Leadership / 10.05.22
Giving Regards to Broadway (and Broadway Touring Shows) 1 Year After Reopening
It’s been more than a year since Broadway and Broadway touring shows emerged from their more challenging period ever, the COVID-19 crisis, to welcome patrons back live and in person. Because of the pandemic, Broadway theaters went dark on March 12, 2020. And it would be more than a year before they were permitted to reopen.
“Springsteen on Broadway” was the first full-length show to resume performances, opening on June 26, 2021, at the St. James Theatre. “Hadestown” and “Waitress” were the first musicals to resume performances on Sept. 2 of that year. The show must go on? Many big shows are now going on both on the Great White Way and in large venues nationwide.
So, what has been the biggest challenge in the post-pandemic era getting live plays and musicals back to the stage? Chris Stasiuk, Box Office Treasurer for the St. James Theatre, says, “The pandemic created fear and isolation for all. Our goal in the theater is to create a safe space with great customer service. This challenge is greater now with restrictions and government regulations. Not only do we need to keep the customer safe, but we need to protect the cast and crew from each other and the audience. So many performances have been canceled due to illnesses, and so many customers have needed refunds because of their own medical concerns. We spend much more time now dealing with refunds and exchanges.”
Stuart Levy, Director of Ticketing and Insights for “Wicked” at the landmark Gershwin Theatre, agrees that the biggest challenge for him and his staff has also been “promoting the safety precautions we were taking and that it was safe for audiences to come back. For a Broadway house, we are fortunate that we have a large outside area so people could stand six feet apart while showing proof of vaccination. We also have three lobbies. So, before the show and during intermission, there was more than enough space for the audience to feel safe. We did not allow any concessions to be brought into the house to ensure people wore their masks throughout the show.”
On the road, the challenges have been similarly daunting. But our INTIX professionals have persevered. One of them is John Ekeberg, Executive Director Broadway for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA). He says, “For the touring business, it ultimately came down to getting assurance that local authorities would allow public gathering at scale along with establishing understood health and safety practices for both the audience and those working on the shows themselves. All of these conditions needed to be met in order for touring to start up again.”
Mitchell Klein, National Director of Sales Operations for Broadway Across America, concurs that the toughest challenge in getting live shows back was managing the safety of everyone involved, calling it a “Herculean task.” He says, “We had determined early on that we would not reopen our doors to the public until we were confident that enough people involved — onstage, backstage, front of house and in the audience — would be comfortable with returning safely to the theater.”
Shawn Robertson, Ticket Sales Director for the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, has a different take. He listed rebuilding his staff as his biggest obstacle: “We laid off two-thirds of our staff and not everyone was able to return as they needed to take care of themselves and found new jobs.”
So, how has the in-person experience changed as compared to pre-pandemic? Klein says, “While the experience was fraught with anxiety at the beginning, I think we’re at or approaching a point where the in-person experience is back to the ‘normal’ experience of the pre-pandemic times.”
In agreement is Richard Powers, Director of Ticket Sales & Customer Service at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte: “Truthfully, it isn’t that different as of today. When we first came back, there was a constant question mark regarding protocols, but we have since resumed normalcy. While not an in-person change, the biggest change is the acceptance that refunds have to happen sometimes.”
Stasiuk says, “Our audience is now expected to be flexible as shows are getting cancelled due to cast members being ill. With that said, we are on our way back! Mask mandates and vaccination proof are no longer being required, and we are confident that some version of normalcy — or the new reality — will emerge.”
For his part, Levy has been impressed and even a bit surprised at the revenue being generated post-pandemic. “I think post-pandemic, a lot of people were willing to spend more on their tickets to get the better seats,” he says. “Year to date, we have sold substantially more premium tickets than 2019, which I find so interesting.”
And everyone interviewed for this article agreed that the audience response to having live theater back has been both heartening and exciting. Levy says, “Audience response for our show since returning has been great. Everyone wanted to be at the first performance back as the first spoken line is ‘It’s good to see me, isn’t it?’ ‘Wicked’ is also a very positive, uplifting story, so it also made it a good show for people to see after being cooped up. With everything going on politically, people thought some lines had been changed as they noticed how much it says about those ruling others. Not one word was changed, and the novel is way more political!”
Powers observes that Charlotte audiences were “dang happy to be back. Our first Broadway show back was ‘Wicked.’ But even then it took a week or so before word got around that it was OK to attend shows again.”
DCPA’s Ekeberg references a recent quote from a post-show survey as evidence of theatergoers’ passion post-COVID: “‘It’s life changing to experience live theater again!’ someone wrote. We have received so much feedback of this kind in the last year. The power of live theater is undeniable, and it is so affirming to see our audiences welcome it back into their lives.”
Stasiuk, meanwhile, says she was “blessed to be a part of the Broadway reopening with three wonderful shows. First [there was] Bruce Springsteen; followed by the iconic David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia;’ and, now, Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods.’ Audiences were flocking to these shows. They are excited to attend, to be out of their house, to see music, to see art and to feel normal. But they are still skittish — about our economy, political unrest and constant pandemic variant fears. As a result, our customers are buying much closer to their performance dates.”
Center Theatre Group’s Robertson was all-too-happy to offer up an anecdote as proof of live theater’s “new normal” in these times: “I was asked to supervise a COVID vaccine check escalation team to help with patrons who didn’t have proper proof of vaccination or didn’t bring their ID with them to the theater. We literally saved hundreds, if not thousands, of patron experiences by helping them figure out how to find the information on the State of California COVID vaccination website or figuring out that the patron does have a photo of their ID somewhere on their phone.”
He says, “My favorite example was a guest of the star of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ who tried to provide a photo of herself with the star at lunch earlier that day as proof of ID. While I couldn’t accept that as ID, I did compliment her on how great she looked in the photo. Good news is she did eventually get in, as we were able to locate a photo of her ID from the 6,000 photos in her phone!”
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