As of last week, live music and theater venues in Baltimore are permitted to open with their audiences at 25% after months of being closed, even as the state allowed performance venues to open in September.
Still, many Baltimore theaters are not planning to resume live performances any time soon. Two flagship professional theaters in the area, Everyman Theatre and Baltimore Center Stage, the state theater of Maryland, are planning to continue with virtual productions for the time being.
“I wish it was simple, but of course it’s not,” said Marissa LaRose, managing director for Everyman. “There’s a lot of different factors that we have to bring in.”
Chief among them is safety, for audience members and performers alike. Even when producing virtual shows, theaters that employ actors, designers, technicians and other staff who are parts of unions must coordinate their productions to fit the safety standards laid out by those unions, on top of local and state guidelines.
Those protocols include frequent changing of air filters in the theater, weekly testing of employees and restricting actors from sharing items like towels or sheet music.
The Actors’ Equity Association, a major union for stage actors and stage managers, is allowing indoor performances with audiences, albeit with some additional restrictions to minimize risk.
Some theaters outside of Baltimore opened back when the state made it possible to do so in September. Way Off Broadway, a dinner theater in Frederick, welcomed audiences back almost as soon as it was permitted to; the team had been rigorously following relevant announcements in hopes of coordinating a quick and seamless reopening when the time came.
The theater has been operating with safety protocols in place that have thus far proven effective — it hasn’t suffered from any outbreaks or major safety concerns. It has taken significant steps to protect its audiences by having actors wear face shields, distancing the tables as much as possible and switching dinner from buffet- to cafeteria-style, meaning that audience members aren’t all serving themselves from the same trays.
Way Off Broadway has the advantage of being a dinner theater; whereas traditional theaters typically have seats that are fixed in place, dinner theater seating can be rearranged every night. That flexibility to move seats allows Way Off Broadway to create more space both between tables and between actors and the audience.
The theater does not use Equity actors so it only has state and local guidance to follow. It also has a higher capacity limit than in Baltimore at 50%, which means no more than 50 audience members per show.
“One of our main goals is to keep the numbers in the audience down. I know, when was the last time you heard any business owner say that?” said Justin Kiska, managing director and president of Way Off Broadway, which is currently in the tail end of its production of “Clue: On Stage.”
Baltimore theaters are worried about the limitations that come with the 25% capacity restriction and whether it would be fiscally viable to open shows to such small audiences. Still, that’s not a main concern; many of them are nonprofit venues, relying more on things like memberships, donations and grants than ticket and concession sales.
Robyn Murphy, director of communications and strategic partnerships at Center Stage, said that when the theater had previously considered reopening, it had run the numbers and found that it would, ultimately, be feasible to open to at 25% audience capacity, if it were safe to do so. This is helped by the fact that many of Center Stage’s members have been happy to maintain their memberships despite the lack of in-person shows.
Plus, LaRose noted, virtual performances aren’t necessarily more economical than reopening at limited capacity.
“We are not earning what we would typically be earning … for us, it’s really more about keeping the relationship and putting new art into the world for patrons right now,” she said.
Nicholas Cohen, executive director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, said that not every theater has the loyal member base that Everyman does. For those venues, such a drastic capacity limit, on top of having to bring in staff like ticket-takers and security to work live shows, could be prohibitive.
Even at a low capacity limit, it is not guaranteed that enough patrons will return to reach even that limit, either. Cohen said the city of Baltimore has ingrained its citizens with a sense of healthy caution, meaning that some may be unwilling to come see a show even now that the city has declared it acceptable to do so.
“Folks that are not vaccinated yet, that might be in the higher age bracket, might still be a little cautious,” Cohen said. “Things are sort of opening now, but it almost doesn’t make sense to start a whole programming thing based off of 25% capacity.”
In Frederick, this sentiment rings true; Kiska said that Way Off Broadway usually struggles to hit its 50% capacity maximum, usually capping off somewhere around 40% each show.
Another reason Everyman doesn’t plan to open soon is because the process of mounting a play is an inherently long one. Acquiring the rights to a show, then casting, designing and rehearsing it, can take many months. Pivoting a production that was planned to be virtual into an in-person show would be more trouble than it’s worth.
Plus, coordinating a safety plan with unions, a process that would need to be redone if the production was going to add an audience, can take weeks.
“It’s lovely that an announcement (to reopen theaters) came, but we weren’t expecting that announcement and can’t move that quickly,” LaRose said.
For now, Everyman and Center Stage are looking forward to possibly welcoming audiences back next fall. Cohen said there is a chance some theaters will take advantage of the warm weather to mount outdoor productions over the summer — though he noted that some especially conservative organizations aren’t looking to open until next year, in spring 2022.
“Venues want to reopen, but they want to reopen safely. For the arts, there’s a genuine care for our constituency,” Cohen said. “We obviously want to survive, but we’re not in it to … make huge amounts of profits.”