounded potenti safe enough to attend. But the union had concerns about the lack of face shields or protective dividers between the performers, theater officials told me. The theater now plans to launch a series of outdoor concert programs on Friday with the revue “Light Up the Night!”
Both Asolo Repertory Theatre and Florida Studio Theatre have canceled fall seasons and hope to start new productions after the new year. But they can’t until Equity and other unions approve whatever protocols are in place, and the union is being understandably cautious.
FST has said it will go online if necessary to keep producing new work, and Asolo Rep is considering a variety of options.
In order to survive, performing arts organizations need to produce something that patrons are willing to pay for. Those trying virtual or digital programs are venturing into an unknown world. They have to balance the cost of producing the work against how much they can potentially make selling tickets to online programs. Will enough people tune in to make it financially viable? Can they produce these programs at a loss just to stay connected, until it’s safe to return to the theaters?
Until last week, there were limitations on the number of people who could be admitted into a theater. But when Gov. Ron DeSantis moved the state to Phase 3 of its COVID-19 reopening plan, he changed the rulebook. Theaters can now reopen fully with limited social distancing protocols.
But federal health guidelines still state to keep safe distance, avoid large gatherings and wear masks.
And that’s where bigger dilemmas come into play. I have been trying to be safe, keeping my distance and limiting my exposure to other people in general. I haven’t been dining in restaurants, but have done takeout. I have only eaten once at an outdoor table at a restaurant. I’m less likely to patronize favorite restaurants now if they’re filled to capacity.
And if theaters that do open are filled to capacity, I won’t be taking my seat. I wasn’t even eager to be inside with a limited-size crowd with open seats around me. I certainly don’t want to be sitting next to people I don’t know. I’d want to know where they’ve been and who they’ve been exposed to. Since mask regulations have essentially been nullified, will people even wear them anywhere?
Will enough people be willing to fill a theater to capacity? Maybe so. Venice Theatre sold all of its available seats (up to 130) for at least one of last weekend’s cabaret performances. And several friends posted on Facebook about how good it felt to be back.
I desperately want to go back to the theater to watch shows. But I’m clearly not ready yet, not when I’m surrounded by reminders that it’s not really safe. I can’t lose myself in a story with actors wearing face shields and avoiding the other performers on stage. Wearing a face mask that causes my glasses to fog up isn’t ideal, but I might be willing to try it, if the circumstances are right.
I know there are plenty of people who disagree with my concerns, but I don’t believe that opening up means the virus has gone away. I’m well aware that more than 200,000 people have died in the U.S. alone, and the numbers are growing every day, even if we are down from the summertime peak.
For my part of the world – attending and writing about the arts – nothing will be back to normal until the virus goes away or until we have all been safely vaccinated. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines, but I want to be around long enough to enjoy the arts thriving once again.