Theaters Are Getting Ready — and Ready for a Long Wait

By Molly Gilmore

As restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus begin to lift, those running theaters in Olympia and around the state still have more questions than answers about when they can welcome audiences once again.

What they do know is that it won’t happen anytime soon and that the plans they are working so hard to make are subject to change. “In March, people were rescheduling for June and everyone was fairly confident about that, and then it shifted to July and August,” said Jill Barnes, executive director of The Washington Center for the Performing Arts. “Most of those dates have been peeled off the calendar.

The Washington Center for the Performing Arts

“The reality is that we don’t know when or how we will be able to reopen,” Barnes said. “We’re doing our best to guess and estimate what it will look like.” She and the people managing other Olympia theaters have met to discuss what their futures might look like. They’re aiming to standardize what local audiences can expect when they once again go out the theater. “We don’t know when we’re going to open,” she added, “but when we do, we’re going to be ready.”

In Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to lift restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, gatherings of 50 or fewer people are permitted, and even in phase 4, social distancing will be necessary. That will require theaters to rethink practically all of their processes and procedures: How do patrons enter and exit the theater? How does one manage long restroom lines? Can a performance still make money if everyone must be seated six feet apart?

For theaters that produce their own shows, there are even more questions to consider, said Aaron Lamb, artistic director of Harlequin Productions. “Do we open even if we have to social distance and have a big financial loss? Do we open and risk having to close again? Do we open and find that our audience isn’t comfortable enough to come back?” he said. “We’re leaning on waiting.

“I don’t feel that we can safely open until the end of Phase 4,” Lamb said. “The public shouldn’t be looking at seeing theater here until at least November or December of this year.” Caution is necessary to protect Harlequin’s future, he said. “Our finances are gifted to us by a generous public, and we don’t want to be reckless with that. With the cost of the work we do, we can’t open twice. We can only open once and succeed.” The tickets people hold for canceled shows will be honored, he said, and many of the shows the theater couldn’t produce this season will be folded into the next one, whenever it starts.

Harlequin Productions’ State Theatre

Both the Center and Harlequin have plans for 2020-21 seasons, and both Barnes and Lamb are waiting to announce the seasons until they have more clarity around both safety protocols and ticket sales.

At Olympia Family Theater, artistic director Jen Ryle isn’t even thinking about announcing anything yet, though she is ready and eager to spring into action when the time is right. “If things go well and people can gather and are wanting to gather, we could do something in the fall or at Christmas, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen,” she said.

The set for the theater’s “Suzette Who Set to Sea,” which was to open March 20, is still up, and everything remains ready for opening night. “The prop table is still up, and the cues are all ready to go,” Ryle said. “We just turned the lights off and left it be. … When I walk in there, I get really sad.” “Suzette” could be the first show the theater will produce when it reopens, depending on the time of year, she said. Meanwhile, Olympia Family Theater is offering online summer camps and classes.

A crew works on finishing touches to the set of “Suzette Who Set to Sea” at Olympia Family Theater. Photo taken March 10.

The Washington Center anticipates hosting some events during Phase 4, when large gatherings will once again be allowed, Barnes said. The Center’s main stage will hold fewer than 250 people if household groups are seated together and at a social distance from other groups. “That works for some events, and it’s extremely challenging or impossible for some other events,” she said. “Some shows need to sell out to work financially.

“We could put the Black Box Jazz series and the Comedy in the Box series on the main stage and make those work,” Barnes said. “As soon as we get the go-ahead, we’re going to figure out how to get at least those events rolled out and happening.”

Meanwhile, finances are an ongoing challenge for shuttered theaters, and community support is vital — whether that’s making a one-time or ongoing contribution or simply holding onto tickets for canceled or postponed events rather than requesting a refund. “The most costly and difficult thing for any performing arts organization at this time is people asking for refunds,” Lamb said. “That hurts us more than anything, because that is just money going out the door. … It is a big burden at a very difficult time.”

Lamb, Barnes and Ryle all said they’re grateful for the support their theaters have received while their stages are dark. “We still need the people who love us and want us to come back to donate,” Ryle said. “We have a lot of people who love us, and I think we will be able to rise from this.”

“These are tough times,” Barnes said. “Our earned revenue has all but disappeared, so we are relying on contributed revenue. We have had an outpouring of love and support from donors, and that has helped sustain us, but the longer this goes on, the more challenging it will become.”

“Good News is Coming,” by Tiana Crispino

While there are no performances happening at the Center, there has been some activity there lately, Barnes added. “We were scheduled for a lighting upgrade, and we have started that process a little earlier than planned with funds that were earmarked for capital expenditures. It’s a silver lining. We had been planning it for August and September. We don’t know for sure if we’ll be able to open our doors then, but we’ll have those dates available should we be able to open at that time.”

To donate to one of the theaters mentioned in this article, click on a link below.

Harlequin Productions

Olympia Family Theater

The Washington Center for the Performing Arts

The United Way of Thurston County and the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound have set up a relief fund for local nonprofits and individuals. Donate here.

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