The Show Must Go On — With Some New Safety Features In A Pandemic
When Blumenthal Performing Arts announced its 2021-22 PNC Broadway Lights Series shows last week, there was still one big question that lingered: How? How are they actually going to put on these Broadway shows during a pandemic?
After all, Broadway is still shut down through May 30, and no plans for its return have yet been announced.
It turns out Blumenthal Arts might have scooped Broadway.
“We don't do this in a vacuum, ourselves,” said Tom Gabbard, Blumenthal president and CEO. “I'm very much involved in leadership of the Broadway industry and so we're, as an industry, figuring these things out and figuring (out) when we can activate things.”
National tours need to have a route planned, space reserved and production workers ready to work.
So when "Hadestown," the 2019 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, debuts its national tour in Charlotte on Aug. 31, it won’t be the only production anywhere. If everything goes according to plan and there are no setbacks in our coronavirus pandemic recovery, expect theater performances everywhere to resume by the fall.
“We’re acting, really, in concert with our other peers in the country — and that includes Broadway,” Gabbard said. “People are just announcing their plans on different schedules.”
But how will it work? With COVID-19 vaccines rolling out at what seems to be a snail’s pace, how will it be safe for theatergoers and performers, alike, to cram into a performance hall again?
In Charlotte, at least, expect face mask requirements, social distancing enforced in open areas, upgraded air filtration – and vaccine requirements for anyone working backstage.
But the actual theater? Don’t expect any empty seats or a reduced capacity (assuming state restrictions are relaxed enough in six months to allow it).
“I think people will continue to be seated close together,” Gabbard said. “These shows are not financially viable if we play for half a house.”
That’s why Blumenthal has created a “COVID-19 Guarantee” that allows anyone who purchases season tickets before May 31 to have three options if they feel unsafe beginning 30 days before the performance: 1. Exchange for another event or gift card; 2. Donate the value of your ticket to Blumenthal; or 3. Receive a full refund or credit to your season ticket payment plan, including service fees.
“So we're essentially guaranteeing to people if they buy tickets for these shows and they don't feel comfortable for COVID reasons in the last month before that show, we'll go ahead and take care of them and give them a refund or an exchange,” Gabbard said.
And while mandatory face masks and distancing requests in concessions and restroom lines will be outward signs of safety changes, Gabbard said there will be two important measures implemented that won’t be visible.
First, they have installed air filtration systems – with the help of locally headquartered Honeywell – to improve the air quality in Blumenthal’s theaters.
“I've joked with our team that people may buy tickets just to come in and breathe our clean air by the time we're finished,” Gabbard said.
Second, Blumenthal Performing Arts is likely to institute a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for anyone who works backstage – performers and crew, alike – and cannot wear a face mask. While a vaccine requirement might be controversial, Gabbard said he has not heard any pushback
“Frankly, most of them want it,” he said. “They want to get back to work. I think that's one thing the public doesn't fully understand is that a lot of people that work in the live performance business have been out of jobs since mid-March (2020). And so they are eager to get back to work and they're eager to do whatever it takes to do that safely.
Blumenthal Performing Arts has been struggling through the pandemic as an organization, too. A PPP loan helped them through much of last year, but there were still “significant” layoffs in September. They’ve put on a handful of COVID-19-friendly performances – an outdoor walking tour called “Art Heist,” and outdoor performances such as “We Are Hip-Hop.”
But many of the events Blumenthal has put on in the past year have been free.
“We're really proud of those things that we've been doing to serve the community,” Gabbard said. “But they don't generate any revenue. And at the end of the day, a lot of these jobs are only viable when there's revenue associated with them.
“So that's why these shows coming back are critically important.”
The shows, by the way, are some of the top Broadway performances in recent years. Joining "Hadestown" in the lineup are: "Hamilton," "Frozen," "To Kill a Mockingbird," Mean Girls," "Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations," and "1776."
A second Broadway series called the Equitable Bravo Series also is being offered for a first time, featuring "Wicked," "Hamilton," "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Pretty Woman" and "Rent."
As for whether it can all be pulled off without a hitch?
“We feel very confident,” Gabbard said. “And that's just because we see a combination of health measures coming together. And people should expect to see a layered approach to how we reopen these venues. Certainly, vaccines are something that we're all thrilled to see as a huge game-changer in this whole thing. And by the time we get to the fall that hopefully there'll be widespread adoption of vaccines and that will help.”