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The Show Must Go On: Performing Arts Update

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Among the entities struggling during the pandemic, some of the hardest hit include performing arts organizations.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Aldea Gerard, creative director for Hey Alec Productions in Syracuse. “I know people whose revenue depends on shows and patrons.”

Hey Alec Productions promotes Central New York artists and other points of interest through filming episodes on the local arts scene.

“People who are the creatives and performers are doing everything they can to keep themselves and the audience safe while being able to connect with them,” Gerard said. “Some performers are seeking different ways to perform. A lot are trying to adapt to reach those audiences.”

Reassuring patrons that their venues are as safe as possible has been a big effort for many venues of performing arts.

“Our top priority has always been people over profits and during the pandemic that meant the safety of our audience, volunteer staff and performers,” said Ellen Wahl, artistic director at Oswego Music Hall.

She added that when Oswego Music Hall opened in September, the organization maintained more stringent policies than the federal, state and local guidelines, including proof of vaccination at the door, proven by wristbands for those admitted.

“By opening day, I was certain we made the right decision as there were a number of people who came despite underlying conditions and I was humbled by the trust they placed in us,” Wahl said. “It seemed their need for release from social isolation outweighed the inherent risk.”

The Music Hall also limited its capacity to 50% of its regular capacity to allow for social distancing, though that meant lower revenue.

“With most of our core supporters in the high-risk group over age 60, we were careful,” Wahl said.

In the meantime, the Music Hall maximized attendance while still maintaining distance by assigning one party per table and adding seating along the perimeter for individuals and walk-in people.

“Since the number in a party can vary from two to four or more people, we expected a shortfall,” Wahl said. “We were pleasantly surprised when we had a robust turnout and the many new faces helped make up the loss of core supporters.”

The extra costs for cleaning were not an issue because the city of Oswego takes care of the building’s cleaning needs. That included a sanitizing station at the entrance and small containers of antiseptic for all surfaces, including patron tables.

“The Barlow administration saw to it we received American Rescue Plan funds so that we could achieve our mission unimpeded,” Wahl said.

The Music Hall also restricted food items to individually packaged things and a gloved volunteer serving hot and cold drinks.

While the Music Hall reopened, Wahl took special care to book performers from the Northeast and especially Central New York.  They booked performing artists from the CNY region or Northeast, because at the time Oswego seemed one of the safest areas in the country.

Ellen Wahl is the artistic director at Oswego Music Hall.
Ellen Wahl is the artistic director at Oswego Music Hall.

“So, our line-up is strongly regional,” Wahl said. “I also made sure every musician for the national stage at the Music Hall was vaccinated— most responded in the affirmative and boosted. One switched out a band member to comply. From their comments, both performing artists and audience members appreciated this degree of precaution.”

While some venues have been requiring online presale tickets, the Music Hall has never required online tickets and accommodates last-minute purchase to uphold its tradition for never turning away people at the door.

“Patrons, locals especially, appreciate our downtown ticket outlet, the river’s end bookstore, where they can save the online surcharge and be accommodated at every level,” Wahl said.

Wahl said that later this year, the Music Hall’s outreach will expand to include livestreamed shows. This step would accommodate people unable to attend live performances and include people from anywhere in the world.

At CNY Community Arts Center, patrons have slowly been returning to performances and arts events.

“Careful consideration must be given to the level of risk, how can we minimize the risk, what changes can we accommodate, and what will the audience bear,” said Nancy Fox, executive director.

The cost of doing business has only gone up for most businesses, including the arts. Fox said that music publishing companies have worked with her to make returns, cancellations and postponements of productions.

Despite their working remotely, the publishing companies have accommodated the needs of theater companies trying to produce the musicals they carry.

CNY Community Arts Center has always offered both presale tickets and sales at the door, and refunded or exchanged tickets when necessary. Its recent production of “Elf, the Musical,” had to be postponed due to COVID-19 quarantine issues.

“Everyone was easily accommodated with the change of dates and some appreciated having it simply postponed rather than completely canceled,” Fox said. “They seemed to understand this is the new normal and adjusted without complaints.”

Like other businesses, Fox implemented upgraded cleaning protocols and other COVID-19 policies to minimize risk and make patrons feel more comfortable.

“Many people will call to discuss our COVID-19 plan and decide to attend based on comfort level,” Fox said.

Featured image: Guitar virtuoso Loren Barrigar performs at the Music Hall earlier this year.