Empty movie theater

Performing arts venues across Connecticut have been largely shut down or operating at greatly reduced capacity since March, with thousands of shows and performances canceled. Some stages have gone completely dark, others have put on outdoor events, and many have held virtual performances — anything to keep themselves in front of audiences while doing their best to pay the bills. Venues received some surprising good news when Gov. Ned Lamont announced they would be allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity starting Oct. 8, part of the Phase 3 reopening plan. That will help some institutions put on events, but others still won’t be able to make it work financially.

To take a snapshot of their present reality and to look at what’s ahead, we spoke with arts leaders at four theater spaces: the Ridgefield Playhouse, the Garde Arts Center in New London, Waterbury’s Palace Theater and Hartford Stage. We asked them each about their biggest challenges this year and how they are coping; how they expect pandemic restrictions such as limited capacity to affect future bookings and shows; and how they see this winter season looking for the arts in Connecticut.

Allison Stockel, executive director of the Ridgefield Playhouse

On this year’s biggest challenges …

I think with all of us the biggest challenge was to be able to pivot and change at the drop of a hat. Since the Ridgefield Playhouse closed its doors mid-March, we immediately pivoted to free live streaming. Once we were allowed to do outdoor concerts, we again changed direction and immediately started to do socially distanced outdoor shows with comedy and music.

On coping strategies …

When we first were told we were allowed to show films, we started to show rock films to do a Friday night music series — everything from Rocketman to Bohemian Rhapsody to documentaries about performers. We really tried to offer what we would normally do live on film.

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Allison Stockel, executive director of the Ridgefield Playhouse

On how restrictions will affect future shows …

Although the state is allowing theaters to present shows at 50 percent capacity, when we truly socially distance people, we will most likely only fit about 150-180 people in the [500-seat] theater. So since we found out about Phase 3 we have been looking at which shows make sense at that size capacity and what that would do to the ticket prices. We have been talking to all of the agents who we deal with and working on possibly renegotiating to make it work. We have also been looking at booking some new shows that make sense with only selling 150-200 tickets.

On the arts this winter …

I still think we’ll see a lot of virtual shows because even though we can have up to 50 percent capacity, for some venues that percentage will still be an issue and it will take time to figure out a plan with this capacity.

Frank Tavera, CEO of Waterbury’s Palace Theater

On this year’s biggest challenges …

Dealing with the uncertainty of when we would actually be able to resume business. The financial impact to the organization has also been an enormous challenge. There has been no earned ticket revenue to speak of since March 13. The closure of the theater has put a huge financial strain on the organization.

On coping strategies …

Clear, transparent and active communication with patrons, staff and donors has been our solution to address the challenges. Being honest and up-front about our status has worked to build confidence among our constituents and has even resulted in a marked increase in donations and contributions from our loyal patrons and donors, who optimistically look to our eventual reopening.

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Frank Tavera, CEO of Waterbury’s Palace Theater

On how restrictions will affect future shows …

Phase 3 reopening guidelines increase our allowable capacity from 25 to approximately 600 people as this takes into consideration ensuring 6-foot social distancing while seated. With this change, we can now begin to consider various smaller-scale performers and acts whose financial modeling may make sense in our 2,600-seat theater. Yet even with this capacity increase, the likelihood of presenting anything in the immediate future remains questionable as artist availability, financial viability, consumer confidence and market readiness remain a large unknown. That being said, the change in capacity is a step in the right direction.

On the arts this winter …

Bleak. Most producing theater companies have already canceled their seasons, presenting venues like the Palace have also canceled and rescheduled their programming, so many of the mainstay holiday classics will not be available this season. Additionally, consumer confidence hangs in the balance.

Cynthia Rider, managing director of Hartford Stage

On this year’s biggest challenges …

Public health mandates have required that we cancel all live performances from late March 2020 through fall 2021. The inability to sell tickets has led to a loss of $1.4 million last spring and over $4 million in tickets that will not be sold this season. The theater has therefore had to eliminate 70 percent of our workforce. With a significantly limited staff we have pivoted to all online programming, including shifting our education programs for students and adults to online.

On coping strategies …

We have moved to online virtual events and we have had a couple of outdoor events. We partnered with the Hartford Symphony and did a wonderful program where they had a quartet playing and we did readings out at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington. We serve over 20,000 kids a year. Obviously there has been a change during the pandemic, but we are really trying to still serve students and teachers and families virtually during this time.

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Cynthia Rider, managing director of Hartford Stage

On how restrictions will affect future shows …

The current Phase 3 restrictions that include limited capacity and the need for social distancing do not allow Hartford Stage to reopen for live performances. We are continuing with online programming, including Scene & Heard: LIVE! (a virtual cocktail hour with a different theater topic and special guests, a short play reading and a question-and-answer period) each month, and education programs which have been very well received. All education programs are free for any young person who is a resident of Hartford.

On the arts this winter …

There will be a host of exciting online programming, and some limited live performances in venues that meet the Phase 3 restrictions. I hope people will attend and follow all safety precautions. The success of keeping the virus in check while reopening on this limited basis will allow further reopening in the future. Philanthropy will be key for everyone in the arts. Our ability to earn revenue is limited to nonexistent, so donations will be what allows the arts to sustain through this time and be ready to reopen as soon as public health allows.

Steve Sigel, executive director of the Garde Arts Center in New London

On this year’s biggest challenges …

Navigating patiently the future while 90 percent of our revenues suddenly disappeared. Biggest challenge is keeping the faith and helping other staff find income security while raising funds in order for us to stay alive until we can open safely for everyone.

On coping strategies …

The Garde marquee has become a valuable tool for the community to talk to each other. Personal and public messages are rentable on the neon-lit marquee, bringing goodwill and modest but measurable revenue as well.

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Steve Sigel, executive director of the Garde Arts Center in New London

On how restrictions will affect future shows …

When we can fully and safely reopen, our goal is to make sure to attract and connect as many diverse audiences as we can in our region. We cannot financially operate without full occupancy. There may be options for some small private events and local artists if the public is comfortable. Of course, the protocol restrictions and associated costs may make even small events unaffordable. National touring artists have largely rescheduled to the fall of 2021 through the summer of 2022.

On the arts this winter …

Very few indoor events will be presented. We will mostly be waiting on a vaccine and hoping that public health policies will be depoliticized.

This article appears in the November 2020 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.