Live performance producers are giving up on 2020

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Live performance producers are giving up on 2020
Uncertainty about the coronavirus and the challenge of protecting audiences and artists is prompting many prominent presenters to wait till next year. Golden Cosmos/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson, Joshua Barone, Ben Sisario and Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In the world of performing arts, the coronavirus pandemic has already sunk summer. Now it is felling fall.

Even as reopened barbershops, beaches and bookstores herald the resumption of economic life across the United States, concert promoters, theater presenters, orchestras and dance companies are ripping up their 2020 calendars and hoping 2021 will mark a new beginning.

“I think 2020 is gone,” said Anna D. Shapiro, artistic director of the storied Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago. “I’ll be stunned if we’re back in the theater.”

In pop music, superstars Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber have canceled their performances this year, and there’s not much hope for other large events. “It doesn’t seem likely we are going to open in the fall,” said Jay Marciano, chairman of AEG Presents, one of the industry’s biggest promoters.

Much of the professional theater world is following suit. Guthrie Theater, a nonprofit in Minneapolis, jolted the industry with its announcement that its next season, which was to feature 12 productions beginning in September, would be scaled back to three beginning next March.

In South Carolina, Charleston Stage is delaying its next season until January, while in Utah, Pioneer Theater Company is aiming for February, and in California, Berkeley Repertory Theater plans to start in “late winter.”

“We won’t have programming this fall,” said Chris Coleman, artistic director of the theater company at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “Part of it is the uncertainty of when it’s going to be safe to gather, and part of it is economic. We’ve thought about social distancing, but it makes zero economic sense.”

In the classical music and opera worlds, there is similar skepticism about reopening any time soon. “Everyone is looking to the fall with huge question marks and doubt,” said Marc A. Scorca, president of Opera America, a trade organization. And Jesse Rosen, who leads the League of American Orchestras, said, “I sense that many are assuming the fall is not going to be the start time.”

Leading dance companies are also focused on next year. LA Dance Project, led by Benjamin Millepied, is planning no further live performances this year; neither is the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York.

“I am 100% confident that it is not happening,” said Nancy Umanoff, Mark Morris’ executive director. For many dance companies, that means giving up on lucrative holiday season performances of “The Nutcracker,” a crucial bestseller that, for example, brings in 45% of New York City Ballet’s annual ticket sales.

The country’s biggest stages have yet to declare their plans, but they are rapidly reaching a consensus on a go-slow approach, even if they receive government permission to reopen. At their scale, it is even more difficult to protect patrons when seats are tightly packed and there are choke points at entrances, lobbies, aisles, concession stands and restrooms. Backstage quarters are typically cramped, and productions often involve intimate onstage action and aerosolized respiratory droplets. (Momma Rose’s famous exhortation in “Gypsy,” “Sing out, Louise!,” suddenly seems epidemiologically problematic.)

Henry Timms, president of Lincoln Center in New York, said he hopes for performances on the center’s sizable outdoor plaza as soon as that is allowed. But what about watching ballet, opera, symphony and theater indoors? “It’s very hard right now to see a path to anything which looks like the traditional fall season,” he said, “absent some material change, from a medical perspective, in the world at large.”

Similarly, Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, said she is considering inviting artists to present work in small indoor venues separated by glass from outdoor audiences. But, she said, “It’s going to be a long time before we’re back to something that looks like the new normal.”

Broadway has already canceled performances through Labor Day; industry leaders widely believe January is the earliest likely reopening date, although a handful of producers are holding out hope for squeezing in a holiday show before then, and big-name tours might try to start sooner in cities with few coronavirus cases.

One indication of how Broadway producers are thinking: Two high-profile productions that had been set for Broadway this spring and summer, a bio-musical about Michael Jackson and a revival of “Plaza Suite” starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, recently announced they were leapfrogging autumn and winter and planning to try again next spring.

“If we go back to work too soon, and a theater anywhere becomes a hot spot, that is going to set the whole industry back,” said Mary McColl, executive director of Actors’ Equity Association, a labor union that has barred its members from in-person auditions, rehearsals or performances and expects this week to outline conditions it believes must be met before reopening. “Who knows what miracle might come down the pike, but certainly I don’t think there’s going to be large theater here in New York City soon,” she said. “And it seems more likely next calendar year.”

Coachella, by far the most influential pop festival, moved its April dates to October. Paul Tollett, the promoter behind Coachella, declined to comment on plans for the festival, which is held in Indio, California. But many in the industry expect it to be delayed again.

And what about concert tours? Joe Berchtold, president of Live Nation Entertainment, the pop industry’s dominant power, said those decisions would depend on the availability of a vaccine or testing protocols.

“While we think that phenomenal strides are being made in both cases,” Berchtold said, “given the lead time involved in planning major concert tours, and the uncertainties that exist today, we don’t expect a large volume of major tours in the fall.”

Others are even less optimistic. Talent agents, who once hoped to bump their spring and summer tours to the fall, are now looking down the road a year or more. “For the artists we represent, we believe it’s safer to move to 2021,” said Rick Roskin, an agent at the Creative Artists Agency.

Cultural life, of course, will continue. Museums are reopening. Film and television production is starting, if haltingly. And many performing artists and arts organizations have pivoted to livestreaming, attempting, with varying degrees of sophistication and success, to continue both creating and connecting.

Smaller venues, particularly in regions with few coronavirus cases, are finding ways to persist. In Arkansas, country musician Travis McCready played a gig last week in a former Masonic Hall that put only 20% of its 1,100 seats on sale, and live music is resuming in some bars and parking lots.

In Utah, the Parker Theater is midway through a run of a coronavirus comedy in which actors perform, one by one, on raised platforms; to reduce restroom visits, there is no intermission.

“It’s going to be organizations with 50 seats or 25 seats that will be innovating,” said Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington. “That’s how we’re going to learn.”

Some sizable nonprofits are bucking the trend and gamely talking about at least attempting a summer or fall reopening, with all kinds of precautions in place.

“We think it’s important for the community to try to make it work,” said Dean R. Gladden, managing director of the Alley Theater in Houston.

And Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, said he had four shows ready to go, and that “we’re cautiously optimistic, or maybe completely optimistic” about restarting in October.

As venues do open, expect fewer intermissions, digital-only ticketing, and more rules about entering and exiting.

“The airline industry has become adept at loading people by zones,” said Hillary J. Hart, executive director of Theater Under the Stars in Houston. “Could you do that in a theater?”

Orchestras are discussing relying more on string players, because those musicians can perform in masks. The Washington Ballet is thinking about placing its dancers in quarantine together.

Some, like Chicago Shakespeare Theater, hope to reconfigure flexible indoor spaces. Others, in warmer climes, hope to do more work outdoors. “We’re fortunate to be in LA, where we have better weather,” said Meghan Pressman, managing director of the Center Theatre Group.

But audiences will have to play their part, too. “You could have a sparkling, brand-new, disinfected event space, and if you bring a herd of noncompliant patrons into the venue, people will still get sick,” said Steven A. Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance.

Some orchestras hope to stage socially distanced, reduced-ensemble concerts for small audiences as soon as this summer; in August, the St. Louis Symphony hopes to begin with what its chief executive, Marie-Hélène Bernard, called “very small live experiences."

Social distancing is divisive. Many organizations view it as impractical, either for economic or philosophical reasons.

“An audience that is scattered that much isn’t an audience; it’s disassociated observers,” said Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group.

The Metropolitan Opera, which ordinarily can hold nearly 4,000 people, said it would be able to seat an audience of 400 if it introduces social distancing, making its already delicate financial model untenable. “I can’t imagine any scenario in which performances can take place at the Met when social distancing is still a factor,” said Peter Gelb, the opera’s general manager.

And Perryn Leech, managing director of Houston Grand Opera, said: “At some point, if you’re putting out a vastly inferior product to a few hundred people, are you, for the long-term viability of your institution, better off going away for a period of time?”

Are audiences even ready? Social scientists are in overdrive trying to determine under what conditions fans might be willing to return. There are multiple ongoing efforts to survey arts and culture audiences; initial reports find considerable wariness.

“None of us knows how soon audiences will feel ready to come back,” said Barry Edelstein, artistic director of the Old Globe in San Diego. “What happens on the first night back when some guy in Row G coughs? Do we have to escort him to an ambulance?”

With all that uncertainty, large organizations are drafting plans for various scenarios, even as most of them are now focusing on resumption early next year. More optimistic: Mount a show by Thanksgiving to capture at least some holiday revenue. More pessimistic: Cancel the entire season and start fresh next summer.

“There’s a balancing act,” said Christopher Ashley, the artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, “between trying to stay hopeful and being realistic.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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