Theaters navigate tricky transition back to in-person performances

·6 min read

Jun. 27—Call it an encore. Call it a rebirth. Call it about time.

A year after the pandemic forced the nation's theaters to shutter — from Broadway and touring shows to community productions — the footlights are on again and the nation's stages are welcoming patrons back inside.

Ohio and Michigan theaters got permission to return to "normal" earlier than those in other states. But patrons hoping to see area performers return to stages en masse have instead seen a small ripple.

Those performing with few to no restrictions include Waterville Playshop's recent performances of Black Comedy at the Maumee Indoor Theatre, and the Toledo Repertoire Theatre's children's production of All Shook Up School Edition in August at the Ottawa Park Amphitheater. In most cases these are shows that were planned months before state governors announced an end to health mandates.

Most Toledo-area theater organizers agree that while they appreciate having restrictions lifted, the reprieve occurred too late for them to switch gears from earlier plans of a "return to normalcy" closer to the fall. As a result, most have continued with a September or October reboot in mind.

Still adjusting

In some ways, "normal" has always meant a light calendar from community theater groups between June and August; most plan their seasons to run from fall through spring, leaving just a handful of shows scheduled in June and parts of July. Even then, organizers most years take this time during these slower months to focus on children and teen workshops, audition and rehearse for September shows, or otherwise reorganize before the start of the new season.

Part of that recovery entails securing performance rights to plays — something typically done earlier in the year, but that had become more difficult in light of the pandemic, particularly for groups that want to continue offering streaming options.

Then there's the question of whether audiences will actually return at the start of next season.

Jori Jex, executive director of the Valentine Theatre and a board member for the Toledo Repertoire Theatre, said it appears a majority of audiences are ready to return based on results from an April survey by David Mitchell, general manager of the Performing Arts Center at Kent State University at Tuscarawas that showed a majority of respondents were ready to return to indoor performances.

Of 4,162 people surveyed, 43 percent indicated they were ready to return in May, while roughly 15 percent chose June and 14 percent said September.

The smaller portion of those surveyed who say they won't be comfortable returning until this winter — or possibly never (3.7 percent) — could equate to a significant drop in attendance, especially if the region sees a surge in new coronavirus cases this fall, Jex said.

"We're still dealing with the issue of capacity when you figure that, if our theater can open to 100 percent capacity, are we going to see smaller houses than before the pandemic as we go through the early fall season?" Jex mused. "And if there is going to be another surge, will people feel less safe coming back? Or will we have to shut down again? These are questions we're still dealing with."

With many theaters going dark throughout a majority of the past year, Jex said there is also more maintenance work to be done before the fall.

Both the Rep and the Valentine, for example, have had major renovations performed throughout the past year, with the Rep now launching a capital campaign to raise funds for renovations that include refurbishing the classic "Toledo Repertoire Theatre" sign on the south side of the building, upgrading the HVAC system, and installing chairlifts.

Ohio Community Theater Association president Joe Barton said many other small theaters are currently seeking donations while also applying for financial assistance from state and federal grants, such as the $1.25 billion American Rescue Plan Act.

Barton previously said that all but maybe two of his organization's roughly 100 members have managed to stay afloat so far, in part because of taxpayer funds that were made available. But many of his members are still struggling while making efforts to put on a new season come fall.

"COVID did really ruin theater, not only for the community and paid theaters, but for all the people who depend on it, such as the costumers and musicians," he said. "People don't think about that part of it and how we lost all of our income as well."

According to the Ohio Citizens for the Arts, a statewide advocacy organization that has been helping to allocate $20 million in CARES funding to arts organizations throughout the state, the group's leaders believe financial losses from the past year will equate to a very slow recovery for most performing arts groups.

"In a fall 2020 survey to members, Ohio Citizens for the Arts identified over $70 million in need to bridge the gap for Ohio's arts and creative industry," said Angela Meleca, executive director of Ohio Citizens for the Arts. "The $20 million CARES funding allocated by state leaders in November 2020 was a much-needed and much-appreciated lifeline. But unfortunately, the organizations permitted to apply for CARES funding indicate in this new survey that the one-time relief aid had only kept their institutions afloat for an average of six weeks.

"Now is the time for state leaders to act in providing an additional $50 million relief aid (from the American Rescue Plan) to our iconic culture and creative businesses," she added.

Looking forward

Although the lifting of pandemic restrictions didn't result in additional shows, it did prompt the Croswell Opera House in Adrian, Mich., to move its July production of Disenchanted and August's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to its theater instead of the planned outdoor performances — which meant the Croswell could open earlier than expected after spending more than a year shut down.

And the pandemic lockdowns resulted in Toledo-area theater groups forming new partnerships, said Jeffrey Albright, co-founder of Actors Collaborative Toledo, adding he and other area organizations have spent the lockdown collaborating to meet health guidelines so that they could put on live performances under the state's health restrictions and share resources, such as streaming technology.

"Theaters have been working together and trying to support one another, and my hope is we continue to find more opportunities to work together and pool resources," he said.

And soon, Jex said, the Valentine will not only be announcing its season, but also bringing back laid-off workers and resuming ticket and membership sales after more than a year.

"Once we get confirmation on all our touring shows, I think we will are prepared to jump in with both feet," she said. "Meanwhile, we're riding on hope and a prayer that things are alright, that we can reach full capacity, and audiences will come back."

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