After pandemic shutdown, curtains rising slowly at local theaters

TRINITY REPERTORY COMPANY'S annual
TRINITY REPERTORY COMPANY'S annual "A Christmas Carol" production was impacted last November with a COVID-19 outbreak among cast and crew. It resulted in 16 performances having to be canceled. / COURTESY TRINITY REPERTORY COMPANY

PROVIDENCE – In theater, the old saying is “the show must go on.”

But it’s easier said than done, depending on who you ask.

Even though local theaters and performing arts organizations are coming alive in front of live audiences again in the industry’s first full year of shows since March 2020 and cautiously optimistic for the future, the road to recovery from COVID-19 has not completely been smooth across the board. Some theater leaders say their venues have either fully bounced back or are close to seeing a full audience it had before the pandemic.

Others, however, have had some setbacks, including a slow pace to fill theater halls and having to cancel performances – among them being a Rhode Island holiday signature – due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

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Katie Liberman, Trinity Repertory Company’s executive director, told Providence Business News the industry is seeing a “changing audience behavior” in theatergoers, where patrons are slowly coming back to live performances. Liberman said Trinity’s attendance is at about 65% from what it was before the pandemic hit. She said other performing organizations around the country are seeing similar slow trends.

At The Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre in Warwick, Artistic Director Tony Estrella says the organization is “still in a transition” period and audience attendance, while he did not have specific numbers, “definitely has not gone back” to what it was before COVID-19 arrived in Rhode Island. One reason for that, he says, is The Gamm’s audience is an older crowd and they are showing more caution in going out publicly.

Estrella, like Liberman, also feels COVID-19 changed society’s routine in how people go about their lives, such as staying home more, which is a struggle to get people to come out for a show.

“There are routines that have been developed where one spends more time in front of Netflix,” Estrella said. “TV is wonderful to where you would say ‘oh I’ll stay home and watch this.’ I don’t think it’s a live [theater] thing. Movie theaters haven’t bounced back in the same way. We’re all trying to figure out lure people back.”

J.L. "LYNN" SINGLETON, president of the Providence Performing Arts Center, says last year's attendance at the venue was about 250,000, approximately 50,000 fewer than in an average year. / PBN FILE PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
J.L. “LYNN” SINGLETON, president of the Providence Performing Arts Center, says last year’s attendance at the venue was about 250,000, approximately 50,000 fewer than in an average year. / PBN FILE PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

Meanwhile, attendance at the Providence Performing Arts Center last fiscal year was about 250,000, about 50,000 less than what the venue would normally have according to PPAC CEO and President J.L. “Lynn” Singleton. He did say “very few” of PPAC’s 12,000 subscribers requested refunds during the two years of pandemic inactivity.

“I was flattered with that. People were like they just put [their subscription] on their credit card … and hung with us,” Singleton said. He also said that while PPAC was in the mix of having a nationwide 20% attendee no-show rate for performances, the theater’s bar business increased by 20% to 25%, giving PPAC a different revenue boost.

Across the city at The Veterans Memorial Auditorium, General Manager Daniel Schwartz said the theater last year hosted five sold-out performances, more than any other year The Vets had before the pandemic. Typically, The Vets would have about two to three sellouts a year, Schwartz said.

Schwartz also said The Vets worked to find artists and shows so that ticket prices could be affordable for people to attend.

“I think people are willing to spend more like $50 a ticket than they are to spend $200 a ticket to see an artist,” he said. “We’re incorporating that into our programming initiatives.”

COVID-19 didn’t exit stage right, however. The illness, according to Liberman, ran rampant through Trinity Rep’s cast members, technicians and understudies during the annual “A Christmas Carol” holiday production this past November.

As a result, 16 performances were canceled and Trinity Rep had to refund more than $200,000 in ticket purchases, Liberman said.

“That was a really big hit for us,” Liberman said. She noted that there was working capital the theater group had to fill that financial gap, but the annual fiscal revenue was still significantly impacted from the cancellations.

THE VETERANS MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM last year had five sold-out performances, a first in the theater's history, according to Vets General Manager Daniel Schwartz. / PBN FILE PHOTO
THE VETERANS MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM in Providence last year had five sold-out performances, a first in the theater’s history, according to Vets General Manager Daniel Schwartz. / PBN FILE PHOTO

Estrella said The Gamm Theatre had to cancel some shows, as well, due to outbreaks. But show producers at The Gamm, he said, had to adjust “really fast” to make up for ill performers and staff so that shows would not be impacted.

“We had to rehearse actors and bring people in on the fly,” he said, “put people on stage with a script in hand a couple times, all sorts of crazy improvisational solutions to keep on schedule so that the show could go on.”

Both Schwartz and Liberman said funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s shuttered venue operators grant program helped keep The Vets and Trinity Rep afloat during the shutdowns and cover other losses incurred from the pandemic. Staffing at PPAC, Trinity Rep, The Vets and The Gamm have returned to normal levels after some employees were furloughed during the shutdown, theater leaders said.

Some COVID-19 restrictions do remain in some form. Masks are optional for attendees at PPAC and The Vets, and both also no longer require proof of vaccination to attend. However, depending on the performance, crew and staff at The Vets would be required to mask up, Schwartz says.

Trinity Rep stopped asking for vaccination proof, but mask-wearing will be required for certain performances, Liberman said.

Theater leaders are optimistic that more and more people will take in a show as the pandemic wanes. Schwartz says The Vets added new seats, increasing capacity in the process that will help generate bigger crowds.

Liberman says she’s seeing the city revived, with people coming downtown to dine and going out. She hopes the performing arts could be on the public’s to-do list again.

“We want folks to feel welcome and feel excited to come back out,” Liberman said. “We can’t wait to welcome back our longtime friends who haven’t been back over the past few years.”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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