The show must go on…unless it shouldn’t. As COVID-19, the disease caused by the new strain of the coronavirus, spreads inexorably across the U.S., theatres are finding themselves trying to stay both practical and realistic, even as public concerns grow. While many public gatherings are being cancelled, largely as a preemptive measure, theatres have not yet dropped the curtain. In Washington state, for instance, where there are 647 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of presstime, Seattle area, The New York Times reports that the University of Washington, like many colleges across the country, is canceling in-person classes in favor of having students finish the quarter’s classes and finals remotely. But about four miles away, leadership at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, like many theatres across the country, is attentively listening to audience members while optimistically staying open.
“We’re noticing that there is some community anxiety in going out and engaging with activities that involve large groups of people,” said Gail Benzler, director of marketing, sales, and communications at ACT. “Our leadership team is meeting every day to assess the situation and take recommendations from reliable sources.”
Like many theatres (and citizens), ACT is looking to local government, in this case King County, for guidance. And advice from King County Public Health, which as of March 10 sits front and center on ACT’s home page, recommends that people over 60, or who have underlying health conditions (heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes) or weakened immune systems, or who are pregnant should avoid large public gatherings. With ACT’s season-opening production of Sweat set to start previews on March 20, there are already concerns over how much public worry may affect the bottom line.
“Ticket sales are way off,” Benzler admitted, looking at numbers she had recently received. “Right now, we’re averaging about $243 a day in ticket sales for Sweat. To keep pace with our sales goal, we should be averaging $1,460 a day. That kind of gives you an idea of what the real business impact has been on the theatre.”
ACT, like many other companies who have released statements about COVID-19, is offering ticket exchanges in an effort to be as responsive to patrons as possible. Companies such as New York City’s Ars Nova, Seattle Rep, New York’s Syracuse Stage, and Southern California’s South Coast Repertory have put out statements reassuring the public of increased sanitation practices, including making hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes readily available. Many theatres are also waiving ticket exchange fees.
The primary concern at ACT remains the health of patrons and those working at the theatre. Benzler noted that the company is making sure performers know that ACT is keeping an eye out to ensure they’re not in a situation where their health is at stake. Sweat rehearsals are continuing as scheduled as the company keeps an eye on the progression of the coronavirus.
A March 10 report from CNN states that COVID-19 has infected 113,000 people worldwide, resulting in 4,000 deaths. The same report puts the U.S. number at 732 confirmed and presumptive positive cases, and 26 deaths, with 22 of those deaths in Washington state. Washington has declared a state of emergency, giving the state access to emergency funds, but there has yet to be a formal request from the local government for public events to be canceled.
According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which have both caused outbreaks in the past. COVID-19 (coronavirus 2019) first appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. Infection prevention recommendations from the WHO include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs, and avoiding close contact with anyone showing respiratory illness symptoms like coughing and sneezing.
Considering the way the disease is spread, theatres like Los Angeles’s East West Players are encouraging any patrons who show symptoms or who feel sick to stay home. Also noted in EWP’s email to patrons: a reminder that the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has said there is no need (at presstime) to cancel public gatherings. In fact, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s coronavirus website, which has a running count of COVID-19 cases in the county, says:
At this time, there is no immediate threat to the general public and no special precautions are required. Los Angeles County residents, students, workers, and visitors are encouraged to engage in their regular activities and practice good public health hygiene, as this is the height of flu season across the County.
Snehal Desai, producing artistic director at EWP, said that while patrons in the highest-risk categories have been calling to take precautions, there have been no real concerns about attendance leading up to the beginning of their run of Assassins on March 12. Desai said they have been having frequent check-ins with the board and other local organizations, have increased their cleaning schedules, and have made sure they’re set up for the organization’s employees to work from home if the need arises.
The biggest concern right now, shared by many, is that their upcoming show’s run, now slated to go on as planned, may wind up being disrupted in some way. So EWP is preparing for a variety of possibilities, from the cancellation of individual performances or a week of performances to scrapping the rest of the run. Desai noted that if some kind of government-mandated closing or stoppage of public gatherings of 100 people or more becomes a reality, the theatre will feel it immediately.
“If there is any kind of closure,” Desai said, “then we’ll see an immense impact right away. Ticket revenue is vital to operations for many of us, because we’re just holding on by a shoestring budget. So to see a significant disruption in that income—and in many cases, we may see a disruption in income, but have to continue paying expenses—is not something that is feasible other than for a very short period of time.”
In addition to many organizations planning spring galas that are crucial to fundraising efforts, as Desai pointed out, the logistics of moving or outright cancelling an entire production can weigh heavy on an organization. The concerns of those who have purchased show rights for future productions has also reached the ears of the licensing firm Music Theatre International, which reached out to customers via email on March 10.
“The ramifications of announcing a postponement may seem daunting,” the statement from MTI president and CEO Drew Cohen reads, “and at very least disappointing to many, but nothing is worth risking people’s health and safety. In some parts of this country, schools and universities have been closed and certain public events have been canceled; elsewhere, it is ‘business as usual.’ Assessing the situation with your colleagues, production team, board (if any) and all other stakeholders in your production will allow you to make the best decision possible.”
Cohen’s statement also noted that, over the last two weeks, MTI has expanded its customer service team to try to meet call and email volume. The statement also says that the company will do its best to “minimize the impact on your organization and your production,” and encourages theatres to follow the lead of the Broadway League if the theatre is continuing performances.
For its part, the Broadway League defers in its most recent official statement to governmental and Center for Disease Control guidelines as theatres continue to stay open. “We have significantly increased the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting in all public and backstage areas beyond the standard daily schedule,” the statement reads in part. “We remain vigilant, and we are prepared to make decisions based on current recommendations, as well as in response to changing conditions.”
Preventative steps taken on Broadway—where last week more than 250,000 patrons flowed into its 41 theatres—have ranged from Hadestown eliminating stage door visits for a month to theatres no longer offering same-cup refills at concession stands. Still, the shows remain open. In fact, on Tuesday, producer Scott Rudin announced that all unsold tickets to performances of To Kill a Mockingbird, West Side Story, The Lehman Trilogy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and The Book of Mormon would be $50 for performances between March 12 and March 29.
“As long as New York City is open for business, its beating heart remains the Broadway stage,” Rudin said in a statement. “This is an unprecedented opportunity for everyone to see a show that they otherwise might not have had easy and affordable access to. I can’t pretend that great theatre is the panacea we’ve been waiting for, but in the meantime I think we could all use a few hours away from the evening news.”
Out in Northern California, another coronavirus hotspot, Berkeley Repertory managing director Susan Medak says that people have been calling with concerns about cancelled performances, not so much pressure to cancel them. Indeed, she says she received a note from a patron “effusively” thanking the theatre for staying open.
“This is a time when they actually need us the most,” says Medak. “As long as we can perform, we are going to perform. Assuming that our casts are able to perform, we’re able to deliver the show, and assuming there is no mandatory shutdown, it is our intention to perform.”
By that, Medak means perform live, in person. But if the time comes when the Bay Area theatre can’t open its door to the public, Medak says the company has an backup plan to get the show to its paying audience.
“For the current production,” Medak says of Culture Clash (Still) in America, running through April 5, “we’ve provided a recorded backup. We’ve received permission from our partner unions to distribute this on a limited basis to audience members who’ve purchased tickets.”
In the meantime, the company has taken the same precautions as other theatres around the country while trying not to get ahead of themselves. Medak also notes that the decrease in attendance has been very minor, she said, calling it “barely a blip.” So for now at Berkeley Rep and across the country, the attitude is wait and see, with an eye on the government and local health organizations.
“People want to make theatre,” Medak says. “We’re going out. We’re trying to live our lives in the most normal way that we can, because that’s what we’re hoping other people will do as well.”
She adds, “We are all washing our hands a lot.”