Ralph Remington recalls learning that Tempe Center for the Arts was being temporarily shuttered due to COVID-19. It was mid-March, and the cast of Orange Flower Water was in its second dress rehearsal. The play never happened, like so many other performances this year.
As the venue’s producing artistic director, Remington became one of many arts leaders facing difficult decisions about when to reopen, and how to reach metro Phoenix audiences during the the pandemic.
“We’re doing the best we can,” he says, “with the hand that we’ve been dealt.”
Most performing arts spaces aren’t planning a return to indoor performances before 2021. Rather than announcing specific reopening dates, they’re keeping an eye on public health guidelines, gauging the prevalence of COVID-19 in their communities, and assessing whether patrons and staff are signaling a readiness to return to traditional performances.
“When this first happened, we were going to reopen in October,” says Michelle Mac Lennan, general manager for Chandler Center for the Arts. “Then we realized how much of this is out of our hands. ... I’m not a fortune teller. I just know we’re not ready to open now.”
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts is a rare exception. The venue reopened on September 26, with protocols that include mandatory masks, timed theater entry, reduced audience sizes, and livestream options for some performances.
Many performing arts centers have responded by focusing on digital programming, creating content that viewers can access online or changing live events to virtual ones.
Chandler launched a CCA Anywhere series, taping live performances on its main stage for later broadcast online. Tempe Center for the Arts created SHFT: AZ, featuring online performances by locals like Walt Richardson and CONDER/Dance, who’ve been doing live performances at the center for years.
Some organizations view these digital events as primarily a stop-gap measure, while others consider them an integral part of contemporary performance art.
“What we’ve heard is that digital programs are a Band-Aid tiding us over until we can get people together again,” says Mark Mettes, president and CEO for Herberger Theater Center. “We’re focusing on future live events.”
But arts administrators are also grappling with the harsh reality that COVID-19 could be around for the rest of the 2020-21 season, or beyond. Remington says the city of Tempe hopes to reopen the center in January or February, although he suspects it could be spring before that happens.
“Doing anything before we have a vaccine will be really iffy,” he says.
In the interim, he plans to ramp up the center’s digital offerings, then continue a robust virtual lineup even after the center resumes indoor programming. “Theaters have become cost-prohibitive in a way, but the digital space democratizes access,” he explains.
The temporary closure means more time for long-term planning, he adds. “Typically, we’re flying the plane while we’re building it,” Remington says. “Now we don’t have that product pressure, so we can work on organizational capacity.”
Cindy Ornstein, executive director for Mesa Arts Center, a downtown Mesa arts campus that includes several indoor theaters, says they'll be installing visual art inside a theater building that has walls of windows, and displaying 18 works by renowned pumpkin carver Ray Villafane in storefronts around downtown Mesa. “We’re creating new opportunities that wouldn’t have occurred without the pandemic,” Ornstein says.
Several venues are exploring ways to maximize their use of existing spaces they’ve perhaps underutilized in the past. Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, which is home base for Theater Works, will be presenting live events focused on local performers both in front of the center and at a nearby space called Centennial Plaza.
Outdoor productions, of course, are proving a popular alternative to indoor events. In August, Chandler Center for the Arts presented a pop-up, drive-in production by a comedic movement duo called The Ladies, who performed to a soundtrack broadcast through audience members’ car radios. In October, the center will launch a new outdoor concert series.
Herberger Theater Center is responding to COVID-19 by building a new outdoor stage on an empty patch of land at the east end of its downtown Phoenix complex. Several arts organizations, including Arizona Theatre Company and Childsplay, perform at the center, which presents just a small number of its own events each year. It’s likely the space will accommodate at least 120 people with social distancing, according to Mettes. “Being outside will give us a little more freedom,” he says.
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Phoenix Theatre Company is building a 32-foot-by-24-foot outdoor stage at Central United Methodist Church, which sits just north of the theater and Phoenix Art Museum. Plans call for socially distanced seating of up to 250 patrons, with a new season set to launch on the outdoor stage in mid-November.
Tempe Center for the Arts, which is located next to Tempe Town Lake, is revisiting earlier talks about building an outdoor amphitheater — and considering other ideas for expanding traditional programming. “Once we come back, we won’t be focused on the big groups,” Remington says. “Instead, small performances could happen in people’s living rooms or nearby park spaces.”
Meanwhile, venues are undertaking modifications aimed at making future audience more safe, from plastic shields at box office counters to hand sanitizer stations. Over at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, located in the tourist-friendly Old Town area, they’re making plans to retrofit HVAC units in coming months, as a way to “treat the air for particulates and coronaviruses.”
“The times have changed,” says Remington. “We’re all adjusting now.”