Cornerstones of the WNC arts scene navigate distinct reopening obstacles

FORWARD MOTION: The cast of “A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas: A Virtual Production” goofs off in downtown Hendersonville in late 2020. The theater company aims to return its annual holiday showcase and other productions to a packed Mainstage house as soon as possible, but various issues stand in the way. Photo by Scott Treadway

Outside Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, workers are busy installing new double-paned glass windows, part of a larger effort to renovate the city’s largest indoor performance space. But within its walls, the scene is oddly quiet.

While the venue is hosting 50% capacity events — including dance competitions in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium — that adhere to such current statewide COVID-19 precautions as mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing, no large-scale shows are currently scheduled in the Arena until late August’s rescheduled Primus concert.

And it’s not the only area arts cornerstone yet to resume operations. Though in-person theater (Haywood Arts Regional Theatre), film screenings (Grail Moviehouse) and live music (The Grey Eagle) have gradually returned to Western North Carolina, several other renowned establishments remain shuttered for reasons more complicated than one may think.

Warming up the stage

As with Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, live music may also return to Flat Rock Playhouse in the fall, but a full season of theatrical productions remains impractical for the equity company.

“What I am learning is that there are no two theaters that are exactly the same,” says Lisa Bryant, producing artistic director for Flat Rock Playhouse. “You’ve got different business models, whether you’re bound by a union or you’re a presenting house or what is your local market, and so on. The variables can be great, but because we all cater to large indoor gatherings, more or less, we are sharing that same bucket of mess.”

Bryant notes that adhering to the current 50% capacity limit while maintaining 6 feet of space between parties yields a maximum of 137 people in the 500-seat Mainstage house. As members of the Actors’ Equity Association union, she says many of their costs are fixed, and therefore it’s not financially viable to operate until the venue can host a pure 50%, zero-restriction audience, with 60% being what she calls “the true sweet spot.” The nature of a typical Flat Rock Playhouse production also presents its share of challenges.

“I always say that live theater is a contact sport. You’ve got 10- and 20-second costume changes backstage — well, that looks like three dressers on top of one person, stripping them down and redressing them. Social distancing is just not a thing,” Bryant says. “Passing props from person to person; dancing with somebody and you’re both sweating your booties off; kissing somebody — Tony and Maria in West Side Story, if they don’t kiss, we don’t have a story.”

Bryant stresses that the union “is very much on top of all of those things and very concerned,” but that there’s “also that breaking point of how much longer theaters can wait” while “the reserves continue to dwindle.” Flat Rock Playhouse entered 2020 in what she calls “the best position that we’ve been in financially in a long time,” and while the head start has allowed the company to weather being closed, additional resources have nevertheless been necessary.

Bryant reports that the playhouse is nearly halfway to its $1.5 million Rock Solid campaign fundraising goal and recently completed a series of small focus groups regarding reopening. The participants’ findings will be used to craft a patron survey that will be available in May.

“There is comfort in knowing that about 90% or more of professional companies like ours remain closed,” Bryant says. “If I feel like I’m the only artistic director failing in all of the land and not making it because I don’t know what I’m doing, I just look around and make some phone calls — and realize that we’re all very much in the same boat and learning from each other and sharing all the tricks and tools and gossip that we can.”

‘A cart and horse situation’

Industrywide obstacles and health concerns likewise keep the Fine Arts Theatre closed, according to Neal Reed, director of operations for the Fine Arts’ parent company, New Morning Ltd.

“The most important thing for us is the safety of our employees and the public,” Reed says. “We had a big spike [of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina] and now we’re kind of plateauing. We hear talk about a fourth surge, and we really want to get to more immunity, more people immunized and where more people are comfortable.”

Another major factor for independent movie theaters across the U.S. is a dearth of product. Many high-profile art house films that were slated to debut in 2020 — including Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch — have been delayed indefinitely, leaving theaters and distributors in what Reed calls “a cart and horse situation.” Numerous theaters are waiting on distributors to provide them with a steady stream of new films before they commit to reopening, while those same distributors are holding tight to their portfolio until they’re confident that enough theaters are open to play the films.

Reed predicts that this summer will find moviegoers flocking to multiplexes for blockbuster fare like Fast & Furious 9 (June 25) and The Suicide Squad (Aug. 6). Right in the middle of that stretch, the Cannes Film Festival is slated for July 6-17, where The French Dispatch, Leos Carax’s musical Annette (starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard), Paul Verhoeven’s sapphic historical drama Benedetta and as-yet-unannounced new works from celebrated directors will debut.

Over the subsequent months, those titles and more that debut at the Toronto International Film Festival and other annual events will trickle into art house theaters, resulting in what should be a fairly robust Oscar season in fall and winter. Reed notes that those months have historically been the Fine Arts’ most financially successful, and with acclaimed and much-discussed new films to screen for hungry audiences, it could be when the necessary industry pieces align and make reopening financially viable.

“We’re watching the market, trying to gauge the best time for safety for the public and employees and what would be best for our business,” Reed says. “We’ve been closed for [almost] 14 months — but we’re going to be back. We just need to do this in a smart way.”

And when venues such as the Fine Arts, Flat Rock Playhouse and Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville do come back, it might offer audiences one more signal that pre-pandemic life has returned.


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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