GARDINER — A day after Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center put on its final livestream show of 2020, it wasn’t clear when the next one would be.
Normally, the historic opera house would be in the middle of its season, which presents a slate of shows — music, comedy and variety — in its Studio Theater from fall through spring.
2020, however, has not been a normal year. When the global coronavirus pandemic reached Maine in March, Mike Miclon, its artistic executive director, pulled the plug on the 2019-20 season, and eventually canceled its free summer concert series at Gardiner’s Waterfront Park and its 2020-21 season.
Now Miclon, like other artistic executive directors across the state, is weighing options for the coming year.
In Maine, 10 months after the first COVID-19 case was identified, limits or bans on public gatherings remain in place under existing public health directives. Even so, in recent weeks the number of cases in Maine has exploded, setting new records for infection weekly, if not daily.
With the start of 2021, COVID-19 vaccines have started arriving in Maine, but it’s unclear how long inoculating residents will take and when life might start returning to some semblance of normal.
The challenge now is evaluating what’s known and what’s not and making decisions about what they’re going to do in the next 12 months and beyond.
“The interesting thing is that even though our commodity is ephemeral, it still requires planning anywhere from six months to two years out,” Dawn McAndrews, producing artistic director of the Theater at Monmouth, said. The Theater at Monmouth is a year-round repertory theater company.
“The ambiguity for us is, will people be vaccinated?” McAndrews said. “Will people feel comfortable if we are having outdoor performances and they’re wearing masks? Will we be able to, income-wise, do indoor performances with fewer people in the houses?”
EXPERIENCE TEACHES PLANNING COULD BE PROBLEMATIC
At Johnson Hall, Miclon started livestreaming shows in the spring, mixing performances by musicians and bands with editions of “The Early Evening Show,” Miclon’s long-running and popular spoof of late-night talk shows.
In late summer, as restrictions on indoor gatherings were starting to loosen, Miclon started asking whether people would be willing to attend a show in Johnson Hall’s upper theater. That area, which can accommodate about 400 people in theater seating, has been closed for years but is the focus of a fundraising campaign for its renovation.
“We were thinking we were going to be able to slowly, incrementally start to add 15, 20, 25 people per show,” he said.
In the larger theater, Miclon said, the plan was to sell 50 tickets to ensure enough distance between parties, but only 25 tickets were sold because seats had to be 14 feet from the stage, 6 feet away from all crew members — including a producer, three camera operators and a sound technician — and 6 feet away from other groups.
“It was almost impossible to even get 25 people on the third floor,” he said.
Rising COVID-19 infections dismissed the possibility of live-audience shows and caused even socially distanced events for Halloween and Christmas to be canceled.
“I think we’re going to push the next show to late January,” Miclon said.
That’s significant because a change in presidential administrations may signal a different direction in combating the spread of COVID-19.
When Maine was under a stay-at-home order to slow infections last spring, federal aid was available in the form of direct payments to individuals and added unemployment benefits along with federal aid to businesses. Even though infections have surpassed the early numbers, Gov. Janet Mills said she’s not considering a shut down because federal aid has not been available.
“We just don’t know if we’re going to go into a full statewide shutdown,” Miclon said. “I don’t want to book shows that I can’t fulfill. So, we’re kind of just waiting.”
Last spring, the Theater at Monmouth opted to halt ticket sales and subscriptions while waiting for guidance from state and federal public health agencies and later rescheduled its season.
“We practiced this whole year doing virtual programming,” McAndrews said. “If it’s a show that our audiences want to see sometimes again, they’ll definitely jump on that. So we’ve learned a lot about that.”
At the same time, she’s also considering ways they might produce plays outdoors with tents and audience members bringing their own chairs.
“We have in fact made some choices about what single ticket costs will be. And after the first of the year, we’re going to be putting out some information about what subscription packages could look like,” she said.
Information on that will be posted on the theater’s website and across its social media platforms in coming weeks, she said.
She’s also putting together a slate of plays that could be performed in the summer, if it’s possible to bring together an audience. They are likely to reflect both in content and make up of actors and production staff another notable event of 2020 — calls for racial justice, diversity and inclusion following widespread Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others.
Putting together those plays, or a summer concert series in Gardiner, is only half of the equation. The audience is the other half.
THE AUDIENCE OUTLOOK SURVEY
Last year, the Maine Arts Commission conducted an Audience Outlook survey, intended to measure audience comfort and provide insight in opening performance and presentation spaces in Maine.
To date nearly 4,100 people have responded.
The summary of results show that just over half the people would “not be comfortable” attending a show, regardless of the size of the hall. When asked how to determine that attending a live presentation would be safe, the top answer was after a vaccine or immunity.
Nearly 60% of the people answering said they would be “somewhat comfortable” attending an outdoor concert, but 80% said they would not be comfortable going to a venue without seats or adequate spacing.
The Maine Arts Commission is expected to track changes in attitudes as more people respond to the survey over time.
In some cases, the audiences are ready.
McAndrews said the Theater at Monmouth is now promoting its spring Page to Stage show to elementary and middle schools. It’s a virtual opportunity to access four of the theater’s previous shows for a fixed time at a blanket price.
“A lot of the schools have gotten back to us and said, what if we had a tent outside in the spring, would you bring live performers?” she said. “And I really can’t answer. That’s even tougher for me than the summer possibility.”
While the performance would be outside, performing them would require bringing in maybe five actors to quarantine together and then travel across the state in a van to different audiences.
“Can we make it work? There are people out there who are hungry, hungry, hungry for it. And prudence in this case seems that we should err on the side of maybe not,” she said.
At Johnson Hall, the livestream shows have met with varying levels of success. The first one brought in $9,000; one of the summer shows drew only 14 viewers.
“We are finding that because we give people an option, you can buy the base ticket, which is $15, but you can give $25, $50 or $100 if you choose,” he said. “On average, at least five people per show are buying $100 tickets. And I would say the majority of our audience is buying the $25 to $50 tickets.”
They are also finding they are drawing viewers in from as far away as the Netherlands, which has them considering keeping livestreaming as an option after this pandemic ends.
PERFORMING ARTS HANGING ON
In the meantime, the performing arts sector is working to hang on. While some have taken advantage of federal aid in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program to keep staff employed and some bills paid, they know the coming year will also be challenging.
“There’s a group of artistic and executive directors from performing arts organizations all over the state that have been really working with our congressional delegation and the national arts organizations and associations to make sure that there’s actually going to be some funding available for us,” McAndrews said. “All of us have gone to our donors repeatedly this year. And we know we’re going to keep needing some extra support in the coming year.”
Just as in other business sectors, the performing arts sector is expected to shrink, as not all have the resources or support to carry them through.
“I think we’re going to see this thinning of the herd in a way that’s going to be sad,” Miclon said. “There are a lot of funky, cool, weird little spaces that made it work.”
But as Miclon looks to next summer, he’s hoping to be able to bring live music back to Gardiner with both free and ticketed shows. And that might be a bit of a hurdle to overcome.
“Our competition the last few years has been Netflix and Hulu,” he said. “And we have fought tooth and nail to drag people away from their TVs to come into a place and share an experience with other human beings. And now we’re begging them, begging them to stay home and watch television. The big fear is how we, how are we going to pull people back (to live performances)?”