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Performing Arts Groups Are Facing The Sound Of No Hands Clapping


by Jerome Weeks 11 May 2020

What are known as the “live arts” – theaters, choral groups, dance troupes, rock concerts, touring shows, orchestras  — they’re all facing the same stark question: Will they still be alive by the end of this summer? We check out the situation in North Texas.

Only two months into our COVID isolation, and the toll on local arts performances has been grim:

Sold-out Broadway tours of ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Frozen’ have been postponed or shut down. The Cliburn cancelled its amateur piano competition. Half the staff of Dallas’ Office of Arts and Culture was furloughed. Dallas Opera cancelled the rest of its season and furloughed staff. The AT&T Performing Arts Center canceled or rescheduled 40 dance, music and theater shows. Fort Worth Opera shut down its season – all of it. Shakespeare Dallas canceled its summer season – the first time in 49 years.

Executive director Raphael Parry backstage at ShakespeareDallas. Photo: courtesy ShakespeareDallas.

Raphael Parry, ShakespeareDallas’ artistic director, says it was a painful decision – one that continues to haunt him daily.

“Even today, I’m starting to get the notifications from the workforce commission that this person’s applied for unemployment,” he says. “And, y’know — each day, it’s another reminder that this artist or technician doesn’t have work right now.”

Dione Kennedy is president of Performing Arts Fort Worth, which runs Bass Hall. She says it’s not just the catastrophic loss of ticket revenue. Or the way oil prices have played havoc with donors.

What’s pushing the arts to the wall is the inability to find solutions.

“This virus has been so unpredictable and the unknowns are constant,” Kennedy says, “so we are literally taking things day by day.”

Dione Kennedy, president of Performing Arts Fort Worth. Photo: courtesy of PAFW.

Concert promoters and Broadway producers are the ones who typically decide whether your favorite show comes to town – it’s not venues like Bass Hall or the Eisemann Center. And Gov. Abbott’s re-opening Texas for business hasn’t changed that – in fact, his guidelines included opening up museums but not performing arts, leaving them in the dark.

Kennedy says that when it comes to touring productions, they have to plan far beyond a single state being open or closed. “They can’t go out and do one date and then be off the following month,” she says. “So it is an effort that has to be coordinated nationwide for us to bring tours back.”

Presenters like the Dallas Summer Musicals and Performing Arts Fort Worth often take their cue from Broadway. Charlotte St. Martin is president of the Broadway League – the industry trade group. She has said the most optimistic prediction for Broadway re-opening is September. So it may well be that North Texans won’t be seeing Broadway tours this summer.

Local, professional theater companies also face hurdles beyond their control. Understandably, the primary concern of Equity, the actors’ union, is its members’ safety. It now requires theaters to have a comprehensive plan for protecting the actors’ health – before they’ll sign a contract.

Raphael Parry considered working one up – until he thought of ShakespeareDallas’ summertime setting. “We work outdoors,” he says, “and I can’t disinfect a five-acre park.”

Theater directors share Equity’s concerns about infection and social distancing. But they’re also flummoxed. How many stage dramas exist with no kissing, drinking, fighting – with no close physical interactions at all?

Kevin Moriarty, the Dallas Theater Center’s artistic director, says, “Quite simply, we cannot hire professional actors to act on a stage and perform close to each other in a safe manner – that’s devastating for our art form and our business model.”

Musicians and dancers face these same concerns about working safely in rehearsal or performance. And even if arts groups can resolve these onstage and backstage issues, there are all the incredible logistical difficulties with maintaining the audience’s social distance – in lobbies, restrooms, theater seats.

Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty upstairs at the Wyly Theatre. Photo: courtesy of the DTC

Because of COVID, arts groups have been turning to live streaming performances the past two months. But as much as these may provide some respite for stuck-at-home music-lovers, theater-lovers, dance-lovers — and a possible bridge to when performing groups are back in concert halls and theaters — it’s also plain that live streaming won’t generate enough revenue to make up the organizations’ losses.

So in this sea of uncertainty, non-profit groups struggle to stay afloat – while leaking money and not knowing where they’re headed. Many are already down to skeletal staffs, waiting for whenever they can afford to turn on the lights again.

Moriarty says he and other Texas theater directors have been consulting with each other on possible mask-or-distance protocols, on what it might mean if Gov. Abbott issues another round of guidelines.

He says they’ve basically come up with three possible futures.

The first has COVID fading by summer’s end – “and we’re able to perform plays for full audiences safely in the fall.” This is the ‘restore to normal’ scenario: Subscriptions and season ticket sales, the financial mainstays of most arts organizations, can resume, albeit a bit late.

From Avant Chamber Ballet’s “Citizens of Loss” online video.

The second sees fall performances but with audiences limited to 25 percent — or with some other regulations and limits in place. Moriarty calls this “economically challenging.” Restaurant owners have been working with this situation already, and over the long term, many have called it “economically unfeasible.” A non-profit or a retail outlet generally can’t be geared to surviving on a high percentage of sales or ticket revenue – and then try to pay the bills at 25 percent capacity. Staffing would suffer, product quality and quantity would inevitably decline.

As Raphael Parry puts it, he could certainly do staged readings of Shakespeare’s plays at Samuell Grand Park — costumes but no sets, and with the actors standing at lecterns. “But is that what audiences will come back to see?” he asks.

The same is true of opera lovers. Opera companies often do scaled-down works, many modern operas are designed to be stark and simple. But ultimately, is that the ‘opera’ experience, opera audiences want? Ditto symphony orchestras, period-music groups, stadium rock concerts — and so on.

Artists can certainly re-imagine smaller, leaner stage works, but in the end, they’ll be creating a different art form. And abandoning another. As Moriarty says, if a theater company turns entirely to streaming videos, why remain a live theater at all? It’s just another media company.

Moriarty’s third scenario posits COVID deaths raging again by fall, as medical experts have warned.

If so, Moriarty says, there will be NO new season this fall. Or next spring.

“The question,” he says, “that all of us have is ‘Do we need to wait for a vaccine or some serious form of safe treatment to re-engage with our art form?’ And we don’t know. Which means it could be the fall of 2021 before we see live performance return in any meaningful way.”

Polls show that audiences will not show up in significant numbers until they feel safe at public events. And that may mean the live arts will have to stay alive — while their stages are dark — for more than a year.

 

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A PARTIAL LIST OF CLOSED, CANCELLED OR RE-SCHEDULED PROGRAMS IN NORTH TEXAS

(in no particular order)

CANCELLED:

Dallas Symphony cancelled all of its concerts through the end of May – those in June are being rescheduled.

The Dallas Opera cancelled the rest of its season and furloughed staff.

Shakespeare Dallas cancelled its entire summer season.

Fort Worth Opera cancelled its entire season.

Dallas Black Dance Theatre cancelled performances from March through May.

Texas Ballet Theatre cancelled the remainder of its season – including the gala and opening night dinner for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Scarborough Renaissance Festival has cancelled its entire season.

Stage West shut down its production of “The Children” and streamed it online. It cancelled its June show, “Church & State.”

Dallas Theater Center shut down its production of “American Mariachi” after filming the dress rehearsal. The DTC streamed it online. Its last two season shows, “Pipeline” and”The Supreme Leader,” have been postponed.

The Soluna Festival’s events in April were either postponed or cancelled.

The entire Broadway tour of “Frozen” coming to the Dallas Summer Musicals has been cancelled.

The tour of “An American in Paris” cancelled at the Winspear Opera House – AT&T Performing Arts Center

The tour of “Bandstand” cancelled at theWinspear Opera House – AT&T Performing Arts Center

Mayfest has been cancelled.

The tour of “The SpongeBob Musical” cancelled at the Winspear Opera House – AT&T Performing Arts Center

KXT 91.7 Presents Real Estate at the Granada Theater

KXT 91.7 Presents Weyes Blood at Trees

The Lumineers cancelled at Dos Equis Pavilion

Theatre Arlington cancelled “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley.”

Journey’s concert Aug. 30 with the Pretenders cancelled at Dos Equis Pavillion

 

POSTPONED or RESCHEDULED:

The Broadway tour of “Hamilton” at Bass Hall postponed until 2022.

The Broadway tours of “Rent” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Dallas Summer Musicals. “Come from Away” was closed in March at the Fair Park Music Hall. The rest of its run has been rescheduled for January. It’s also still scheduled to come to Bass Hall in July.

Sammons Cabaret: David Slater at the Sammons Center for the Arts

Dallas Blue Moon Psychic & Holistic Fair at Blue Moon Expo

Alvin Ailey cancelled its March performance with TITAS, and TITAS postponed the rest of its season, rescheduling its gala fundraiser, Command Performance, which is now set for August 29.

The Read Live’s show at the Majestic Theatre for March 21 has been rescheduled for Sept. 5, 2020.

Colin Hay’s May 10th concert at the Majestic Theatre has been rescheduled for May 9, 2021.

Rolling Stones’ May 29th concert at the Cotton Bowl has been indefinitely postponed.

KXT 91.7 Presents David Crosby & The Sky Trails Band postponed at the Granada Theater

KXT 91.7 Presents Lake Street Dive at the Majestic Theatre

KXT 91.7 Presents LP at the House of Blues

Lonestar LandFest postponed at The Theatre at Grand Prairie

Lyric Stage’s production of “Cinderella” postponed at the Majestic Theatre

WaterTower Theatre postponed “I Am My Own Wife” from May until July. “The Bridges of Madison County” is also postponed with no definite date yet.

Amphibian Stage postponed all its public performances in March and pushed the world premiere of “Egress” to October.

Heather McMahan’s Farewell Tour performance at the Majestic Theatre on May 11th has been rescheduled for October 23rd.

Girls Gotta Eat’s show at the Majestic Theatre March 27th has been rescheduled for September 10th.

Casa Manana has postponed its May production of “The Full Monty.”

Of Monsters and Men at the South Side Ballroom

Por Qué Los Hombres Aman a Las Cabronas at the Majestic Theatre

Roger Waters’ October 3rd concert at the American Airlines

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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