California officials shocked the performing arts community Tuesday when they announced plans to fully reopen the economy June 15 if certain vaccination and hospitalization benchmarks are met, leaving leaders of theaters, music groups and more scrambling to revisit plans for spring and answer a long list of questions.
What needs to happen for audience members to sit side by side so soon? What programming is (or isn’t) lined up? Do staff need to be rehired? How much rehearsal might be necessary, and when can that start safely? Is the building ready to reopen for semi-normal operations?
“It’s the inverse of last March,” said Christopher Koelsch, president and chief executive of Los Angeles Opera, recalling how a year ago seemingly every news story was about another arts organization canceling its season. “It’s been an extraordinarily harrowing year. Now you have to rebuild what’s possible after so little was possible for the last 13 months.”
The million-dollar question: What, exactly, is possible by June 15?
The announcement indicated that the capacity limits stipulated in the color-tiered California blueprint for reopening would be lifted, allowing “usual operations” to resume in compliance with standards set by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA. The announcement did not offer specifics but cited “limited health restrictions, such as masking, testing, and testing or vaccination verification requirements for large-scale higher-risk events.”
“Since the moment we closed our theaters last March, we have been eager to find a pathway back to the live performing arts that are essential to a full return for society, so this is huge news,” said Center Theatre Group Chief Executive Meghan Pressman, whose company reshuffled its lineup and last planned for an August restart at the Ahmanson Theatre. “We can’t be certain of an immediate return to the theater on June 15, but we are definitely excited by this announcement and looking at every option to return to the stage as soon as we can.”
Many arts groups had begun making plans to attempt small, socially distanced outdoor performances. In Los Angeles County, which sits in the orange tier, outdoor venues are being allowed to reopen at 33% capacity. The unexpectedly quick timeline for return to business as usual indoors — even as COVID-19 variants are believed to be causing spikes in case counts in other parts of the country — resulted in jubilation, and some whiplash.
“What a day, what a week. I can’t keep up,” joked Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director Danny Feldman. “This is very exciting for all of us looking forward to the return of arts and culture in LA.”
The biggest issue, said Feldman and other arts leaders Tuesday, is that there is no on-off switch for live theater. The timeline for shepherding a production from the page to the stage is long and complex, requiring a great deal of lead time and the cooperation of many artists including art directors; sound, lighting and costume designers; prop masters; and hairstylists and makeup artists. That’s just at the back of the house. Running front-of-the-house operations and guest services is a whole other ball of wax.
And don’t get everyone started on what the Cal/OSHA health guidance might entail. There is much work to be done. Thrilling work, welcome work — but challenging, time-consuming work all the same, leaders said.
The result is that many groups, including A Noise Within in Pasadena and the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, will move ahead with digital seasons in the near future and have no plans to move indoors before fall.
“With planning windows of many months, a performance season was difficult to imagine until today,” said Thor Steingraber, executive director of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts in Northridge. “Today’s announcement, at a minimum, provides arts leaders an on ramp to planning and announcing future performances, with the caveat that circumstances on the ground may change.”
Other groups such as East West Players in downtown LA said they likely will implement a gradual return, building toward full capacity. Phasing in operations over the summer puts organizations in a better place for a full reopening by fall or winter, they said.
“As with all things related to COVID, we are cautiously monitoring things. There are a number of other entities that will need to weigh in before we can fully reopen, from artist unions to the county and city,” said EWP Artistic Director Snehal Desai. “A June 15 reopen date gives a narrow window in which to implement COVID safety protocols and update our facilities, so not sure many of us will be able to open right away.”
Unions that will play a part in reopening include Actors’ Equity Association, which represents more than 51,000 professional singers, actors, dancers and stage managers. It has released its own COVID-19 safety guidelines, which some companies have called unnecessarily burdensome. Equity has yet to sign off on California’s timeline or stipulate what protocols it would require of its members.
Jean Davidson, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the resident chorus of Walt Disney Concert Hall, also cited the need to coordinate with unions before restarting. She said her group is “working closely with the Music Center and the American Guild of Musical Artists to ensure a safe and comfortable environment for all as we continue to develop our plans for the upcoming season.”
For outdoor venues, such as the Hollywood Bowl and the nearby Ford Theatres, both operated by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the news feels more manageable since planning for the outdoor operations has been moving forward for some time now. The unprecedented cancellation of the Bowl’s season last year translated into a massive loss of ticket revenue for the LA Phil, which uses its summer cash cow to help pay for the ambitious programs in Disney Hall.
“This is great news — the moment we’ve been waiting for!” said LA Phil Chief Executive Chad Smith. “The experience of live music has been missing from our lives for more than a year now, and we can’t wait to have people gather side by side as a musical community at the Hollywood Bowl and Ford this summer.”
Casey Reitz, president of Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, echoed Smith’s optimism.
“This means Broadway shows will be back, artists, musicians and dancers will be back on our stages, students in our dance schools will all return to the studios here at the center, and, just in time to take advantage of the fine summer weather to open our plaza to full capacity for our outdoor events, movies, and concerts. We can’t wait to say welcome back!” Reitz said.
Indoor venues have faced a great deal of mixed messaging from the state and counties, prompting some to question whether the two entities were in communication with each other. Less than three weeks ago, the state and county had yet to release detailed guidance for if, when and how live performance could return — even outdoors. That information finally dropped at the end of March. It mandated 6 feet between audience members and limited capacity numbers. The first guidelines for a possible return to indoor spaces was released just a few days ago — then were quickly made outdated by the announcement Tuesday.
The issue of capacity — whether arts organizations operating on razor-thin margins could afford to operate at anything less than a full house — plagued their planning process. The new guidance has yet to be adapted by LA County, but when that happens, it will unlock a world of possibility.
“California has made such incredible progress both in vaccinations and in declining case rates,” said Jeff Loeb, general manager of Broadway in Hollywood, operator of the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. It has the return of “Hamilton” on its calendar for October. “We are eagerly awaiting detailed protocols from the LA County Department of Public Health to properly plan for safely opening our doors,” he said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening timeline is nonetheless incredibly hopeful news for the arts in Los Angeles, said Rachel Moore, president and chief executive of the Music Center downtown.
“We continue to put the safety and comfort of our guests, staff and artists at the forefront of everything we do, and we will wait for further information from the County of Los Angeles to determine how this news will impact our operations,” Moore said.
In the meantime, she added, the Music Center is days away from announcing a series of outdoor ticketed experiences that will bring live audiences back for the first time since March 2019. Looking ahead, the Music Center will likely open its theaters on a more regular schedule this fall.
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