In the onslaught of the pandemic, cultural events were hit hard.
Concerts, musicals and plays have all been canceled, postponed or rescheduled. Some for later in the year, some for next year, some maybe never.
The question of distancing an audience hangs over the heads of those who lead institutions such as Broadmoor World Arena, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, Pikes Peak Center and Ent Center for the Arts.
And if you can somehow manage that great task, the size of your audience will surely be substantially smaller, which means a lot fewer tickets are sold. In many cases, the reduced audience size can't generate enough revenue to pay the artists you hired to perform or cover production costs.
The questions bombarding the live music and theater communities about when and how they might reopen are endless and often unanswerable, but that doesn't mean they aren't trying. Many organizations have come up with digital alternatives, such as Theatreworks, which recently did a Zoom and Facebook Live performance of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" dubbed "The Zoomedy of Errors."
This COVID-flavored world changes daily and in unpredictable ways, but indoor concerts are being tentatively planned for as early as this month at Stargazers Theatre and Event Center, while a possible theater production at Springs Ensemble Theatre could happen as early as September. But for the most part, summer shows on indoor stages are canceled.
"Like everybody, we’re just doing it day by day," says Jim Jackson, Millibo Art Theatre's co-founder and executive director.
On the theater side
Broadway is dark through at least Labor Day, though Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin recently told news website The Daily Beast that cautiously optimistic members of the league hope to open before the end of the year, while less optimistic members are planning for next spring.
Why does it matter what the Great White Way is doing? Because Colorado Springs theater companies often look to what's happening on a national level to gauge what their own seasons might look like. Not surprisingly, the news isn't great, as cramming a bunch of people into theater seats inches from each other is probably the stuff of some patrons' nightmares.
As a harbinger of the troubles facing theater companies, Denver Center for the Performing Arts recently canceled its entire 2020/2021 season, which would have run through June 2021. According to the DCPA's website, the venue's board will meet in October to reevaluate the decision.
The stages of Pikes Peak region venues will also be dark through summer, and some through the end of the year, such as TheatreWorks and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' Artist Series at Ent Center for the Arts.
"It's very likely we won’t be doing performances in 2020," says Theatreworks' artistic director Caitlin Lowans. "It's likely that larger spaces, like Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theatre, will be repurposed to make space for classes that need to meet in person that other spaces on campus can’t accommodate."
Some companies, however, hope to get at least a short, one-or-two person show on stage before the end of December. First up is Springs Ensemble Theatre and its production of James Ijames' "White," a four-person dark comedy. Initially scheduled to open in May, the company is planning to produce the show around September or October.
"We are working with the production team to rehearse virtually," wrote SET in a press release. "We hope to open 'White' in the fall either virtually, in-person or some combination of both."
Over at the FAC, patrons have already bought almost 200 subscriptions for the 2020/2021 season, says Scott RC Levy, FAC’s producing artistic director and performing arts director. He's optimistic about having some sort of performance before year's end. It will likely be shorter and have a small cast. The audience number will be limited and there will be no intermission and no bar service, so attendees won't have to worry about mingling at intermission or using the restrooms.
"Being part of CC and the block plan, we have more flexibility," says Levy. "We don’t feel like we need to put the kibosh on the potential of live performances yet."
Ent Center for the Arts' programming is weighing heavily on director Aisha Ahmad-Post. She's still playing the waiting game as UCCS decides when, how and if students will return to campus in the fall, though it's fairly clear what the outcome will be, at least for the Artist Series.
"There may come a point, depending on how everything progresses, that student performances or small rentals might happen," she says, "but at this point it’s unlikely we’ll see performances at Ent Center in the fall."
Over the last couple of months, Ahmad-Post has run models on how to do live events in the space and keep them properly distanced. It's been a question of financial feasibility. Making offers to outside shows is based on the amount of seats that are sold.
"If we have social distancing in place, it goes from 729 seats to fewer than 150," she says. "How many people can go in one space at one time? There's a lot we don’t know. Performing arts are in a hard spot. Galleries and museums are in a better space. Timed entry can reduce the number of people. Art gallery openings are fun, but not essential to the business model in the same way gathering large quantities of people at the same time is critical to the performing arts."
Funky Little Theater Company is hard at work on creating outdoor performances, which seem to be the only kind of live shows patrons might see this summer, considering the current limits on gatherings. Founder Chris Medina hopes to mount two on-stage productions in December, and says his company should be able to ride out the storm, financially speaking.
He hopes to offer a drive-in theater this month outside the Pecan Street venue. That will look like either a lifted stage cars can park in front of or a ground-level stage for theater in the round where cars can park on three sides. People can sit inside their vehicles or tailgate. The improv group Stick Horses in Pants will be the first to perform at yet to be announced dates.
"The way people (theaters) are going to make it is if they invest themselves in experimental projects," says Medina. "We hope the community will invest in experimental things we put out there. I hope people remember when the pandemic shut everything down, the thing they turned to were artists, books, Netflix, TV, documentaries, art forms everybody shrugs off but kept them sane during this time."
Some in the theater world believe it will be the smaller organizations that best adapt their offerings and come out on top.
“It’s going to be organizations with 50 seats or 25 seats that will be innovating,” said Molly Smith, the artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington in a recent New York Times article about the future of theater. “That’s how we’re going to learn.”
Theatre D'Art is one such company. Without an official venue, the longtime group performs in different spaces around town. Last year they performed "Ghost Tours of Old Manitou" in conjunction with the Manitou Springs Heritage Center. They plan to do the family-friendly show again in October and hold performances in Memorial Park, across from the Heritage Center.
"We're not necessarily getting back inside a brick and mortar place just yet," says TAD President Jonathan Andujar. "We're just fortunate this partnership allows us to do something outside."
Millibo Art Theatre co-founder and executive director Jim Jackson is hopeful for his and Birgitta De Pree's 109-seat theater. While he's focused on creating digital and outdoor performances, he'd like to schedule something on stage before the end of the year. Next year at the MAT might feature a lot of solo and two-person shows, he says, though they're ready to pivot should things change. That's the beauty of being a small company.
"We can move quicker and we have no high overhead. Small theaters can make it on 50 people in seats and put together productions that are affordable," says Jackson. "Having said that, we have no big cultural institution backing us up. We’re on our own."
He feels OK about the future right now, thanks to a successful fundraiser they started at the beginning of the pandemic. He hopes those funds, along with revenue from virtual summer camps, will carry them through summer.
In the meantime, the MAT is in the works to do outdoor shows under a tent at its Ivywild theater. Patrons have told Jackson they're excited to come back, but won't be rushing to sit inside a theater anytime soon. They are, however, open to entertainment in the great outdoors.
"We’re taking it pretty slow. It’s the same with all the businesses pushing to open," says Jackson. "It's great to open, but if nobody comes, what’s the point?"
For music venues
You know that one summer concert or music festival you were looking forward to? Chances are, as you probably guessed, it’s not happening.
The coronavirus has toppled the live music industry, leaving the country’s largest concert promoters AEG and Live Nation to suspend shows, touring musicians to push back album releases and venues of all sizes to go day after day without shows and money coming in. So far, a handful of Denver music venues have shuttered.
“Talk about destroying an industry,” JW Roth, who owns the local Boot Barn Hall, says. “What’s happening with the entertainment industry right now is it’s getting destroyed.”
The big question remains: When will live music come back?
The answer varies for Colorado Springs venues.
In some cases, like at the Pikes Peak Center and the Broadmoor World Arena, it’s too early to say.
Dot Lischick, general manager for both venues, says the venues can’t open because they’d be limited to 10 people or less.
“We feel like victims of COVID,” she said. “Much like the whole world, we’ve been thinking a lot about what to do, thinking outside the box. Safety has always been our priority.”
“We’re just on pause,” Denise Abott, marketing director for both facilities, added. “But we’ll be back.”
The first room to come back in some form appears to be Stargazers Theatre, which plans to reopen on June 12 and can do so because it will operate as a restaurant, according to owner Cindy Hooton. She plans to have live music and cut down capacity from nearly 700 people to 100-150 people.
“Stargazers has plenty of room to space our tables and our patrons seating arrangements to meet social distancing requirements and still provide a warm and welcoming environment,” Hooton said of the 16,000-square-foot space.
But even that plan isn't a sure thing. It will depend on guidelines from the El Paso County and state health departments.
“As with all businesses at this time, we are creating our reopening as we go, as things have changed so much,” Hooton said.
For the near future, Stargazers will showcase local and regional artists and bands, as national acts have rescheduled shows until late 2020 or 2021.
Patrons will notice other changes. Hooton says Stargazers has replaced its large community-style table seating with small tables. It will have touchless check-in and sanitizer stations, and staff will wear masks and gloves. Stargazers will request patrons wear masks, too.
Boot Barn Hall is a similar size, but Roth says opening anytime soon doesn’t make sense. He feels the venue is held back by the state's restrictions.
“Other venues are contemplating opening with 50 people,” Roth said. “If they’re small enough, and they can make it work, that’s great and I love it for them. There’s no way we can do it.”
In the meantime, Roth and his staff have put together a strategy for guests to catch a social distancing-approved show.
“We brought in an architect and laid out tables 10 feet between everybody,” Roth said. “We would have lines for the bar so people never come within 6 feet and same in the bathrooms. We’re going to take people’s temperatures. We’ve gone way overboard to ensure it’s safe to come here.”
And staff is working hard to reschedule shows, though standing-only shows, which have a capacity of 1,500 people, have been canceled altogether.
Roth says they'll likely stick to seated shows and in some cases host the same act over two nights to make up for ticket sales.
One of those shows on the books is honky tonk singer Mark Chesnutt, who is set to play at Boot Barn Hall in October.
“We’re hopeful it happens,” Roth said. “We’re gonna have to wait and see.”
It’s the same story at Colorado's most beloved amphitheater. Red Rocks likely will be quiet during what is typically its busiest season.
“We're at the mercy of state and city mass gathering restrictions,” Brian Kitts, of Denver Arts & Venues, said. “If and when those limits rise, we'll try to meet those."
Red Rocks would host yoga and fitness events before trying out any major concerts.
"It's unrealistic to think any venue in the state is going to go from 10 people to 10,000 fans," he said. "Right now, shows that haven't been canceled outright are being rescheduled to nearly the same dates in 2021."
The Black Sheep is hoping to — “best case scenario” — host shows by August, says owner Geoff Brent. September or October is more likely, he says. When doors open, the room will probably be limited to half capacity, so about 200 fans instead of 400.
“I still don’t think we have a real timeline,” Brent said.
He's not rushing back for two reasons: “safety for everyone involved and controlling our brand.”
“We could do some black-flips right now to turn it into some Black Sheep parking lot restaurant lounge, but I don’t want to tarnish what we are,” he said. “I don’t want people to come in for the first time and think we’re something we’re not.”
There was a stretch of time, Brent says, when he thought shows would be all be pushed back to 2021. He feels more hopeful now.
“Maybe in a month or two, it looks better or it looks way worse and we have to wait until next year," he said.
As for now, it's too soon to tell.
"We’ll be ready when there’s something to be ready for," he said.