Whenever we’re allowed to – and want to – return to the theater in Charlotte to see performances at any of the Blumenthal Performing Arts’ venues, it might look very different from what we’re accustomed to. If it’s not already abundantly evident, the coronavirus pandemic has altered everything in life.
Maybe everyone is required to wear masks. Maybe there are temperature checks at the door. Maybe concessions are closed to limit contact and potential contamination.
“We have no idea, but I don't think it's realistic to think that we just flip a switch and come back,” Tom Gabbard said this week. “I do think it'll be different. Exactly what those differences are, that remains to be seen.”
Gabbard is Blumenthal Arts’ CEO, and the person charged with navigating Charlotte’s biggest arts hosting facilities through a global pandemic. So far, that means everything has been shut down until May 26.
He expects that dark period to be extended to the end of summer.
But the coronavirus also struck just as Blumenthal was preparing to roll out marketing for next season’s PNC Broadway Lights Series. That season doesn’t start until fall, and Gabbard is hopeful that Blumenthal’s biggest draw will still be able to put on shows that are scheduled – "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Mean Girls" and "Hamilton," among others.
They officially announced the season April 5, and response, so far, has exceeded last year’s ticket purchases as this same time.
“I think mainly it's the strength of the titles, but there's no question that people are increasingly getting cabin fever,” Gabbard said.
How to ease back into a life with live performances, though, is tricky. Blumenthal will soon begin working with a company that surveys past ticket buyers to ask what measures will make them feel safest if they come back to the theater.
“Maybe it’s masks – and not a 'Phantom' mask – but a mask that will keep them safe,” Gabbard said.
One thing that’s probably off the table: Limiting capacity to space out audience members.
“That's really not viable for most shows,” Gabbard said. “There may be some community-focused shows where we can do that. But when it comes to the bigger tours and all of that, we can't have those limitations and be financially viable.”
Already, Blumenthal is taking a $1 million hit per month to be closed down. Gabbard has been able to manage the shutdown without any layoffs, he said, thanks to a healthy reserve of funds. But that also can’t last indefinitely.
And he anticipates that reopening might be even bumpier than being closed.
“I do think the process of coming back is potentially even more expensive than being dark,” he said. “When we do come back, if audiences don't come back in huge numbers, you know, we could actually lose money in that transition period that's greater than when we stayed dark.”
Gabbard understands the fear of the coronavirus firsthand: He had it. He and his wife went on what he jokingly calls a “COVID hot spot tour” in Europe in early March, attending theater performances. When they returned, he started feeling sick.
It was a low-grade fever, some aches and a cough, but given his travel, he thought it safest to be tested for the coronavirus. The results were positive.
Gabbard says he never got too ill, and after a 14-day isolation, he is feeling back to normal. But he knows that Charlotte theater-goers will still have fears about the illness in the future, and he wants to reassure everyone that Blumenthal Arts will be trying everything they can to assuage concerns.
“We want people to know we're going to take care of folks,” he said. “We’re going to figure out a specific policy, but going forward, we just want to reassure people we’re going to continue to take care of folks.”
This story originally appeared in our weekly arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.