COVID-19

Alas poor Yorick, how can the show go on?

Three actors in multicolored costumes.
Joy Dolo as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sally Wingert as Sir Toby Belch and Sarah Jane Agnew as Maria in a scene from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. It was one of the last productions before the coronavirus outbreak shut down live performances.
Courtesy of Dan Norman

Live performers thrive on audience energy, and fans would agree that theaters and music venues are usually at their most exhilarating when they’re packed shoulder to shoulder, enjoying shows as a community.

So, how do you accomplish that in the age of COVID-19?

"It is frankly very difficult to theorize what a socially distanced Guthrie looks like," says Guthrie Theater artistic director Joe Haj. "And I have to say it's very tough to see a path."

Haj has been running reopening scenarios for weeks now, with Guthrie staff, and with artistic directors of other major theaters around the country.

There's a lot to consider, just beginning with social distancing. At the Guthrie Haj often has three theaters presenting shows simultaneously.

"So let’s just assume for a moment that I can get 500 people in through the front doors, through the lobby, get their tickets, get up the escalator,  get in their seats without climbing over one another, let’s just assume for a minute that we can do all of that while keeping people 6 feet apart: what play are you going to do?" Haj asks.

While Shakespeare did have to contend with the Black Death during his career, none of his plays feature social distancing, and there have been very few plays since that keep actors 6 feet apart.  

Haj worries about finding safe ways for actors and crew to put on performances. For a place that specializes in spectacular productions that usually take a year to 18 months from concept to stage, there's little attraction replacing them with one-person shows.

And for Haj there's another huge concern: what if there are multiple waves of infections bringing new rounds of restrictions?

"We don't know when we are going to reopen," he said. "And we also don't know if upon reopening we can stay open."

Still, Haj is an optimist, at least in the long term. He says he has no worry that what he calls  "theater with a capital T" will survive. But he says the immediate future is unclear. 

Frank Theater artistic director Wendy Knox agrees, but says small companies like hers are facing big problems.

"This feels dire," she said.

She says everyone in the local theater community is worried about money. Without shows, there is no ticket revenue. Knox says Frank has one advantage; because it's so small it rents venues to do shows. 

"I fear most for the midsized theaters that have physical spaces to maintain because that's going to be hard," she said.

Knox says there's also concern about what will happen to Minnesota's arts legacy fund. It usually injects millions of dollars into the cultural community every year. But it's funded through a state sales tax, and as Knox points out, people aren't buying much nowadays

"So what happens now is going to be really critical," Knox said.

Each performance organization has its own post-restriction challenges to overcome. At the Oak Center General Store in Lake City, Minn., owner Steve Schwen got concerned when the idea of keeping people 6 feet apart came up.

Oak Center General Store
Steve Schwen stands in Oak Center General Store's upper room, which serves as a live music venue, in 2018.
Luke Taylor | MPR 2018

“That’s scary,” he said. “Maybe you could tell me what we can do about that.”

Schwen began presenting acoustic music in the store’s upper room in 1976. Originally the idea was to raise funds for the lectures he also presented there. But in time the music became the big attraction, and a lot of nationally known performers make a point of playing the wood-lined venue. Now Schwen presents music in the cold months to make money to run his 12-acre organic farm when it’s warm. He sells the produce at the store. 

He says 150 people can fit in the room for a concert and he worries something will be lost if people have to keep 6 feet apart. 

“The energy in the room when there’s music playing when people are spread out like is not the same. There isn’t as much magic,” he said

For years people have suggested he do the music outside, but he’s always resisted. 

“I guess what held us off from doing that is that I have animals running around the barnyard, and I have vegetables growing in my fields,” he said. “And I couldn’t imagine a whole bunch of people who were strangers to the place running around on the farm, so we didn’t do it.”

But that was before the coronavirus ended his last music season early, and the weather this year may mean a poor crop.

“My thought is … maybe,” he admits. 

Schwen said whatever he does, he’ll start small and just see how it goes as word spreads that there’s music again at the General Store.  

“It’ll take a while,” he said. “It’ll take a while.”

In Minneapolis, Beth Kellar-Long, the Minnesota Orchestra's vice president for orchestra administration, is also trying to prepare for reopening. The orchestra’s musicians rehearse hours every day even during a pandemic, so Kellar-Long says they can ramp up performances quickly.

More of a concern is bringing in guest artists, in the face of travel restrictions and other transportation issues.

"We will have to make alternate arrangements if somebody can't get here," she said. "I think that's a very real possibility."

She said they are also looking at audience social distancing challenges and how to seat musicians safely onstage. They are considering going cashless in the Orchestra Hall lobby and having people pick up their own programs, rather than getting them from ushers.

She said as they try to plan, things are constantly shifting. However, she is struck by what she calls the sparkling creativity she has seen as people problem-solve.

Yet, there’s still the biggest unknown of all: what will audiences do?

"Everyone's getting so used to being apart, and while people long to be together, there also may be some, I don't know, fear around that," Kellar-Long said. "So we are not just assuming that everyone will come back immediately."

Kellar-Long, Knox and Haj agree there is a pent-up desire for live performances, but they all worry how long it will take for audiences to come back. 

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