Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Don’t expect theater to return to Philly Sept. 8 just because city says it can

Restrictions meant to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus make it unlikely we’ll see curtains rising here anytime soon.

The lights may be on, as they were in this picture taken in April, but the stage and seats at the Wilma Theatre remain empty. That's something that's not expected to change as the city begins to allow live indoor performances, with many restrictions, on Sept. 8.
The lights may be on, as they were in this picture taken in April, but the stage and seats at the Wilma Theatre remain empty. That's something that's not expected to change as the city begins to allow live indoor performances, with many restrictions, on Sept. 8.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Live, indoor theater is included in the list of activities that can resume in Philadelphia on Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean the shows must go on. The accompanying restrictions, meant to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus, make it unlikely that we’ll see curtains rising here anytime soon.

Among the things the city is calling for:

  1. A cap on attendance of 50% of capacity, with no more than 25 people per room, with individuals or groups spaced at least 6 feet apart, and masked.

  2. Performers to wear masks or face shields, or if not feasible, for there to be either a physical barrier or a distance of at least 20 feet between performers and the audience.

  3. Performers to remain at least 6 feet apart from one another, especially if not masked.

  4. Selecting pieces that require fewer than 10 performers to minimize the number of contacts for cast and crew.

  5. No food or drink to be sold or consumed in public spaces.

In New Jersey, where indoor performance venues are allowed to reopen on Friday, the rules limit attendance to 25% capacity or 150 people — whichever is lower — and require at least 6 feet between those who haven’t bought their tickets together.

“Nobody saw [the city’s announcement] and got excited” about the possibility of reopening immediately, said LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, which markets the region’s theaters.

Guidelines that limit both the size of audiences and the ability to sell food and drink are “completely impractical” for most theater companies, said Miller-White, who’s also one of the founders of West Philadelphia’s Theatre in the X. Most theater administrators know that “even when you sell 100 percent of your tickets, that isn’t enough” to cover costs, which are most often made up by donors and through concessions.

Not only is “there no profit model where 25 people” will cover costs, but there’s also the safety of performers to be considered before theaters can reopen, she said. Right now, “it’s also not safe.”

“I understand that [the guidelines represent] the healthy and safe choice right now. It doesn’t mean that we can run out and put on productions,” said Leigh Goldenberg, the managing director of the Wilma Theater.

» READ MORE: In Philly theater, union contracts and digital content are feeling out a way to co-exist

Still, “it’s helpful to see guidelines,” Goldenberg said. “For example, we have already planned to update our HVAC filtration system to what is recommended. So this is a very helpful and clear checklist to make sure that … when we are ready to reopen, and capacities can increase that make it reasonable for us to do so, that we will be able to. But, yeah, I would be surprised if any theater opened on Sept. 8.”

Reopening at less than full capacity would require either increased philanthropic support or the ability to find new revenue by being able to share performances virtually as well as in-person, she said, and at the moment there’s no agreement with Actors Equity to allow that. “All the things we’ve been doing and our colleagues have been doing have been sort of one-offs,” she said, referring to events like the Wilma’s recent audio production of Is God Is, which operated under a special agreement that covered fund-raisers.

“We need permission of all of our unions. And we want to work with all of our unions to make sure that our workers are safe,” she said.

A different kind of live event

Safety is very much on the mind of Taysha Marie Canales and Akeem Davis, two Philadelphia actors who’ve been paying particularly close attention to the city’s guidelines on gatherings.

The couple are getting married on Saturday — at the Arden Theatre, where both have performed, and where Davis was in previews with A Streetcar Named Desire when theaters shut down. (The Arden has put off its 2020-21 season until 2021.)

They’ve had to cut the guest list twice to stay within the guidelines and will be using both the Arden’s buildings, with no more than 25 people in each, Davis said. “We were already going to do a Zoom” wedding for out-of-town friends and family, and they’ll be using technology, too, to connect the two halves of the party.

It wasn’t fun disinviting people, Davis said, but it relieved some concerns. “I was able to tell my grandmother, ’Grandma, there is no pressure for you to take all 81 of your years and travel from Florida to Philadelphia, and then have to travel back and expose yourself to something that I would feel terrible about if indeed you did contract anything and affected your health.’ So there’s a bright spot.”

Canales is no hurry to rush back to the physical stage after the honeymoon, at least not under current conditions. “I’m not ready to be in a theater with other people,” she said.

» READ MORE: Philly actors, musicians, dancers can't imagine when they'll work again

Canales and Davis both performed earlier this summer in the Wilma’s audio production of Is God Is, which Canales, a member of the Wilma’s HotHouse Company of resident artists, said “was very different, but … a lot of fun and a great way to have people access the art.”

She’d like to see more virtual options that could be shared with audiences until it’s safe to gather again.

Thinking positive

On Tuesday, the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Pennsylvania announced its fall 2020 digital season, which includes livestreams of nine music or dance performances as well as four films.

“On the positive side of things, this has really given us an opportunity to innovate and think differently about how we deliver performance and live experiences, in particular to people remotely,” said Christopher Gruits, executive and artistic director. “So we’re investing in a state-of-the-art digital suite of tools and cameras, to livestream events and those are going to be unique performances that we’ve curated and artists will be performing live in our theater. And we will stream those out to our audience, but they won’t be performing in front of a live audience.”

The city’s guidelines for in-person performances are “in line with what they said they were likely to do one, once we reach this phase,” Gruits said. “We’ve been doing a lot of work, obviously, like everyone over the last six months … mapping out our spaces and figuring out what capacity can be tolerated safely in each space.”

And that safe capacity doesn’t yet make financial sense.

“Like the travel industry or the hospitality industry [or] restaurants, the entertainment or the arts industry is based on having a particular capacity in your spaces to make the performances work financially,” Gruits said.

» READ MORE: Wilma's audio play of "Is God Is" was recorded from quarantine

One area where he sees some promise is in fund-raising. “Having 25 people … could serve as an important engagement tool, and it could be great to have your core supporters” able to see a performance, he said. But the cleaning measures required for even a small audience are considerable, he said.

To reopen the Annenberg to general audiences for live theater, “I think it will take a vaccine … or if not a vaccine, a state [of control over the pandemic] in which the city really can ensure folks that it’s safe to bring in a critical mass of audience,” Gruits said.

“To me, it’s really just about reducing community spread,” said the Wilma’s Goldenberg. “As the cases go down, we’ll have more and more comfort in being in spaces together. I can’t imagine buying a theater ticket to sit in a room with strangers before my kid is back in school.”