NC Entertainment Venues Look To Asia As They Plot How To Reopen
Large gatherings are still banned across the country to prevent spread of the coronavirus. That means big performance halls are silent and sports stadiums and arenas are closed. But in Asia, big musical productions and baseball are back -- and seats are filled. North Carolina venue operators are looking at those models as they plot how to reopen.
"Phantom of the Opera," Andrew Lloyd Webber's beloved musical, is usually playing on multiple stages around the world at any given time. But if you want to see the show now, you'll have to be in South Korea – the only production currently running.
As the coronavirus pandemic rages, theaters in Seoul have remained open with nearly full houses, said British theater producer Richard Jordan.
“There's an awful lot to learn from how they've operated in their process of reopening theatres," Jordan said. "They continued to remain open through the whole of the COVID-19 crisis, in fact, actually posting box office returns of around 98%.”
He’s been talking up what they’re doing in Seoul as he looks for a way to bring theater back to London's West End, Broadway, and regional theaters like those in North Carolina.
And he's not the only one paying attention. Tom Gabbard is director of Blumenthal Performing Arts in Charlotte, which closed its theaters in mid-March and may not be able to host traveling Broadway shows -- or anything else -- until this fall.
“This situation that we found in Korea was like, OK, there's something that's worked here. You know, there's something to research here and perhaps emulate some of it because otherwise we're just making this stuff up,” Gabbard said.
And there are other models, too. In Taipei, Taiwan, pro baseball resumed last month -- with fans. A lucky 1,000 of them cheered as the Fubon Guardians beat the Uni-President Lions on their first night back in the stands. The Chinese Professional Baseball League quickly bumped that thousand-fan limit up to 2,000. And as of a couple of weeks ago, they're allowed to fill the seats.
Temperature Checks and Masks
So how are the baseball teams and theater producers in Asia doing it? Experts say it’s by taking the virus seriously and adopting clear protocols and procedures to prevent the virus from spreading.
Serin Kasif oversees the Seoul production of "Phantom of the Opera" for Andrew Lloyd Weber's company. She says before entering, theatergoers must fill out a questionnaire certifying that they haven't come in contact with anyone who has COVID-19.
“So, you present your ticket, you present the survey, you sanitize your hands, you have your temperature taken and you enter the venue,” Kasif said.
And one more thing: “They have to wear a mask. It's one of the conditions of entry,” she said.
Ushers keep a close watch on the audience once the show begins.
“Everybody is required to keep their mask on and just like ushers monitor whether or not people are using their mobile phones, they also monitor whether or not people are wearing their masks,” Kasif said.
If you're caught with your mask down, an usher shines a flashlight in your face, and you're asked to put your mask back on.
Kasif says there are similar rules and procedures for everyone -- performers and stagehands get temperature checks and wear masks backstage. And ushers also have to wear masks and gloves.
Meanwhile, theaters are cleaned and sanitized daily. And there's what Kasif calls a "medical grade" cleaning once a week.
No Empty Seats
One thing they're not doing is blocking off any seats, Kasif said.
“We were very clear from the outset that theater is not conducive to social distancing. … The strategy is and has been centered around promoting and facilitating hygiene,” Kasif said.
There have been a few glitches. "Phantom" was forced to shut down in April after two performers tested positive for the virus. Kasif said local health authorities stepped in, everyone got tested, and the show resumed after 2½ weeks.
Both the producers and health officials were transparent about the situation. South Korea’s rigorous system of contact tracing was activated and notices about the situation were published.
Despite the scare, Kasif said fans are filling the theater again -- which is critical to the survival of the business.
Some entertainment businesses can survive without fans -- NASCAR, for example. Officials with the auto racing circuit presented North Carolina officials with a safety plan to start racing again -- without fans -- and the state said yes. It works because NASCAR gets big revenues from TV contracts. But that won't work for venues like the Blumenthal, Gabbard said.
“Most of the sports models right now are looking at no spectators and just doing television. So that's an interesting solution for them," he said. "It doesn't necessarily help me in figuring out, how do we open these places for the public?”
Partial Opening Won’t Work
And Gabbard doesn't like the idea of reopening at only partial capacity. Allowing entertainment venues to operate at 100% capacity is the only way to operate a successful business in the long run, Gabbard said.
“I think we'll have some activities, you know, probably late summer, early fall, that will have a social distancing element to it," he said. "But frankly, that's limited. The economics of social distancing don't work.”
Likewise, banning fans or reducing the number of seats doesn't work for other kinds of venues, like a minor league baseball stadium. Dan Rajkowski is chief operating officer of the Charlotte Knights, which own Truist Field in Charlotte. Unlike Major League Baseball, which announced plans this week to play the rest of the season without fans, minor league teams don't have a big television contract, Rajkowski said.
“We can't play in front of empty ballparks," he said. "That's not realistic for us, because we don't receive TV money. So, we rely on concession and ticket sales. And if you don't have anybody in the ballpark, you certainly aren't going to make those types of revenues.”
There's still no plan to restart Minor League Baseball. And even if there were, Gov. Roy Cooper's phased reopening plan still prohibits gatherings of more than 25. Rajkowski hopes state legislation approved by lawmakers this week might change that. It would allow sports stadiums with restaurants to reopen at partial capacity. But Cooper has vetoed similar bills. And this week, the governor announced a three-week pause in reopening. With large gatherings still banned, venue operators face a longer wait.
Coalition Looks for a Path To Reopening
But they're not sitting still. Gabbard is leading a statewide coalition called NC Live that's looking at best safety practices and lobbying state officials to let venues reopen. Besides the Blumenthal, it includes Spectrum Center in Charlotte, Duke Energy Center and Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh, Durham Performing Arts Center, Greensboro Coliseum Complex, and Live Nation Carolinas.
Gabbard says while the coalition is pushing to reopen all facilities, state officials have suggested outdoor events could come first.
“One thing that we did hear loudly and clearly from the governor's office was a lot of encouragement that outdoor activities are a lot safer," Gabbard said. "You know, they threw out the phrase that outdoor was 20 times safer than indoor.
“And so for any any of my colleagues that do outdoor events -- and the Blumenthal has begun to do some outdoor events -- it really was impetus for us to start envisioning for this summer some activities that could take place outdoors.”
Gabbard says music promoter Live Nation is pitching several proposals for outdoor events, which could happen this summer. (Live Nation did not respond to requests for comment.)
Gabbard said those events, and the examples from Asia, could point the way for others as they offer reopening plans.
“It's gonna be reassuring to everybody if we have something to point to that is tried and true that does represent a business model that, you know, has been good,” Gabbard said.
And even if venues like these put all the right safety measures in place and get the OK to reopen, they'll still have to convince audiences to return.
In some cases, big-name shows will be the draw that gets people back into theaters.
But Gabbard said theatergoers also need reassurance. Recent surveys of past Blumenthal ticket buyers show that many want to see venues taking the virus seriously. Among other things, he said many people won't be comfortable without masks -- something that's now required in North Carolina.
Steven Adelman is vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, which advises promoters, performers, venues, and others in the live event business. He said ultimately it's up to event organizers to demonstrate for officials and the public that they are doing their part to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
“The people who operate the performance spaces are going to have to make a good public showing that they are maintaining reasonable health and safety standards,” Adelman said.
In Seoul, “Phantom of the Opera” and other shows are making COVID-19 safety practices part of the DNA of both performers and audiences.
Andrew Lloyd Webber says they'll be using what they learned there to try and convince British public health officials next month to let them reopen London's theaters without social distancing.
See the South Korean video advising theatergoers of what to expect when they go to "Phantom of the Opera" here.
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