By George Basler
In March 2020, the Endicott Performing Arts Center closed its theater doors and went dark because of COVID-19. For more than a year, the center has depended on an online platform, EPAC Digital, to stay active creatively.
But this will change at 8 p.m. May 13, when the Washington Avenue theater complex opens its doors to a live flesh and blood audience for the first time in 14 months. Even though attendance at EPAC’s annual burlesque variety show will be limited to 82 persons in the 327-seat theater, it is good news, said Executive Director Joseph Foti. “We haven’t had an actual audience in a long time so we’re pretty excited,” he said.
As New York eases restrictions on performing arts and entertainment venues, local arts organizations, such as EPAC, are inching toward resuming live productions even while remaining aware of the need to follow strict guidelines to keep audience members safe.
On April 2, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that venues can host audiences at 33 percent capacity with a limit of 100 people indoors or 200 people outdoors. This capacity increases to 150 people indoors or 500 people outdoors if attendees present proof of completed vaccination or recent negative test.
The news will have little immediate impact on large venues, such as the Broome County Forum Theatre with 1,550 seats, officials said. The one-third capacity rule makes it financially impossible for large touring Broadway shows to play The Forum and break even, noted Chris Marion, general manager of The Forum and Visions Veterans Memorial Arena.
But it is a step in the right direction for small-to medium-size venues, such as EPAC, Foti said. The May 13 live burlesque show performance will be followed by repeat performances on May 14 and 15. The show will also be streamed on EPAC Digital.
Another venue planning a spring opening is the Goodwill Theatre in Johnson City. The company today (April 9) announced a schedule of some 14 live shows from May to August in a 40-by 90-foot tent next to the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage on Willow Street.
The first show, set for May 14, will feature Uptown Girls, a high energy trio from New York City performing the pop songs of Adele, Elton John, Lady Gaga and others, said Naima Kradjian, chief executive officer of Goodwill, which hosts local performing groups and brings touring performers to the region.
Other shows on the schedule include Ladies of Laughter Comedy; enJOY Jazz featuring the Jazz Horn Legacy Sextet; Honk Jr., a children’s theater production; 100 Years of Broadway; Gerry Mulligan Tribute Band Jazz; a Harry Chapin tribute concert, and the Mason Warrington Orchestra’s Cole Porter yribute concert.
“It will be a strong season with a lot of music and comedy,” Kradjian said.
Goodwill is also renting the tent to Tri-Cities Opera for a pared-down production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love on May 26 and 27. John Rozzoni, the opera’s executive director, said four singers will perform with a piano accompaniment.
Hoping for the best
Resuming live productions has not been easy, officials note.
Live performances at EPAC, at least initially, will look different than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Audience groups will be limited to six persons, and social distancing and face covering requirements will be in effect. “It’s a very limited type of audience with restrictions,” Foti acknowledged.
Goodwill also must comply with social distancing requirements. It will limit seating capacity to between 60 and 80 persons, depending on the nature of the show.
“Every seating chart will be separate,” Kradjian said. This is doable, and is happening elsewhere, but preparing the charts will be a chore, she added.
Other arts organizations are facing even more challenges. “We’re anxious to be back live and in-person, but opera is a huge, expensive venture,” explained TCO’s Rozzoni. Limited seating capacity makes productions financially problematic, he added.
Still TCO is looking to stage a production at The Forum in the fall, Rozzoni said. To make it financially feasible, the company plans to film the production for broadcast to a wider audience as well as staging it for a limited live audience.
Representatives of arts groups and venues are optimistic that Cuomo’s April announcement is only the first step. They expect that the state will further ease seating capacity restrictions in coming months.
“We know things are not going to stay the same through the summer. The (capacity) numbers will go up,” said Paul Cienniwa, executive director of the Binghamton Philharmonic. The orchestra is planning to offer a series of live chamber music concerts in July and August in Binghamton and Greene.
Three concerts will take place in each community, Cienniwa said. Two will be ticketed events while the third will be a free outdoor concert featuring a brass quintet. Venues are being finalized.
“Everything is changing almost daily,” said Tina Niles, marketing staffer with NAC Entertainment, which brings touring Broadway shows to venues in upstate New York, including The Forum in downtown Binghamton. “We are optimistic that, with the rollout of the vaccine, Broadway will return in the fall,” she added.
Marion anticipates The Forum being able to resume hosting live indoor events in the third quarter of this year.
This optimism has led NAC to schedule a five-show Broadway Theater League season for The Forum, which will be announced April 13. While acknowledging the schedule could be revised if circumstances warrant it, Niles is hopeful. Everyone could use the escape from reality that live theater brings, she said.
At the same time, Niles emphasized that NAC will not open shows until it is safe to do so and will follow all safety protocols.
Planning the ‘new normal’
Besides staging summer shows, the Goodwill Theatre will open its doors to SRO productions the last week in July and first week in August for summer camps.
Likewise, EPAC plans to restart its kids’ summer workshop program, which was canceled last year, Foti said. The workshop will culminate with live performances the first and second week of August. In addition, the company will resume its live Shakespeare in the Park program the third weekend in August at Endicott’s George W. Johnson Park, Foti said.
After its summer season, Goodwill plans to move indoors with a lower seating capacity. Other arts organizations are preparing for this as well. KNOW Theatre plans to be back on its stage in downtown Binghamton in September for a production of Two Guys, a play that pays tribute to the firefighters of 9/11.
Meanwhile, EPAC is planning a co-production with Theater Street Productions of Man of La Mancha in September.
While COVID-19 has made for a challenging year, it has had one positive, Foti said. EPAC’s staff has acquired the expertise to live stream its shows and will continue to do even after it opens for live productions.
This live streaming will create another revenue stream for EPAC and allow people to see a show even if they cannot, or will not, return to live performances, he said.
Speaking of revenue: