As “stay home, stay safe” orders were enacted across North Carolina in mid-March, temporarily closing nonessential businesses to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, two Asheville theater companies just so happened to be staging hyperrelevant plays.
For The Magnetic Theatre’s March 13 opening night performance of Traitor — which concerns a public health crisis — all of the venue’s 82 available seats sold out, keeping just below the recent state mandate limiting gatherings to 100 people. As safety concerns rose, seating was kept to 50 for the following two nights, during which only half of attendees who’d purchased tickets showed up. With news of school closings and other stoppages trickling in over the weekend, artistic director Katie Jones and her board of directors realized they needed to shut down, as well as postpone the world premiere of Small Game (scheduled to open April 17) to 2021.
“[Traitor] has been put on the back burner indefinitely, mostly because it’s a cast of 12 and it’s a show where they eat a lot of food and there’s a lot of intimacy,” Jones says. “People aren’t exactly keen to keep going with it.”
Meanwhile, North Carolina Stage Company was set to open Immediate Theatre Project’s production of Well — a comedy about illness — on March 18. But on March 13, citing “the health of our audiences, artists, staff and volunteers,” executive director Steve Hageman and artistic director Charlie Flynn-McIver decided to suspend its run. The remainder of the season, which included The Lifespan of a Fact (slated to open April 29), was also canceled.
“For all intents and purposes, we’re out of business — the business being putting on productions,” Hageman says. “If you want to talk about a bad business model during a pandemic, which is to get older people together in a small room, sitting very close together for an extended period of time, it’s not a good business.”
Though refunds to these canceled and delayed shows can be issued, patrons who’d already purchases seats are encouraged to help out the theaters by holding on to tickets, which will be honored for future performances. As for other major expenses, though both The Magnetic and NC Stage have understanding, supportive landlords who are offering grace periods on rent, the abrupt end of crucial advertising revenue resulted in numerous staff members from both companies being laid off or having salaries reduced. And looking ahead into uncertain times, fiscally responsible decisions can only be made so far in advance.
NC Stage still plans to hold its annual youth summer camps in July and has former Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons scheduled to perform in August, but both offerings are subject to change. Hageman is also “hopefully optimistic about the fall,” when he and Flynn-McIver aim to open a new season in mid to late September. Hageman is further encouraged that the National Endowment for the Arts received $75 million from the federal government’s COVID-19 relief package, from which he says 40% goes to state arts councils, then 60% to arts organizations for general operating support. NC Stage has received grants from the NEA before, but even with that potential support, Hageman wonders if COVID-19 will fundamentally change theatergoers’ mindsets.
“You’ve seen the graphs on flattening the curve. Think about arts organizations as being sort of the reverse curve,” Hageman says. “Unfortunately, it would take us at least a month to get back up into business. Now, we could possibly start selling tickets, but the bigger concern that I have: Are people’s behaviors going to change? Are they going to be reluctant to come back into group settings? Maybe people, when they look at their favorite restaurant and see it’s packed and there’s people milling and standing around the bar, they’re just going to say, ‘Eh, I’m not going to stand in that crowd.’ Those are my bigger concerns.”
Being an equity theater, NC Stage has significant restrictions on what it can do in the interim, though the nonequity Magnetic and Asheville Community Theatre can be more flexible with current operations. Though ACT has closed until May 1, postponing the April 3-19 run of Little Women — a story that famously involves a character’s battle with scarlet fever — and delaying other productions and auditions, as well as preparations for its next Mainstage season, its staff has turned to digital programming.
“We are continuing to hold youth classes that were already in session. These meet weekly through Zoom and are taught by Chanda Calentine and Amanda Klinikowski, our education staff,” says Jenny Bunn, marketing director for ACT. “We are also continuing to hold Little Women rehearsals through Zoom — and the hope is that once we are able to gather together again, we will be able to put that show up fairly quickly. Our costume designer, Carina Lopez, has continued to build the costumes for that show, and the set was left as is on the stage so that we could pick up where we left off.“
ACT is also running an ongoing Happy Hour on its Facebook page. Monday-Friday at 5 p.m., a watch party is hosted of videos that community members have tagged #ACTHappyHour. “This is something that’s open to anyone — whether you’ve been on the ACT stage or not, whether you even see shows at ACT or not — and it’s been so exciting to ‘meet’ new people in our community who have lovely voices and are sharing a little piece of their hearts,” Bunn says.
The Magnetic has similarly offered an online “Distant Socializing Party” series and likewise turned to digital classes, including courses on playwriting, Photoshop and sound design. The theater is also working on recording some sketch comedy videos with two-three performers at safe distances from one another, is exploring turning its one-act play festival in June into filmed programming and taking its “new work open mic” series Magnetic Laboratory online, with tickets sold on a sliding scale to encourage maximum participation.
“At some point, you either have to adapt or die,” Jones says. “We chose adapting.”
Look for Part 2 of this story in next week’s issue.